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Nearly 40 years after he designed his first kitchen (while working for his father’s cabinetry firm in Dearborn, Michigan), Mick De Giulio is still at it, still passionate about his work, and still looking forward. His showrooms in the Mart and in Wilmette, where he started his firm in 1984, draw upscale clients who widely consider him Chicago’s preeminent independent kitchen designer. With a sensibility heavily influenced by his travels in Europe (mainly Italy, Germany, England, and Holland), he is a master of sophisticated modern design that mixes materials and vocabularies.
When De Giulio can’t find products he wants, he designs them himself—stone sinks inspired by a trip to Verona, Italy; a modern take on the appliance garage, with a motorized sash; rectangular sinks with sliding cutting boards and other accessories; recessed spice racks hidden by sliding wall panels, for near the range; refrigerator cabinetry that looks like apothecary drawers (shown at right); custom range hoods; light fixtures. In 1994 he started designing cabinetry collections for Sie- Matic (the latest of the four, BeauxArts, reflects his fondness for mixing styles, periods, and materials). And as of this fall he has a book, written with Karen Klages Grace—Kitchen Centric (Balcony Press). We recently sat down with De Giulio to talk about it
How have kitchens changed in the years you’ve been designing them?
There’s now a realization—or acceptance—of the fact that people live in their kitchens. People don’t just look at it as a space they have to buy cabinets for. They’re more kitchen-centric—starting with the kitchen and going from there. A number of homeowners are getting rid of dining rooms. We’re seeing kitchens that incorporate formal dining.
How do you hide the mess of cooking from a formal eating area?
Ideally you have a scullery kitchen or a butler’s pantry. The butler’s pantry is such a magical space. It can feel like a passageway or become a little room. Or you could combine the scullery and butler’s pantry in a highly functional space.
How do you create kitchens that are timeless rather than trendy?
Things that make sense don’t go out of style. Stainless steel makes sense because it’s burn proof, wipes clean, and pairs beautifully with wood and stone. Fresh and clean never goes out of style. The essence of white is fresh and clean. Granite—people say they are sick of it, but there are ways to work with it to make it different.
What’s looking dated now?
Overarticulated brackets, cornices, crowns, glazing. Too much of anything that is the same. The strong thematic kitchen that was so popular for so long.
What technological innovations have changed kitchen design?
The 700 series by SubZero—perfect integration. Dividing a refrigerator into separate, function-specific components and putting them where they’re most useful makes sense—an easily accessible refrigerator drawer, for example, enables kids to have a place for drinks and allows them to make their own breakfast. But the best ideas are low-tech—like my cutting board. It’s handy, it’s always there. Or a little message center.
What are some easy ways to update a kitchen?
We just did a project where we did the kitchen almost 25 years ago and all they wanted to do was replace the Corian countertops. We put in granite. They had German laminate cabinets—simple, flat-panel—that were fairly inexpensive for the day. We replaced some solid cabinet doors with framed glass doors. We’ll sometimes do a signature piece such as a blue top on a small section of island. Or we’ll replace some cabinet doors with stainless steel or glass, or change the countertops. One of the best ways to change the style of a kitchen is with proportion. For years an inch and a half was the standard thickness for countertops. Then they got thicker. Now they’re back to thin.
Any suggestions for people on a limited budget?
Most of what we do is hand-scraped walnut, but an oak floor, stained a few times to bring out different colors in the wood, also looks great and is less expensive. Use thinner material for countertops instead of building up edges—thick material takes a lot of machinery and costs more to transport. One-centimeter stainless steel is extraordinary. Buy the best quality products but the most simple. Instead of a door that is high-gloss lacquer, do something simpler, like a laminate, which can be beautiful.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about kitchen design?
It’s not all about the cabinets. It’s really about the space.
Photograph: Andreas E. G. Larsson