A wall separating the kitchen from the living room was replaced with an island that houses the Dacor range.

The cabinets, appliances, and linoleum tile in this high-rise condo kitchen were more than 20 years old when Birch moved in. She replaced the flooring with natural maple and the worn laminate cupboards with black lacquer cabinets from Accento Italia. To keep countertops uncluttered, storage for small appliances was built into the cabinetry design. A true perfectionist, Birch made sure to match the pattern in the countertop’s two slabs of azul bahia granite so that the pieces would fit together seamlessly.

Overhead lighting was custom designed to spotlight the range and countertop and add a natural division between the kitchen and living room. A track of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) under the cabinets lends a soft glow to the space at night.

When Donna Birch, a Chicago-based flight attendant, moved into her Lincoln Park apartment a few years ago, she knew pretty much what to expect-she’d lived in that same lakefront building before, in a studio she had purchased fresh out of college in the mid-’80s. But the pleasures of nostalgia can take a person only so far. The original kitchen in her new unit was more of a time capsule than Birch wished, its outdated cabinets, appliances, and linoleum floor in serious need of a makeover.

The answer? A sleek, contemporary kitchen that, unlike the dull, closed-off space it replaced, is open to the living room and its impressive views of the city. Birch, who had tackled increasingly demanding home projects over the years-from refinishing a wood floor for a friend to gutting an outdated kitchen in a suburban split-level house-took on most of the planning and sourcing for the project herself.

"I start with one thing and then work around it," Birch says. "And I’ve always wanted black lacquer cabinets."

She began by scouring high-end contemporary design showrooms in and around the Merchandise Mart, taking careful note of pricing and specifications. She also spent hours looking at the home-improvement chat site gardenweb.com, where she was able to swap tips with and ask questions of fellow do-it-yourselfers.

"You read about granite breaking and other horror stories," she says. "I learned so much about what to do and what not to do from visiting that site."

After several months of research, Birch chose Accento Italia to help with her kitchen redesign and to supply the cabinetry. Their glossy black Scavolini cabinets with streamlined brushed-steel hardware came at one of the best prices of all the Italian design showrooms, and with the added benefit of design consultant Silvana Bonomo’s expertise. Bonomo helped Birch incorporate her dream features (an undermounted sink, stylish faucet and fixtures, eye-catching appliances) and arranged delivery of a sleek brushed-steel refrigerator by Swiss supplier Liebherr.

To match the drama of the black cabinetry, Birch selected rare Brazilian azul bahia granite, which has a bold blue color, for the countertops and backsplash. Birch found slabs of the material at local showroom Stone City, which offered the stone and installation at about a third of the price of other suppliers.

Design plan in place, Birch hired contractor Octavian Big to translate her vision. The first task was to remove a dividing wall that made the kitchen seem small and blocked the views out the living room windows. Doing so meant moving the appliances and drilling into the apartment’s concrete floors to change the wiring. Big’s team moved the refrigerator to the kitchen’s opposite wall and swapped in a granite-topped island with a Dacor range.

To highlight the new island and provide a visual divider between the kitchen and living room, Birch had a light fixture designed with custom-sized pendants. The cabinets opposite were outfitted with an undermounted LED system that gives the room a subtle glow in the evening.

Now that the nine-month kitchen project is complete, Birch is fixing her sights and research powers on her bathroom, which likewise is in need of an update from its ’80s-era look. She plans to apply much of what she learned in the course of spearheading her kitchen redesign, from choosing the right contractor (she hopes to work with the same contractors, painters, and suppliers) to selecting the best-priced materials.

"I research things to death before I get started," she says. "I really am a perfectionist. I want everything just so. I love the way everything came together."

Birch found the Gessi Quadro Hi-Tech faucet head she wanted at Stiloso. Brushed-steel hardware on the drawers is as crisply modern as the granite countertop.

Buyer’s Guide

Engineered maple hardwood floors: Z Brothers, 630-915-8444.

Black lacquer cabinets, Liebherr refrigerator: Accento Italia, 3812 N. Elston Ave., 773-279-0050.

Dacor range: Abt Electronics, 1200 N. Milwaukee Ave., Glenview, 847-967-8830.

Azul bahia granite: Stone City, 3053 W. Grand Ave., 773-533-9806.

Gessi Quadro Hi-Tech faucet: Stiloso, 215 W. Institute Pl., 312-787-9500.

Elkay Avado kitchen sink: Ira Wood & Sons, irawoodinc.com.

LED custom under-cabinet lights: Next Generation Lighting, 2010 W. Fulton St., 312-243-1199. Rail lights and heads and ceiling light, Lightology, 215 W.Chicago Ave., 312-944-1000.

General contractor: Octavian Remodeling, 847-853-9157.

Painter: Peter’s Construction, 773-398-9885.


Photography: Matthew Gilson
Styling: Arden Nelson