One of the reasons I founded VESTABUL SCHOOL OF DESIGN was because of this question:
Jan, How can I become a Top Kitchen Designer?
My answer is always:
Have a passion for learning!
When I look back on how my career evolved, it was all about a systematic approach to learning everything I could about the profession.
The following is the steps I took to become a Top Kitchen Designer.
I share it to show you that there is a lot to learn in this profession, but also to encourage you to start your own design career journey.
Read on to see the steps I took and the key learnings I gained at each stage, and how following a similar path will put you on the right track to excel as a Kitchen Designer.
And remember, I’m hear to help you with your journey!
I attended university pursuing a career in fashion design but was introduced to Kitchen Design through one of my classes, and I was hooked!
I quickly realized that the study of the Elements & Principles of Design transferred easily between fashion design and home design. Color theory works whether you are designing an outfit or a backsplash!
I graduated with a B. Sc. in Home Economics with a major in Clothing & Textiles and a minor in Art History.
This degree set me up for a creative career and I was ready to get to work!
Thankfully, I had a great portfolio from my Kitchen Design class that caught the eye of a Kitchen cabinet manufacturer, and my Kitchen Design career began.
Key Learnings of My Formal Education
- Research techniques
- Elements & Principles of Design Theory
- Kitchen Design Theory
- The importance of a portfolio
Learning the Basics
Learning the basics began by studying the cabinet catalogue of the company I was working for.
I also purchased every book and magazine I could find that talked about Kitchen Design, studying the layouts and looking for interesting applications.
I started to see the possibilities of using module cabinets in different ways to give unique designs.
I would stack cabinets, flip pantries upside down and use upper cabinets as base units to develop functional solutions for my clients.
Cabinet door styles were extremely basic when I began my career, but soon manufacturers were introducing new styles and finishes.
I was always the first one at my firm to present these new styles to clients and integrate them into my projects.
The concept of the Art and Science of Design was beginning to gel for me.
Sales was a big part of this position, with much of my compensation in the form of commissions.
Sales training became important so I searched out local sales seminars and read books on sales techniques to help me become more effective and profitable at my job.
Key Learnings of the Basics
- Kitchen layouts
- Cabinet nomenclature
- Modular cabinetry
- Cabinet construction
- Cabinet door styles
- Cabinet finishes
- Unique cabinet solutions
- Sales presentations
- Sales closing techniques
With a few years under my belt in the kitchen industry, I had learned a lot about the modular cabinet business and turned my attention to other parts of the kitchen.
I began focusing my learning on appliances and countertops.
I took a position at a high-end kitchen showroom that sold imported Italian cabinetry, built-in appliances, high end sinks, and solid surface countertops.
Built-in appliances were the biggest challenge for me when I first started there.
The fit of these units became crucial to the overall look and function of the kitchen. You could not just order them and hope it all work out.
Nothing was standardized and it became critical that the designer knew everything about these units.
Fortunately, I was invited to attend several training sessions around North America sponsored by appliance manufactures where I learned what to look for when integrating appliances into my Kitchen Designs.
Countertops were also becoming more complicated with under mounting of the sink in solid countertops being introduced.
I would visit all the new showrooms in town and learn about the products they were carrying.
I was glad I took the time to do this because knowing about substrates, build-ups, seaming, sealing, and product composition is extremely important to the Professional Kitchen Designer.
As Kitchen categories expanded over the years, I had learned what questions to ask and how to evaluate offerings.
Key Learnings Beyond Cabinetry
- European Kitchen Design
- Built-in and paneled appliances
- Pro-styled appliances
- Mechanical systems
- Sink shapes and materials
- Sink installation techniques
- Countertop materials
- Countertop installation
The Custom Kitchen
About 10 years into my career I took a design position at a small custom cabinet manufacturer.
Up until then, I had always worked with the modular manufacturers.
Even the Italian manufacturer that advertised the “custom kitchen”, used mostly 45mm and 60mm units for their kitchen layouts. (Oh yeah, I also had to be fluent in imperial and metric!).
Working with a custom manufacturer for me was like being a kid in a candy shop.
I could now do anything I wanted.
I had never given up my obsession with design books and magazines, so suddenly, my inspirational clippings were all doable.
To truly design custom though, you needed to know how everything is built.
The words compound miter and dado joints now became part of my vocabulary!
Wood offerings for cabinet doors was expanding and having the shop “out back” was very beneficial for me.
Expansion and contraction of wood, solid wood vs veneers, layering of finishes, book matching and more came into play when working with these products, and I could experience first hand all of this.
I was also fortunate to be included in multiple manufacturer’s rep meetings in the shop.
The salespeople that call on a millwork shop are quite different from those calling on architects and designers.
This group of millwork salespeople were introducing multiple new products for cabinet building, cabinet accessorizing and cabinet finishing that I now was aware of.
This is also when I began attending local and national design trade shows regularly.
The networking was fantastic, and each show brought new and exciting things to introduce to my clients.
Key Learnings with Custom Manufacturing
- Cabinet manufacturing
- Custom cabinet design
- Cabinet trim
- Custom cabinet doors & finishes
- Cabinet hardware
- Unique materials
- Project scheduling
- Shop drawings
- Design trends
Striking out on My Own.
I have now worked for a modular manufacturer, an imported cabinet line and a custom manufacturer and have learned a lot about kitchen cabinetry.
It was time to look at other areas of the home to see how built-in cabinetry could benefit these spaces.
To do this, I began researching and implementing space planning theory.
My self-learning focused on traffic flow, storage, and the lifestyles of homeowners.
Every Designers dream is to design and build their dream home, and this was a project I took on experimenting with Universal Design and open plan living.
This experience showed me that built-in cabinetry could really enhance the usability of the home.
Shortly after finishing the home I struck out on my own and established an independent design business to better address client needs and began selling design only services.
Investing in a Kitchen Design software program was my first company purchase, and I spent several weeks learning the program.
Hand drafting had served me well (and I still use it today) but I wanted to be able to easily produce perspective renderings.
My biggest challenge though was finding a cabinet manufacturer that could keep up.
This resulted in me opening a custom manufacturing facility to build my designs.
Product development now became an interest I could explore.
Product development spawned a To-The-Trade Kitchen & Millwork Showroom that I opened to catering to interior designers, architects, builders and renovators.
Key Learnings of Striking Out on My Own
- Space Planning
- Bathroom Design
- Universal Design
- New Home Design
- Millwork design for other rooms
- Kitchen Design Software
- Cabinet Product development
- Advanced manufacturing techniques
- Business skills
- Collaboration with Allied professionals
- Showroom Design
Individualizing the Space
The businesses were keeping me busy, but I still found time to continue my research and learnings.
It was important for both my individual clients, and the designers that purchased from me, that I kept up to date on the latest trends and product offerings.
Protecting the environment was top of mind with many designers so research into “green” products became of interest.
Producing functional spaces was something my company was known for and we were the go-to firm for unique cabinet interior accessories.
I also discovered that the Kitchen is not the only place to install interior cabinet accessories. All rooms can benefit from specifying them
Appliance and sink offerings was exploding with new manufactures entering the market constantly.
Clients could now purchase built-in coffee makers, wine refrigerators and any type of pro-styled appliance they desired. Understanding the specifications became crucial.
New construction products for Kitchens continued to be presented to me by my manufactures reps, but I also saw that there were other sources for unique products.
Working with wrought iron in my Kitchen Designs became a passion!
I also began traveling internationally to observe what was happening in other parts of the world.
A trip to a mainland China millwork shop introduced me to the world of high-end Interior Finishings: mouldings, wainscot, paneling, ceiling treatments, wall treatments and interior doors.
These items soon began popping up in my designs and I even had my millwork shop produce custom interior doors & moulding profiles for my projects.
A trip to Milan, Italy to attend the Salone del Mobile show one year was life changing.
The experience showed me there was still so much happening in design and product development became a strong pull for me.
Key Learnings from Individualizing Spaces
- Business Management
- Green products
- Cabinet accessories
- Kitchen specific lighting
- Commercial products
- Product sourcing
- Specialized Appliances
- Unique sink offerings
- Interior Finishings
- Product Development
- International Design
- How to pack light!
The Corporate Years
These next 8 years was a complete change for me. I took on the position of Design Director for three firms and focused on product design & development, corporate training, and Architect/Designer relations.
Marketing and social media was also thrown into the mix!
During this time I designed and developed products for the North American market including a collection of Interior Finishings (mouldings, trim, interior doors), interior door hardware and bathroom accessories.
In all cases I employed the Art and the Science of Design when designing and developing these products.
This focus on specific elements for the home, again showed me how interconnect everything is in design.
During my corporate years I was also tasked with training the sales force on the new offerings.
I built the training around “design” and brought a different perspective to the sales teams.
Once the sales force was speaking the language of the designer, I focused my efforts into product training for the AD community.
Social media was emerging and experiencing it from a corporate standpoint has been beneficial.
A lot goes into developing a corporate identity, a marketing strategy and new product introductions, and I was thrilled to learn from some pros!
Even though I was not practicing as a full-time kitchen designer during this time the learnings from my corporate career is what enabled me to start Vestabul School of Design.
I am glad I took the opportunity to explore the corporate world, but my passion lay with Kitchen Design and because of that I have returned!
Key Learnings from the Corporate World
- Product & Design Research
- Product Development
- Patent research
- Product launch
- Corporate Marketing
- Social Media Strategies
- Online Marketing
- Trade show booth design
- Sales Training
- Design Training
- C.E.U. Development
- Online Presentation Skills
- Virtual Meeting Skills
Refocusing On My Passion
Focusing back fulltime on Kitchen Design was an easy transition.
My deep knowledge of the industry and multiple contacts allowed me to pick up where I had left off.
I had always kept my foot in the door by designing projects as a side hustle and now I had time to devote to more and larger projects again.
One thing that the corporate world had shown me, was my love of educating.
Mentoring had also been part of my career and I saw an opportunity to combine all of this into a new venture.
This is how VESTABUL SCHOOL OF DESIGN was born!
The launching of the new business brought together all my learnings from the past 25 plus years.
My goal with VESTABUL SCHOOL OF DESIGN is to bring all of my knowledge to the next generation of Kitchen Design Professionals.
I hope you will join me!
There are many ways for you to start or continue your Kitchen Designer journey with VESTABUL SCHOOL OF DESIGN
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Check out our FREE Course: Identifying Common Kitchen Design Errors
- Read the VESTA Blog for articles on Kitchen Design written by a Kitchen Designer
- Follow Vestabul School of Design on Instagram
- Enroll in our CORNERSTONE Course: A Beginners Guide to Kitchen Design
- Like and Follow Vestabul School of Design on Facebook
- Check out our ICON Courses for great just in time learning
- Enquire about our Coaching and Mentoring Program
- Learn a new skill through our FREE Course: Tips, Tricks and Traps for Appliance Specifications.
- Introduce a new profit center through our course: Interior Finishings for Kitchen Designers
- Email me to set up a call to get direction on your Kitchen Design Career Journey
- Subscribe to our mailing list to receive info in your inbox
You can also leave me a comment below. I would love to hear from you!
Jan Rutgers has been designing kitchens and products for over 25 years and is a recipient of Kitchen & Bath Design News’ Top Innovators in 2020 for the Kitchen & Bath Industry. She has designed more than 1000 kitchens learning valuable skills with each one! Her experience in Kitchen Design, Millwork Manufacturing and Product Development has led her to create VESTABUL SCHOOL OF DESIGN where she educates and mentors people passionate about the Kitchen Design Industry.
You are a wonderful inspiration!! I wish I could come to work for you.
Thanks for the comment Janet! We will have to have a chat soon so you can update me on your Kitchen Designer journey!
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