Kitchen and Bath Design with Dawn Wilkinson (Video & Podcast)

In this episode of our Designer to Designer Interview Series, we’re pleased to have Dawn Wilkinson, Owner and Principal Designer at Six Walls Interior Design, join Lindy for a conversation about kitchen and bath design.

Lindy and Dawn dive into the topics of what is the difference between a traditional interior designer and a kitchen and bath designer, how to discuss with your client the idea of bringing a kitchen and bath specialist into their project, and how to work well as a team when you have multiple designers working on the same project.

If you’d rather enjoy this episode as a podcast, here’s a link:

Or enjoy their full conversation below:

Lindy: Hi, I’m Lindy, co-founder and creative director of Saltwolf, we are a to the trade only upholstered furniture company. One of the missions that we have at Saltwolf is to support the design community and help make interior designers’ lives easier and their businesses more profitable. Today on our interview series, we are talking with Dawn Wilkinson. Dawn is the owner and principal designer of Six Walls. And in addition to a full-service design firm, Six Walls specializes in kitchen and bath. So we’ll be discussing the differences between a traditional interior designer and a kitchen and bath specialist and how to integrate both successfully into a design project.

Lindy: Hi, Dawn.

Dawn: Hi, Lindy, thanks for having me today. It’s going to be so great to talk to you.

Lindy: Yeah. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me. So you and I go way back, don’t we? I’m not going to date myself for you, but you were actually my very first boss out of design school, which can tell everybody how young you were when you started your own firm. You really got after it right away. And I worked for you before I started my own business in Seattle. And now we both live in Colorado, which is a fun coincidence.

Dawn: I love how things come full circle like that. So it’s been fun to reconnect with you since we moved here about two and a half years ago now. Yeah, it’s great.

Lindy: Today we’re going to be talking specifically about kitchen design and the differences between a kitchen designer and a more traditional interior designer. But with your firm, Six Walls is not just a kitchen design studio, you will do the full gamut. So maybe we could just start off by you giving a little bit of background on your personal journey in interior design and what your firm does and how kitchen design ties into the rest of it.

Dawn: Sure. Thank you for asking that question about Six Walls as a whole. So we’re a full-service interior design firm and within that firm we actually have three people, four, if you count me, that specialize in kitchen and bath design. So as a company, we can integrate on the project with furnishings, window coverings, exterior consultations, things like that as well. But internally, we do have a team of additional designers that are specifically focused on kitchen and bath design. And that’s really a huge part of our business on a regular and annual basis.

Lindy: Great. OK, and my goal today of this conversation in this interview series is to use our collective years of design experience and exposure to support other interior designers to give them the tools to have more successful projects, happier clients and better results. So I have some questions today about working with a kitchen designer and we’ll start with those. But jump in obviously organically and add whatever you want. So we’ll start with the basics, which is what’s the difference between a kitchen designer and an interior designer? This is the question I get asked so often. I’ll be brought into a project and I’ll be hired to work through it. And then the client will say, OK, now we’re going to do through the kitchen, we’re going to work on the kitchen. And I say, OK, well, have you talked to a kitchen designer or who are going to do your cabinets? And they say, Oh, well, I thought you were going to do that. Now, a firm like Six Walls can do both when you all are able to run the gamut, as you just said. But a lot of designers like myself are not kitchen designers. And we work with an outside kitchen designer, which can really throw clients sometimes. So maybe you could just talk through the differences about that between those two.

Dawn: Yeah, no, I’d love to. So the neat thing about a kitchen and bath designer is that they usually have more interest and more specific training to those particular areas, meaning the kitchen and the bathroom. And that extends into laundry rooms and high function areas that have appliances integrated with them and a lot of plumbing, a lot of lighting details, a lot of clearances, a lot of movement coming in and out of that space. So from that regard, there are designers that once they get into the design industry, they kind of gravitate to a specialty like bath design because they love all the integration of all of those different pieces.

Lindy: That’s so interesting. You bring up clearances because that is so important when designing cabinetry and kitchens and bathrooms. And I think it’s one of the pieces that I can always tell when I’m in a custom kitchen or a custom bathroom or a home, that it has been done properly because you have just enough space but not too much space to get all the tasks done in this really peaceful way that there’s a lot of art and science behind getting that right.

Dawn: Yes, it’s a well-coordinated dance. So it is that art and science blend. And you’re in someone’s kitchen doing an initial consult, fully understanding how do they now how do they move through the space? What are the pinch points?

Those are key things that we really try and. Dig into, in fact, one of my favorite things, that Jen Kowalski, our kitchen and bath specialist and head of our department in Seattle, has, I’ve heard her often say is you might be used to things in your kitchen and you have made accommodations to it that you didn’t even realize you were doing. And there are ways to improve, whereas you might lean towards keeping it the same way because you figured out how to work around it and you don’t have to do it that way anymore.

Lindy: You don’t know that it’s supposed to actually be better and function in a more effective way for you because you’ve never experienced it, right?

Dawn: Yeah, yeah.

Lindy: And then the kitchen designer often provides the cabinetry. That’s a really key point that I think differentiates a kitchen designer from someone like myself. So with Westward Foundry, our firm, before we launched Saltwolf, we didn’t sell cabinetry. We didn’t represent that. So we don’t know the ins and outs. So explain to me a little bit about how that works when you have a client who hires you to supply their cabinetry and do the design for it.

Dawn: Right. Right. And not all kitchen and bath designers represent a product line. We carry two different lines. One called Poggen Pohl, which is out of Germany. It’s one of the oldest fitted cabinetry companies in the world. So they have a long-standing history with production and quality and beautiful German engineering, of course. And then we have another one that we represent called Signature out of Pennsylvania. And then we work with a number, a handful really, of other custom cabinetry makers in our area. If and when the products that we represent exclusively within Denver and within Seattle don’t fit the needs of the project. We’re a showroom as well. So kitchen and bath designers often will be working for a company that represents various cabinetry lines. But sometimes you’ll find an independent designer working out of their home studio that represents no specific line. And they go out and find what they think is the right fit for your particular project.

Lindy: Oh, interesting. OK, and some of the kitchen and bath designers that I’ve worked with have showrooms, and I find that to be a real benefit because you can pull out the tray and you can see what the spice rack looks like and you can look at the integrated trash can or beverage fridge and get an example of what that looks like and see the different door fronts. And so that’s something that I know you provide and can be really helpful for clients who need to see those examples in person. In addition to the drawings.

Dawn: Absolutely. That three-dimensional experience and hands-on connection with how does this actually operate and does this make sense to me? Does this work well for how I move through my kitchen? Absolutely. That’s extremely helpful. In our Seattle showroom, we have various kitchen setups. I think there’s four of them in there right now. We were just working on an outdoor cabinetry line that we’re adding to our product offering and reviewing some drawings and layouts for that space yesterday and thinking about that experience when a client walks in, allowing them to see enough different combinations, that it doesn’t confuse them but helps them in their decision-making process, I think is really extremely helpful.

Dawn: Here in Denver we’ve converted our current home into its own showcase type environment, where we can invite clients on a one on one basis to move through the space and experience those things without having to go to a retail type location.

Lindy: Yeah, that’s great. OK, so talk to me about working with another interior designer. At Six Walls, you provide everything, so you probably prefer to provide everything. But I know that you’ve also worked with other designers who bring a client to you and say, hey, this is my client, but I need to engage you as a partner. So what are you looking for when you’re going to join a firm or join a partnership that already exists with an interior designer and his or her client? And can you talk through the dance of that? Because I know a lot of clients have been fearful of involving too many people. We already have an architect now. We have a designer. We have the contractor. Oh, no. Now we have to bring in another designer. How is that going to work with everyone? So, yeah, tell me some of your pitfalls to look out for and advice for designers when they are going to bring in a kitchen designer to their project.

Dawn: Yeah, I think there are probably three or four key elements to that. And one is finding some. One who has either worked as a team before and they’ve gone through the choreographed dance that I was talking about previously, and they really appreciate and understand each other’s perspectives and they know how to collaborate and they know where their responsibility starts and stops, and they know how to ask the right questions and integrate everybody’s opinions into the process. So I think, you know, in addition to just really being a good kitchen and bath designer and seeing their work maybe on Instagram or Howse or on their website, understanding and watching how they communicate with their other professionals is a huge thing that I would look out for, because that’s going to be the thing that’s the telltale sign of whether this relationship is going to work or not. Right, right. Someone being so territorial about what they do and how they do it that they’re not willing to listen and collaborate with other people because that that kitchen space, especially more less so with the bathroom. But the kitchen space flows and integrates so automatically with an entryway, any room or a living room space that as a kitchen and bathroom designer myself, I’m partnering with you on a project. I really want to see the things that you’ve already figured out for these other spaces so that the space has a nice conversation with your other living spaces. And and yeah, I think so.

Lindy: And I think from the designer perspective, the interior designer that I think it’s important for, I’ll speak for myself as this in this example to be really open to what the kitchen designer brings to the table, because I’ve personally had experiences where I’ve selected a countertop and a backsplash and maybe some plumbing selections initially as what I thought was a good direction. And then during a meeting with the kitchen designer, she recommended some things that were very different. Something I wasn’t expecting but that really were a better solution because she has more experience on durability or the different way it would work with a certain cabinetry line or she just brought a different perspective to it. And I think it’s important for the designer to be open to that feedback and not feel like, no, I’ve already designed this whole house. This is my project. Which is building on what you were saying, working together as a team. I love talking to other designers and working with designers and getting together and having drinks and coffee with designers. And I feel like I’ve always said this: There’s enough business in our world that we can support and build up each other and work together, and that’s only going to help the client. So being too protective of “this is my part” or “this is my job.” It’s not going to serve anybody really well in the end.

Dawn: That’s very, very true. I had a client say to me, gosh, it must have been 10 or 12 years ago. But she had moved from the East Coast, moved to the West Coast, was trying to find a new designer relationship to engage with. And she told me the main reason, my relationship with my designer on the East Coast was so successful and what I’m really trying to find and someone out here, she used the phrase, “would you ever consider?” And then she would present me with several options and tell me the pros and cons of each. And it was such a soft statement that was so welcoming. And it made you feel like, yes, I’m part of this process, I’m going to engage in this. And so if you hear a designer or another trade professional using that kind of language, that’s a key indicator of now this is a collaborative person who is willing to take into account other people’s opinions. But they are also going to give me what they think is the best series of things to choose from. They’re going to narrow down the choice to me.

Lindy: Yeah, it’s true. I’ve said for years that I know that I’m doing a good job as an interior designer when the client feels as if she, in most cases, it’s the female partner in that to have a relationship that’s making the decision, that she feels like she designed the home with my help, that it’s her home or his home. And that they’re the ones who design it. They have true ownership over it because they were involved in the entire process. And I think that’s the same case between designer and designer or architect and designer. You want it to feel like you both had your creative voice heard and you both got to be a part of it. Not that you were just there to, you know, provide some backsplash or drop off some cabinetry and then leave. It’s not going to be successful.

Dawn: Yeah, yeah. That’s one thing I think about kitchen and Bath specifically that that we’ve said numerous times within our firm with each other and then also to other trade partners is that we’re a sandwich. There are all these layers. And if we are the cabinetry provider on a project, we’re kind of doing the client a disservice in that we’re not fully integrating and understanding how the floor transitions work here, what’s coming in and out of this space, what kind of appliances do you want to use? And a lot of times that’s where the design will start, especially in a remodel is one of the appliances has gone out and they start shopping for new appliances and then find this interesting, another assortment of things to add to their kitchen that they never thought of before, as opposed to just replacing the refrigerator that went out. But that whole connection of, OK, it’s not just these independent pieces. They’re all touching each other. So the countertop is touching the cabinet, the appliance touching the cabinet. The plumbing is integrated with the counter to one of our clearances for all the faucets. And how far back does that sink sit? It just goes on and on and on. So having really dialed into the specifics and the needs of that space, I think is extremely important. And I think as an independent designer or a designer that does not specialize in kitchen and bath, having a few people in your pocket to pull out and say, oh, I think you will work really well with this particular company, because why it makes you look good as a designer because they have these great resources already vetted for your clients.

Lindy: Yeah. And I think that that’s how just supporting each other and supporting designers through the process, it develops a better product in the end and a better end result. And it also makes your job more fun and more interesting if you can partner with somebody. I always learn so much when I work with a kitchen and bath specialist and it makes my skill set stronger and it makes my business stronger. And I’m able to bring those details in for the client and become more knowledgeable about that topic which I really love. And as we talk about a lot at Saltwolf, designers jobs are challenging. With even with the most fabulous project and budget and client and everything, it can be really stressful working in someone’s home. And so our goal with Saltwolf, and why we started it, as you know, is to help support designers and make their lives easier, their jobs more successful, and to make them more profitable. Because that’s important as a designer, to have a successful business and to make sure that you run it like a business and you really are a professional in that way. And so I think that the more designers can support each other by not being fearful of bringing in a kitchen and bath designer because they’re worried it’s going to take away part of their project.

Dawn: I do think the end result is better and the client ends up being happier with that and not being to not being worried that it makes you look like you don’t know what you’re talking about. Or, I’m not a good enough designer because I have to bring in this kitchen and bath specialist. I’m not good at every single aspect of it. And that’s something you’ve done really well, that I’ve always admired you as a business owner, that you hire people that may be stronger than you are in certain areas. And you support them and say, hey, this he or she is so great at furniture design, he or she is they’re just the best at flooring choices. So they know more than I do. And you should work with them. And having that relationship and the confidence to say that to another designer or to a client I think goes a long way in our industry.

Lindy: Yeah, I totally agree with that.

Dawn: You know, starting Six Walls back in 2004 before people were doing a lot of shopping online, that one on one connection with the designer and being able to walk in and have that exchange was such a key element for us, growing our business with really simple one-hour color consultations where we come in and help clients select colors for their interiors and exteriors. And now, a little over six years later, we’re a twelve-person firm operating projects in California, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and beyond. So it’s been a fun business to be involved in and it’s been so great to stay connected with you. And I’m really, really happy about the growth of your business and how you’re looking for what the need is out there to support our industry and really embrace that and say, hey, this is a problem that needs solving. And I look forward to having a couple of Saltwolf pieces in my house very soon. I just got your sample kit and I’ve been laying it out in various areas of the home, trying to figure out where to where to put it.

Lindy: Oh, awesome, great. I look forward to that! Ok, the last question I have is: are there any tips you have if you’re looking for trying to find a kitchen and bath designer? Where do you specifically look? You mentioned, of course, referrals. But I feel like it’s important for designers, non-kitchen and bath specialists to have a couple of go-to people. And I always encourage, I’ve done this a lot in my business, to have those meetings and coffees and sort of informational interviews before you actually have a project. So when the project comes up, you’re not scrambling. But instead, you’re like, hey, I actually already have a couple of people in this market that I’ve met. I’ve looked at their work, so that’s a great way. But how would you? Do you have any other suggestions for how to find a certified kitchen and bath specialist?

Dawn: Yes, I do. So there’s a couple. One, in particular, is the NKBA. That’s the National Kitchen and Bath Association. So there are a national professional organization that really helps promote the industry as a whole and also establishes a very rigorous training program so that you can get certifications at various levels based on how long you’ve been in the industry, schooling that you’ve had, and the number of projects that you’ve worked on. So I would highly recommend, depending on where you are in the US, looking them up and to find a standout kitchen and bath designer. Designers that have a connection with NKBA have also been vetted. Also, look for any award-winning designers. A lot of kitchen and bath designers are submitting their projects into competitions within their region and you’re can see how they are compared to other designers within that profession, within their area. So finding an award-winning designer is a great way to kind of figure out who these people really know what they’re talking about. And then the other place, which a lot of people might not think, is chatting with your local high-end appliance showrooms. They can make some great introductions because a lot of times they hire designers to come in and design certain parts of their showroom if a particular brand is redoing their display area. So they can be a really great source, too. And then, like you said, having your designer friends recommend someone, having your contractor, your architect, usually those other professionals will be networked within the industry and can give you some good recommendations on where to start.

Lindy: Ok, great. I think these are all the questions I had. Anything that I’ve missed that you feel like would be really helpful, especially to interior designers who maybe are looking to partner with the kitchen designer or have asked have been asked that question by their clients.

Dawn: Yeah, I think a couple additional tips that I would add in closing is that a good designer is someone who really is willing to have the conversations up front about some of the more difficult conversation topics like budget and timeline, right. So that you’re starting off with a clear understanding of expectations on all fronts vs. Two months into the design process and someone’s like “we haven’t even ordered our cabinetry yet.” And that’s going to take another 8 weeks to get or in the case of Europe, you know, 16 weeks to get. So making sure that that person that you’re talking to fully explains the process, how you as a client and another designer integrate into that to make good decisions and good decisions in a timely manner. How that can really help keep a project moving forward. And if someone ignores the budget conversation or ignores the timeline conversation upfront, that’s kind of a red flag to me. Like they may not really know all the things they need to know to make this successful.

Lindy: Yeah. You know there’s a trap that a lot of interior designers fall into of being a people pleaser. We don’t want to bring up any kind of conflict conversation. We don’t want to talk about money because it’s sensitive and the client says, “we want to get this done as fast as possible.” And so we say, “yeah, great, OK, oh, it’ll be really fast.” Or, “we don’t want to wait four months.” Oh, don’t worry. It won’t be that. And we’ll make it faster than that. As opposed to saying, “well, four months is actually sort of a minimum time frame” or whatever. Not saying the reality of it, that can really cause a lot of problems in the future. And if you’re working with a partner like that and they’re telling the client something that’s unrealistic or they’re not having those hard conversations, then, you know, you’re the one who’s going to have to be the bad guy. To come in and say, well, actually, that’s a great idea, but… Well, thanks again for joining me today and taking the time. And I encourage anyone who’s interested in hiring a kitchen designer to look into Dawn’s expertise and do some research yourself!

Dawn: Sounds good.

Lindy: Well, cheers, it was fun having you this morning and digging in Kitchen and Bath.

Dawn: I wish you all the best with your endeavor with Salwolf. As I said, it can’t wait to get a few pieces into my own home so I can test them.

Lindy: Awesome. Thank you so much. OK, we’ll talk to you soon. Bye-bye.

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