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RISMEDIA, August 26, 2010—(MCT)—Kitchens have long been among the most popular remodeling projects. But with fewer clients requesting kitchen upgrades during this recession, one kitchen designer has turned the economic slowdown to her advantage.

“If I couldn’t remodel as many client kitchens as usual, I decided to remodel my own showroom. That way, I’d be ready to show the latest trends and the most exciting new products when this down period ends,” said Joan DesCombes, president of Architectural Artworks in Winter Park, Fla.

The result is a showroom fitted with the latest looks and innovations in cabinetry, counter tops and appliances from upscale lines such as SieMatic, Sub-Zero, Wolf and Miele. Add state-of-the-art lighting and electronics, and you have the essential elements for the 21st-century dream kitchen.

Of course, not every budget can afford those high-end brands. But, as with fashion and automobiles, the top-of-the-line products set the trends. The styles, materials, colors and technical advances seen in luxury showrooms today inspire the more-affordable versions that show up in the big-box stores tomorrow.

Most strikingly, Descombes’ model kitchens don’t look like typical, traditional kitchens. Appliances are fully integrated into the cabinetry. You see no telltale dishwasher dials and switches, no refrigerator door handles and ice-dispensers.

Our fridges and ovens are designed to look like the freestanding cabinets or sideboards. Even the sophisticated finishes and colors on cabinetry seem more like those you’d find in an elegant living room than the kitchen.

That’s because the kitchen has become a kind of surrogate living room in today’s homes, said DesCombes. It’s where families cook, eat, relax and entertain. And in today’s open-plan home designs, homeowners prefer kitchens that blend with adjacent spaces—living and dining areas, bars and patios.

“We spend a lot of time in the kitchen,” said Judy Yarmuth of Winter Park, Fla., whose kitchen was recently renovated by the Architectural Artworks team. “It’s the center of the house. We have a lot of dinner parties. While I’m cooking, it’s the place to be.”

The entire kitchen was designed around the refrigerator, she said. But hers is no ordinary icebox. Designed to look like a classic Chinese wedding cabinet with a walnut finish, it is typical of the freestanding pieces likely to become popular in coming seasons.

“It’s stunningly beautiful and different,” said Yarmuth. Together with a backsplash of tan/gold Jerusalem stone behind the range and a massive slab of dark wenge wood set into the stone-composite island, the refrigerator cabinet warms up the otherwise white-on-white kitchen “and makes it just yummy.”

Of course, a dream kitchen doesn’t just look beautiful. “It has to function for each individual client,” said DesCombes. “I need to know all about their lifestyle. Are they great cooks, don’t cook, use caterers? Do they have pets and where do they keep the dog food?”

When she redesigned the kitchen in the Melbourne Beach, Fla., house of Charlie and Carol Draper, she replaced the enclosed, traditional design with an open, low-maintenance space. She also installed horizontal-grain cabinets with stainless-steel channels in lieu of hardware, which draw the eye across the room to the panoramic ocean views.

“It’s an incredibly workable kitchen,” said Carol Draper. “Joan moved the island a little. She got rid of some cabinets so the eating area was no longer separate. Now the whole thing just flows. When you’re cooking, it doesn’t even seem like work.”

Kitchen Design Trends

Counter tops: Stainless steel, antiqued marble, lava stone, wood, concrete, mosaics and flamed granite with a textured, matte finish.

Cabinetry: Fewer overhead cabinets. Lift-up or sliding doors, self-closing drawers, glass-fronted cabinets and glass shelving, tracks inside doors for attaching storage accessories, pantries with multiple storage options. Fresh finishes, from smooth, high-gloss and matte lacquer, to textured, horizontal-grain laminates.

Appliances: Free-standing accent pieces and fully-integrated designs that blend with cabinets. Fridges with more crisper space, less freezer space; combination gas/electric ranges; designer range hoods; super-quiet dishwashers; specialty sink faucets; luxury items such as warmer drawers for coffee mugs.

Lighting: Combinations of soft incandescent, bright halogen and cool, energy-efficient LED bulbs.

Colors: Warm neutrals such as walnut, slate, sand, celadon and magnolia.

Architectural elements: Wall niches and bump-outs for housing coffee machines, juicers, dinnerware, herbs, spices and collectibles.

(c) 2010, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.