Don't Make These Mistakes When Renovating Your Kitchen, Says Nate Berkus

Bright kitchen with light wooden cabinets.

Lucy Penfield

Thanks to his new TV show on TLC, the renovation of his new home in Los Angeles, and his new role as artistic adviser at LG Studio—interior designer and TV personality Nate Berkus has been spending a lot of time thinking about kitchens lately. Berkus, who has over 20 years of experience in interior design, has become somewhat of a kitchen whisperer, often working with an expert mix of materials, timeless designs, and high function. Case in point: His last kitchen in his old Greenwich Village apartment is essentially the holy grail of New York kitchens, mixing a solid brass island with marble top, black lacquered cabinets, subway tile, and a vaulted skylight looking out onto the city skyline.

His new Los Angeles kitchen promises to be just as good: “Our new house in Los Angeles is going to have a white stone top on the island and a matte black stone on the periphery of the kitchen—and I love those things together. The island will be sort of a chalky gray color, and the cabinetry will be painted putty.” And while we can hardly wait to see the result of his latest design endeavor, we can at least pick his brain on what it takes to craft the perfect kitchen and what mistakes to avoid at all costs.

Have a Proper Plan in Place

Nate Berkus Kitchen
Brittany Ambridge; Design by Nate Berkus

“Before you pick up a hammer, you need to have a proper plan in place,” says Berkus. “You need to take the time to bring in the contractor, bring in the painter, bring in the plumber, and really figure out what an accurate budget for the labor will be, and then you get to start making the fun decisions about what finishes you get to put in.”

Popular renovating TV shows may have something to do with people's skewed expectations about renovating, he adds. “The mistake that people make is that they watch design on TV and they think oh, I can do this myself in a weekend. And so all of a sudden, they start ripping up their cabinetry and pulling out their appliances, and they find themselves not only overwhelmed but having to pay more than they would have originally if they brought the proper people in to fit the job.”

Be Realistic With the Scope

Bright kitchen with orchid
Alexis Courtney / Stocksy 

“The first thing to ask yourself is 'What is the realistic scope of this project based on how much money I have to spend'?” suggests the designer. Asking yourself—or your contractor—the right questions before beginning can help accurately plan the scope of your project and keep your expectations realistic.

Can you afford to rip out your cabinets, or should you paint them? Can you afford to rip out your countertops—which requires the plumber to come back and reinstall the faucet and the sink—or can you live with your countertops or change the finish to save money? What should your budget be allocated to? What is most important to you? All these questions can help prioritize needs and wants—and ultimately lead to a better plan of attack.

Stand on the Side of Timeless

Kitchen island with bar stools
Julie Holder for Nate Berkus

When asked about upcoming kitchen trends for 2017, Berkus was quick to urge us to steer clear of trends and stay on the side of timeless and classic. “This is not the place to start experimenting with trends,” he says. “Your kitchen should be a mix of finishes that have been around since 1920. The more classic, the cleaner, the plainer, the better. Your personality can shine through by what you have out on your countertops, what napkins you’re using, what your coffee mugs are, what set of dishes you buy. But the idea of going with a trend that would require you to call a contractor to change it out is something that I don’t believe in.”

To pick the right finishes, the designer recommends thinking of styles that have been around forever: subway tile, marble, painted or wood cabinetry, clay tiles, terra-cotta, bronze, brass, or stainless steel. “These are all things that have been around for a long time. You want to redo the kitchen once, stand in it 10 years from today, and still love the decisions that you made,” Berkus explains.

Invest in Your Appliances

Bright spacious kitchen
Amy Bartlam; DESIGN: 22 Interiors

When it comes to prioritizing specific features, Berkus says appliances are one of the most important areas to not skimp on: “Appliances are not a place to cut costs, because the bottom line is that no matter how much care, thought, and blood, sweat, and tears go into planning all of the decorative finishes, if your appliances aren’t reliable and well-made, it doesn’t matter—you can’t entertain, you can’t cook, you can’t make yourself coffee in the morning—so that’s a situation to avoid,” he says.

To him, the combined functionality and style of quality appliances is a luxury that goes far beyond having a kitchen plastered in marble: “LG knows how to free up people’s time by building all these features to allow people to spend more time talking and entertaining in their space as opposed to trying to prepare dinner. The truly interesting thing about my partnership with LG Studio and my role as an artistic adviser is that LG Studio really stands for best in class in innovation and technology.

“And they’re a company that cares as deeply about design and aesthetics as well. What I really loved about this partnership is that I think appliances should be designed to quietly, seamlessly integrate into any kitchen design. The studio line is monochromatic; whether it’s the traditional stainless or the new black stainless steel, they’re both warm, sophisticated finishes that blend really well into anyone’s style of kitchen.”

Berkus, who tends to leave the cooking to his husband, Jeremiah Brent, tells us he tends to focus on the form rather than the function: “The newest thing that’s happening, which was an interesting riddle to solve design-wise, was this feature on the refrigerator on the LG Studio line that’s called Instaview: If you knock on the window twice, it illuminates the interior of the refrigerator so you can actually see into it without having to waste energy. Visually, it’s a large glass panel that goes completely opaque when it’s not being used, so it’s still totally monochromatic. That’s what I mean when I say technology and innovation should just serve us; it shouldn’t be loud from a design perspective.”

Mix Your Finishes

Kitchen with mixed materials
Nate Berkus

When working on the line of appliances for LG Studio, the designer explained how he went about choosing finishes that would blend in the American kitchen: “We did a deep dive into finishes I think will be around for the next 10 years. We picked these finishes based on 60 different options people have when designing their kitchens—the new black stainless steel looks beautiful with light oak cabinetry, but it would look great with gray or white painted shaker cabinetry.

“We asked ourselves, 'What backsplash materials are people really reaching for now? Is it the classic 1920s white subway tile or pale gray subway tile, Carrara marble, statuary marble, Calcutta marble, honed black granite, soapstone, black marble with white veining?' We just had all these finishes with us, and all that imagery, and looked through what the classic American could be with all of these different options and picked finishes we felt would really look well with them, for many years to come.”

When we asked Berkus how to mix and match all these finishes in a single kitchen, he answered that if you stick to a timeless palette, you should be able to mix them all seamlessly: “As long as you’re working with classic materials, you can kind of combine them in any way,” he says. “When you’re working with a traditional vocabulary, I think it’s fun to mix these finishes in. And with regard to the appliances—the only rule is that I really prefer that all the appliances in the space match each other. Everything else is a bit up for grabs.”

Don't Get Taken With Trends

Classic Kitchen Design
Fantastic Frank

The number one mistake Berkus sees homeowners make with their kitchen renovation: They get taken with trends. “They go to an expo and see a countertop that when you lean on it, it changes color, or they see these sort of bright lacquered colors on kitchen cabinetry that—I guess is new and exciting,” but he says they don’t stand the test of time. “Can you stop the train and imagine yourself with an apple-green cabinet? Is that really going to stand the test of time? It’s a question that I always ask myself and always ask on behalf of the homeowners that I’m working for.”

Work With What You Have

vintage kitchen
Erin Williamson

Between his own clients and his TV shows, Berkus is an expert at cutting costs in large renovation projects. His top tip: Work with what you already have as much as possible.You really need to take stock of what you have and see if you can work with something that you have. If you can’t, then you wait until you can actually do it correctly. Every real estate broker will tell you that investing in your kitchen is the easiest way to add value to your home. And a lot of people will wait until they can really have the kitchen of their dreams.”

He suggests a few different ways to recycle what you already own without ripping everything out and starting anew:Paint the cabinets instead of replacing them. Replace just the doors if you don’t like the door style—you can save a ton of money, and that is something that people can actually do themselves. It’s not that complicated to paint your own cabinetry. It’s time-consuming, and you have to prepare them correctly, but it is something that you can save a lot of money on. You can fill the holes where the old knobs are with wood putty and sand that down and change from a knob to a four-inch pull.”

Another way to cut costs is to simply change out smaller details.

You can also change out the pendants above your island with something that feels fresh to you—whether it’s an old lantern that you found online or a beautiful glass globe. If you do your homework and really scour the internet, you can find something for a really good price.”