When Claudia Jones told her husband, Rick, that she'd like to take down the wallpaper in the kitchen of their Agoura home, he came back with a radical idea: "Why don't we just redo the whole kitchen?"
The concept was extreme because the house was not yet a decade old, hardly mature enough to need major remodeling. And, indeed, when the couple and their two small daughters first moved into the new two-story home, Claudia regarded her new kitchen with its whitewashed cabinets and blue tile counters as "the biggest, grandest thing I could imagine."
But the ensuing decade wore badly on the kitchen, as the cabinets shed their whitewash, the particleboard drawers lost their fronts and the wooden floor buckled after a refrigerator leak. And as for the single-pane aluminum windows, they were substandard from the get-go.
"These are nice, big houses," Claudia said of her home and 349 others in the upscale tract. "But the quality of everything was horrible."
Plus, the size and layout of the kitchen cramped family life. The home computer, which Claudia, a teacher, wanted nearby so she could monitor its Internet use, was installed on a counter. And although the breakfast area seated four comfortably, the family had grown to five.
But while the decision to create a new kitchen was a no-brainer, the project’s scope was not apparent. From Rick’s perspective as owner of a construction loan company in Northridge, a new kitchen would cost "maybe $10,000 to $20,000."
But because Rick’s company deals mainly with very modest homes, he had never encountered a kitchen like the one Claudia envisioned. The first cabinet estimates, for instance, were for $52,000 and $58,000.
"When we went shopping, it was obvious it would cost more," Rick recalled. But his construction loan business was booming when talk of the remodel started, and business was still good when work began. When the project was completed, the couple had spent $125,000.
"This one just got away from me," Rick said. But he has no regret about "Claudia’s kitchen."
"This is what Claudia wanted," he said. "I agreed with whatever she said."
What Claudia wanted was a kitchen with Old World styling, made of the highest quality materials she could find and, most of all, with enough space to let the Joneses "be a family." And since they intended to live in the house at least until their youngest graduates from high school, the couple didn’t worry about getting their remodeling money back when they sell. They simply wanted to enjoy living there.
For a year, Claudia and Rick researched the ingredients of their new kitchen, for which they acted as general contractors. They decided to push a side wall out 9 feet to expand the kitchen and to add a large walk-in pantry.
"Rick’s thing was the pantry," Claudia recalled. "He wanted to [be able to] go to Costco and stock up."
While Rick’s circle of subcontractors included the framer, electrician and plumber, he wasn’t familiar with craftspeople who did the kind of high-end cabinetry and finish work Claudia wanted. And just getting the kitchen designed was a challenge.
Claudia said many kitchen design shops told her they would design her kitchen only if she made a commitment to buy the high-end cabinets they sold. But Rick was convinced that cabinets of similar quality and styling could be custom made for much less money. Finally, the Joneses had the kitchen designed at a kitchen shop for a flat fee of $2,000.
The designer’s plans included items Claudia specifically wanted — a stove top set in a William Ohs-type cabinet, a massive over-the-stove hood, a large island, a granite farm-style sink — as well as things she didn’t know enough about to want, such as an intricate overhead lighting system to illuminate specific areas.
Once the kitchen was designed and construction was ready to begin, the couple put the existing refrigerator on the patio, the toaster oven in the laundry room and the dishwashing operation — sponge and soap — in the powder room, where it remained for the next eight months.
After the wall was moved out, the pantry constructed and new windows and French doors installed, the tile floor was laid. Leery of wood that can buckle, Claudia chose a sturdy tile.
For construction of the cabinets, which ended up costing less than half the price of the ritzier brands, the couple turned to the Yellow Pages to find Stephan Schwartz of Dynamic Cabinet Design in Chatsworth.
Schwartz was a true artist, Claudia said, and he added some design touches of his own, such as bull-nosed moldings, dovetailed joints in the drawers and sections of bead board.
It was through Schwartz that the Joneses found their cabinet refinisher, Gino & Son in Northridge, to add the crackle effect that helps new cabinets look old. For Claudia, deciding on the amount of crackle was one of several gambles.
"The crackle was one of the scariest things," said Claudia, who feared she might be asking for too much, thinking at the time: "Is that all you’re going to see?"
She had similar fears when choosing the peach-tinted granite, called "African Sunset," and the intricate tile on the back splash.
"You go by gut," she said. "You have to be willing to take risks."
For appliances, she chose a G.E. refrigerator and stove top, a quiet Miele dishwasher from Germany, and a Viking double oven in a color so rarely seen that the delivery man hesitated bringing it into the house until he questioned Claudia: "Did you know it’s green?"
With the kitchen complete and Claudia’s hopes for it more than realized, she credits her year of research — at home shows, the Pacific Design Center, in magazines and at countless shops.
"You’ve got to ask questions," she said, pointing to the unique green ovens. "Nobody tells you about these things."
These days, the kitchen is the hub of the family’s activity, from homework to Indian Princess meetings to, of course, cooking, which neither Claudia nor Rick is especially fond of.
"The quality of the meals hasn’t improved," Rick confessed. "But it’s created a much nicer environment for us to enjoy them."