An interview with owners Susan & Jeff Klimala
To say that we’ve been working and perfecting and studying the world of design since we opened The Kitchen Studio would be a serious understatement. It has been a defining part of our lives for the last fifteen years. Yes, you read that right – FIFTEEN YEARS! We started The Kitchen Studio back in 2006 with a focus on custom cabinet installs, and here we are in 2021 as a soup to nuts design firm that can do everything from remodels and redesigns to the furnishings and finishes in your homes. We have worked across the city, suburbs, and even the country to help people create their dream homes. And we have so much to be proud of.
To really understand how far we’ve come and take stock of all we’ve learned, Jeff and I spoke to Social Media Manager Kaleigh Glaza (another thing that’s changed since 2006 – We’re now on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest) about the history of The Kitchen Studio, our biggest learnings, and our hope for the future of the company.
Tell us how The Kitchen Studio came to be.
Susan: Back in 2006, I was working for a local custom home builder, and the business that Jeff was in, personal finance, had changed a bit. So we decided to take the opportunity to open The Kitchen Studio. We didn’t really know what we were in for, but it was a simple matter of opportunity and interest on our part.
What got you first interested in design?
Susan: I’ve always liked design, even when I was a little girl. Some of my early memories are design-related, so for example, I can still picture my first room as a child! My mom let me decorate it with pink elephant wallpaper and pink carpet. I can also remember walking through Ethan Allen with my mom and just being entranced by all the different rooms. It was always in my DNA.
But I never really thought of it as a “career” when I was planning for school and my future. I really grew into it after college – my degree is actually in psychology.
What were your visions and plans for TKS in 2006? How have those visions changed?
Susan: When we first opened, we primarily worked in cabinet sales. We did a lot of work for builders, making custom cabinets for their clients, along with a few custom residential kitchens.
Over time, that’s grown into kitchens, bathrooms, and other rooms of the house. We’ve built foundations and done additions, and now work with furnishings as well. So it’s really expanded from our original intent.
What excites you most about your job?
Susan: I love the puzzle of this business. There are different things to do every day. And design work is always a puzzle because you have the client, the space, the budget, and then your design filter that you’re pulling all that through. It’s super stimulating to come to work and have to puzzle through all of that.
And then the other part I love is managing the business and figuring out all the parts and pieces of that. It’s constantly changing – You think you have it all figured out, and then you need to learn something new!
Jeff: During the process, you deal with clients, but when you get to the very end, and you finish everything on your punch list, there’s that moment when you hear “Thank you! This was a great process and design. We’ve loved working with your team!”
So getting that final moment of positive feedback from the client is the best part for me.
What do you see as the biggest accomplishments since your start in 2006?
Susan: There isn’t a big huge thing like “Oh my gosh we won this great award!” Though awards are really cool and we have won a lot of them 😉 But for me, when I reflect back, it’s really all just about being able to roll with the punches. There has been a constant stream of change since we got started with this company. We got through a recession, we spent the last year plus working through a pandemic, we have had staffing changes and contractor changes, and even what the client expects and is looking for with their projects has changed. So really being able to change and evolve with the times has been key. That might be a boring answer, but it’s what I’m truly proud of.
Jeff: Looking back over 15 years, for me it’s that we’ve had over 360 clients and 410 projects in that time. It’s amazing! We never would have thought that one by one by one, we’d eventually see that many projects. That’s the biggest thing for me.
What has been your biggest “lesson learned” in the last 15 years?
Jeff: It’s really taking your time. Whether you’re hiring employees or working with subcontractors, it’s all about finding the right people. Hopefully they’re smarter than you are or more experienced so you can have the right fit and make everyone’s job easier.
What is your biggest hope for the future of TKS?
Susan: I hope to continue to work to make more beautiful designs – That’s always been the goal. And to also work more on the furnishings aspect of our business. This is a part of the business I’m very passionate about, but that is a bit of a learning curve for me, although not so much our team because I’ve hired people with experience in that department 🙂 To be still growing and learning new things at the age of 56 is so exciting. So we’ll keep adapting and growing no matter what comes our way.
In looking back, what’s the most noticeable change you have seen in home design over those years?
Susan: I think design has really taken off. People are really savvy in terms of what style of design they like, and what they want or don’t want. So as a designer, that’s been really cool and really fun to grow with our clients. People just have access to a lot of information they didn’t have before.
And that’s also true because of social media. Everyone is on social media, looking at everyone’s designs and work – designers and consumers included. It’s just so fast moving in terms of trends and access to information now. That’s definitely been a big change over time.
What are some of your fondest and funniest memories?
Susan: Well some of the funniest memories aren’t suitable for this forum, but one funny memory I can share is that I was on this HGTV show a few years ago, and this was going to be my big moment on film. But I got up that morning and I couldn’t even talk. I had laryngitis! So, I called the producer and whispered my dilemma, but she said it would be fine.
But of course it wasn’t fine. So the first episode is all me with this very hoarse voice, which was so embarrassing! But also kind of funny 🙂
When it comes to my fondest memories, it’s all about the people. We meet so many cool people from literally all walks of life. Working with contractors, or people with different careers or from different countries. People I never would have met otherwise. So it’s all about the people and those relationships.
Jeff: It’s always fun to get to see the clients outside of work too. We have gone to dinners, or even seen subcontractors in weird places like Las Vegas. It’s always interesting to see where you run into people.
In 2006, the year you started The Kitchen Studio, French Country design was making its appearance, reds and oranges were the hot colors, dark wood cabinetry and dark granite countertops were all the rage. What else do you remember about your first year in business?
Susan: We did a lot of spec homes back in the day, which is when builders would pre-build a home for sale. So a lot of builder work. And in that work, we saw the trends you listed, plus pull-out spice racks, acanthus corbels and giant countertop edges. We even had a display in the studio up front in the window for a time that had that same look. And people just loved it!
But now design trends are more about simplicity; clean lines and understated design elements are what people want.
What’s been the most surprising part about the journey so far?
Susan: It’s kind of like when you have kids honestly. You have the first one and you figure things out, and then you think “Let’s have another one.” But then the second one comes, and things are completely different and you have to adjust.
It’s the same thing with business. We started the business and got things rolling, and then the recession hit. And we had to figure out what to do. And that’s when we added remodeling into our bag of tricks. We pivoted and that’s really been the biggest learning for me overall. You have to be able to pivot and change and move, and that’s really what entrepreneurship is all about.
If you could go back in time, what’s one piece of advice you would give yourself 15 years ago?
Jeff: After a couple years of learning and getting into the business, we got involved with some professional groups in the industry. Other owners, other managers across the country. And I think looking back, I would say we should have gotten into those groups and made those connections from day one. Because we learned a lot going to those meetings and round tables, and it would have been much easier to start with those instead of waiting.
15 years from now, what do you think will be the biggest design trends?
Susan: Well we’re really here because of 15 years, right? And 15 years ago the trends were French Country and all of that… but it honestly doesn’t seem that long ago!
And then where we’re at now is moving away from the all white kitchen we’ve done for years to include more arts & crafts type elements, but done in a more subtle inspired way this time. We’re using motifs and textures as opposed to moldings and stiff design themes.
And of course technology has become huge since we started. We’re really utilizing technology more in kitchens and bathrooms, but recently, people have seemed to start to rebel against that same technology. I think we’re moving more towards technology that’s really specific and functional, as opposed to a whole kitchen just packed full of tech.
So it’s so tough to say where it will all net out because, like I said before, it’s always changing. At the end of the day, good design is about functionality, beauty and simplicity. Everyone is striving for a simpler way in the midst of so much chaos and change.
When someone says “dream home” what do you think of?
Susan: “Dream home” means something different for everybody. That’s why, as part of our process, we have clients answer questions and look at pictures to make sure we really know what their dream home is. And that’s what a dream home should be: specific to who you are, what your style and budget is, where you’re at in your life. It’s a very personal thing.
If you could fly TKS’s employees anywhere for a 15-year celebration, where would it be?
Susan: I would pick Paris because I’ve never been there. But it has to be Paris done RIGHT! So we’ll go first class (of course) and stay at a five star hotel, but it will be a boutique hotel not a big chain. And then we can spend all of our time shopping and sightseeing. I think that would be really fun!
Jeff: I’d pick Napa Valley. You can go to nice wineries, stay at a nice resort, and really take a few days to relax and enjoy the scenery.
Susan: I’m in!
If you could design someone famous’s home, who would it be?
Susan: Some of my favorite clients have been people I’ve learned things from. So I don’t have a specific celebrity, but I would pick a fashion designer, maybe like Tom Ford. Someone amazing who I could learn from and collaborate with. That would be a dream!
Jeff: I’d want someone I could learn from, too. But maybe outside of design. I play some poker, so maybe someone in that world, like Daniel Negreanu or someone whom I could be around for a few weeks and really learn some tricks from.
To finish, Jeff and I and our whole team, would like to thank everyone for their continued support and inspiration. From our family and friends, to the clients we work with every day, to the Glen Ellyn community at large, we would honestly not be here without the support of those around us. We are a family company, and you’re all a part of that family. Thank you for the last fifteen years, and here’s to the next fifteen!