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She Remodeled Kitchen--in Her Favorite Color

Pardon Our Dust: Remodelers' Tales. One in an occasional series


After living in her 1970s Palos Verdes home for 16 years, Ellen Chen knew this: "It was time for a change."

After all, how long can one enjoy coming home to a dated, cramped kitchen with harvest gold appliances and a living room with yellow shag carpeting and aluminum sliding doors?

"You want to have a nice place to come home and relax," said Chen, who works for a customs broker. "When I visit my friends, everyone has wood floors. Everyone has French doors."

Plus, she enjoys hosting dinner parties for friends and family, including her brother, Jimmy Chen, who lives with her, and her sister, Alex Chen, who lives across the street.

But the kitchen could not handle a crowd.

"It was so tiny," Chen recalled. "If it was more than two people in here, it felt crowded. I said: 'Get out.' "

When contemplating a remodel of her kitchen in 1996, Chen worried that the new GE Profile refrigerator her brother had already bought would not fit into a new design. But she found that designers were more than willing to incorporate an existing appliance into a new plan.

However, at least one designer Chen spoke with could not accommodate Chen's own preferences.

"I'm crazy about green," Chen said. "Anything with green, I'll take it."

"Really?" asked one designer. "Are you sure?"

In fact, Chen found it difficult to express her ideas to designers until she and her sister both had a brainstorm: "Scott!" they said, thinking of Scott Yang of Griffin Design in El Monte, a friend of Alex Chen's since college.

"We knew he was the one," Ellen Chen said.

For one thing, Yang, an architect and general contractor, is a good listener and he was receptive to Chen's ideas.

When she told him, "I like green. I want a big kitchen. And I want granite counters," he agreed with her.

"Well, I don't live here," Yang reasoned. However, he added, "if she had said she wanted Formica counters, I would have said no. It wouldn't look good."

Plus, because both Yang and Chen were born in Taiwan, they could speak their familiar blend of Taiwanese, Mandarin and a bit of English.

"We can talk, right?" Chen reminded Yang, and then explained to a visitor: "Before, I didn't feel like I could express myself. But with Scott, I feel like whatever I want I can tell him. I can be more demanding. I told him this is how I'm going to spend. You do a good job."

This directness sat well with Yang. "I appreciated that. Otherwise you beat around the bush. And remodeling is a substantial process. You're together for a long time."

To begin, Yang brought over kitchen and home magazines for Chen to consider. As she pointed to things she did or didn't like, he got an idea of her style.

Later she would say that he read her mind, but he claims the magazine process gave him the insight. Yang was also helped by Jenny Chen (no relation), another principal in Griffin Design.

The first task was finding a way to make the small kitchen bigger. Luckily, the kitchen was adjacent to a breakfast area, and removal of a counter and overhead cabinets meant that the kitchen could be expanded into that area. The breakfast table was then placed farther into the adjacent and spacious family room.

Once the basic rectangular floor plan was decided upon, and a $36,000 budget was set, there were lots of decisions to be made:

* Wall color: For Chen, it was simple. "I don't know how you can do it," she told Yang, "but put green in there." According to him, "Her green came first," and he suggested a textured application of light and dark green paint on the walls.

* Cabinets: The white raised-panel cabinet doors are very similar to the original cabinets and match others in the house.

Chen decided on the stainless steel knobs after Yang brought a number of samples for her to choose from. Throughout the remodel, she found it easy to make decisions by making a picture in her mind of how it would look.

* Counters: Chen wanted granite, so Yang brought over a few samples. As soon as she detected a deep green in one sample, she wanted it.

* The island: Though Chen knew she wanted an island, it was Yang's idea to place a curve on one side "to soften the lines of the kitchen."

The cook top is a Jenn-Air with a center vent, rather than an overhead vent. Yang worried a bit about that because "Chinese food has a lot of moisture."

However, the vent has worked fine to pull steam from the air, channeling it down a pipe, down through the cabinet, under the floor and to an outside wall. Chen likes the large burners, which can generate a lot of heat. "Chinese food has to cook fast," she said.

* Ceiling: After years of cooking under fluorescent tubes, Chen was ready for recessed, incandescent lights. To make the kitchen seem even larger, Yang raised the ceiling about eight inches, leaving a soffit above the cabinets.

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