The State of Real Estate in Chicago in 2021

It’s the trend we never saw coming. Due to the pandemic, real estate has experienced an unprecedented busy year, as being stuck at home had many homeowners realizing they were ready to move — craving more space, roomy surrounds, and peaceful outdoor areas. In 2021, experts are expecting Chicago real estate trends to continue to grow, with spring season starting earlier than usual in what’s become a highly competitive market. We talked with three local real estate agents about the impact of Covid on Chicago’s real estate market, what buyers are looking for right now, and tips for both buyers and sellers looking to make a change this year. (And if you missed it, also check out our post on top interior design trends for 2021!)

Nicole Oertel
The Oertel Group

What impact has Covid had on the real estate market in Chicago?

The pandemic has definitely changed buyers’ search criteria. Most families want more space, more rooms for working from home and e-learning, private pools, gardens, and serene outdoor spaces — or as close to all of the above as they can get. Of course, fabulous kitchen that include walk-in pantries, command centers, mud rooms and lots of storage are all the rage.

Neighborhoods matter a lot, too. Great public and private schools along with amenities like beautiful beaches, outdoor trails, and cute downtowns are all very popular among suburban shoppers. That’s why the North Shore has once again become the “it” place for those looking to take advantage of everything the greater Chicagoland area has to offer while still being within a short commute into the city. Working from home has certainly had the biggest impact on this, and those who thought they would never leave the city are now rushing to these beautiful shoreline towns. We even have buyers looking for second homes, such as a downtown condo, while living the majority of the time in their serene North Shore home.

Can you share a few tips for navigating the spring home search season?

The real estate market is set to be strong and competitive throughout 2021, so start early and be well prepared. Contacting an agent early in the year will ensure that we can get you set up on a search, and have you fully organized and qualified, and give you an advantage over the competition, whether you’re buying or selling.

What are buyers looking for in a home these days? 

A majority of buyers want an updated, modern home. Most (not all, of course) don’t want a major project, so making the improvements before you sell will help catch buyers’ attention and help you to sell quickly and for a higher purchase price. However, if you are not willing to make major improvements prior to selling, we can help suggest smaller tips and tricks to show the home’s potential. Vintage homes with great bones and desired floor plans are also in high demand.

Best tips for buyers?

Contacting us months before you think you want to buy is best. When we work with first-time buyers (or any buyer) we want them to be as strong as possible so when we find the house they love and go to write an offer, they are fully capable and ready to go. This allows our buyers to come across stronger than competing buyers, and can even help them to save money due to being well organized and well qualified with our team of professionals — especially in multiple-offer situations.

Best tips for sellers?

Preparation is key to getting your home sold fast and for top value. Getting us in your home to assess it and give you a value sooner is better. In many cases, we may be able to advise on improvements in your home to increase its value before you sell.

What are some advantages of working with The Oertel Group?

Our full-service concierge approach allows us to fully manage the process for our clients. We help sellers with small projects like painting, decluttering, and staging, as well as larger ones like updating a bathroom or kitchen to substantially increase the home’s value before going to market. [By the way, Centered by Design has a fantastic guide to renovating your kitchen — check it out here.] We can even pay for the improvements upfront to take the hassle and stress out of our clients’ hands. Once your home is ready to market with us, the fun part begins with professional, Instagram-worthy photography, drone videos and virtual walk-throughs. Making sure your home and its unique characteristics are represented properly and put in front of the right audience is so important.

Can you share a few of your featured listings?

395 N Green Bay, Lake Forest

Luxury living doesn’t get any better than Two Gables (above), a fully renovated North Shore home with custom vintage design.

2414 W Erie, Chicago

This custom new-construction home is situated in Chicago’s coveted West Town neighborhood and is ready for a kitchen makeover.

For more, follow @theoertelgroup on Instagram. Questions? Email

Shanley Henry
Jameson Sotheby’s International Realty

What impact has Covid had on the real estate market in Chicago?

A lot of families that had a move to the suburbs in their five-year plan have moved that up and are leaving the city now, so the suburbs have seen a lot more activity than they have in decades. But the city market has still been very strong with younger buyers becoming more eager to own their first home and wanting to stay in the city.

Due to Covid, buyers are making decisions much faster. Typically, my buyers see anywhere from five to 20 or more homes before making a decision. In 2020, I didn’t have any buyer see more than 10, and most made a decision after seeing six or fewer places.

Also, Covid has impacted interest rates. They are at historical lows, which has helped bring a lot of buyers to the market. Even though buyers may not get a “deal” in this market, when you look at the interest rates, you’ll be spending less than when prices may fall, but interest rates go back up by a half percent or more.

What are buyers looking for in a home these days? 

Buyers want move-in ready homes, outdoor space, and a place to work from home. A lot of buyers do not want to do work; even minor things like changing cabinet colors, can turn off buyers. Outdoor space has always been important, but with Covid it’s almost a non-negotiable — and the same with a space for a home office. It doesn’t necessarily need to be its own room, but having a den or a nook area for a desk is very important to buyers right now.

Can you share a few tips for navigating the spring home search season?

We’ve been seeing spring buying season inch up each year and this year it looks like it will start very early.  Usually we real estate agents say spring market kicks off (no pun intended) after the Super Bowl, but this year I think it will get busy in January. Covid has made a lot of people question where they live and either look to improve the space they have or look for a new one. And with limited distractions (people not going on vacations, traveling during the holidays, etc.) there’s a lot of time for home shopping.

If you’re thinking of buying this year, it’s time to talk to a real estate agent and a lender. Your agent will help guide you through the process and can recommend a trusted lender. The lender will help you figure out how much money you can spend and what that will look like in terms of monthly payments. Even if you’re still a ways out from buying, it’s still a good idea to get in touch with your lender because you can get started on improving your financial situation — meaning the amount of money you may qualify to borrow and the rate you can get.

Best tips for buyers?

Decide what your must-haves are and what are nice-to-haves. I always tell my buyers to focus on things that cannot be changed or are very hard to change, like location and the bones of a home. Things like paint colors, light fixtures, and flooring can all be swapped out to make the home your own. Also, if you are willing to do some work, you will have a lot more options. Many buyers want move-in ready, so homes with updated kitchens and baths tend to go quickly. If you’re willing to redo a kitchen you will pay less, create a space you really love, and put some value into the home right from the start.

Buyers should also get pre-approved with a lender. It looks like it will be a very busy market, which means it will be competitive. You can’t wait until after you find a home to get pre-approved, as there’s a very good chance the home will be gone.

Best tips for sellers?

Get your home ready now. The buyers are out there looking early, and you want to take advantage of that. A lot of sellers wait until the more traditional spring market, but I think sellers who are ready to list early will have a lot of activity without the same competition of other homes on the market.

Start doing any work you need to do before listing. Although there are a lot of buyers looking, they’re not willing to compromise on a space they don’t like. Even smaller projects like painting and swapping light fixtures can have a huge impact on how your home looks. Also declutter, declutter, declutter. Put things in storage if you need to; it’s crucial to have minimal clutter (kids’ toys, extra furniture, etc.) so buyers can really get a feel for your home and how they would live in it.

Can you share a featured listing?

2145 N Racine, Chicago

This gorgeous two-bed, two-bath condo has an extra-wide layout and tons of natural light.

For more, follow @shanley-henry on Instagram and Facebook. Questions? Email

Hayley Westoff
CompassMacPherson Westhoff

What impact has Covid had on the real estate market in Chicago?

Covid has actually stimulated the market. Being stuck inside your home during lockdown with lots of time to think has made people across the nation realize they want to upgrade their home to something with more space, more outdoor areas, and more updates. Larger properties with all of those things have thrived during Covid. Unfortunately, smaller properties with less than three bedrooms or no outdoor space, and high-rise properties have gone in the opposite direction as the demand for them is at an all-time low.

Can you share a few tips for navigating the spring home search season?

Work with an agent who has access to all of the off-market networks. The market is going to be competitive, so getting in before others is key! Second, buyers should look for the bones, not the shiny finishes of a home — as there will always be more competition for those. Find the property with the best bones in the best location that needs work and put some sweat equity into it. Finally, do your homework now so you are ready to act fast. Some properties will sell the first day on the market, so be prepared and feel confident about what you want going into spring.

Best tips for sellers?

Do cost-effective renovations. They’re more important now than ever with Covid, as buyers don’t want people in their homes and are craving updated spaces after being cooped up in a home they are dying to upgrade. Also, be realistic with price. Overpricing will end up hurting your sales price in the end. You should capitalize on this market that will be active and buyers’ sense of urgency, but not so much so that after that “new listing” honeymoon period is over and your home becomes a stale listing. Take care to spruce up your outdoor spaces, too.  Properties that have appealing areas outdoors are red-hot .

Can you share a featured listing?

2721 N Southport Ave, Chicago

A gorgeous, spacious kitchen with quartz countertops and wine fridge is a highlight of this 4-bed, 2.5-bath duplex in Lincoln Park.

For more, follow @hayleywestoff_realtor on Instagram. Questions? Email

Are you looking to get your home ready to sell in 2021? Or perhaps you just purchased a new home and are needing interior design to make it your own? Centered by Design can help! Contact us here to share more about your project.

Our Top Home Design Trends for 2021

As we close the tumultuous chapter that was 2020, it’s exciting to look ahead to a new year, full of opportunity and fresh starts. We’re already planning projects and looking at what home design trends will be top of mind — but not before reflecting on what we loved about styles this year. Here, a look back at three trends we loved, and three we’re looking forward to.

3 Design Trends We Loved in 2020

These aren’t going anywhere, either! Expect to see more in 2021.

Home Design Trends for 2021

Wood Kitchens

While classic white cabinets will never go out of style, people are starting to go much warmer with color — think taupe and greige. We’ve seen homeowners being open to both light and dark woods again, but in a modern way. Forget the ’90s cherry; for 2021, it’s all about beautiful oak and walnut stained in a way to make them feel very natural.

If you’re thinking about going for wood cabinets, it’s important to keep the profile in mind. Wood cabinets can look dated if you go for a traditional profile. The biggest trend for the past decade has been shaker (with a recessed center panel), often painted white. Doing a flat front door can be gorgeous in wood, because it allows you to see the intricate grain of the piece. (Also, it’s worth noting: Wood cabinets typically are more expensive than painted ones because you’re using solid wood instead of a filler panel.)

Home Design Trends for 2021

Floral Wallpapers

At Centered by Design, we’ve long been a fan of floral wallpaper (here’s our guide to the best places to buy wallpaper). A modern take on a classic, almost everyone responds well to it — largely because there’s so much variety, with florals available in every scale, type and color from so many different makers. Complementing all the florals we’re seeing in fashion now, floral wallpaper has a certain romantic quality that can add a feminine feel to any room. We expect this trend of all floral, all the time, to continue steadily throughout 2021.

Home Design Trends for 2021

Fluted Decorative Detail

Also known as tambour, this type of fluted decorative detail first popular in the ‘80s (remember the appliance garage?) is showing up everywhere from cabinets to walls and furniture. Similar to reeding, it has an almost Art Deco vibe thanks to the way it appears to “roll.” With a look similar to beadboard, it can add texture and movement to almost anything.

3 Design Trend Predictions for 2021

It’s all about making your home a more enjoyable, comfortable and beautiful place to be.

Focus on the Home Office

With so many now working from home, people are looking to create a very separate work space that also feels a little luxurious. When you’re unable to go anywhere, your surroundings make a bigger difference — so we’re starting to see more investment in home offices, with high-end details like wall paneling, luxe carpet and fancy lighting. You don’t have to dedicate an entire room to a home office, though — just use whatever you have, even if that takes the form of clearing a large closet. Skip the office furniture and opt for beautiful, smaller-profile pieces that allow you to carve out a sacred space to work separate from your personal space.

Home Design Trends for 2021

Mini Flush Mounts

This can be a love-it or hate-it type of look, but we’re excited about the concept of using tiny flush mounts instead of can lighting, most commonly in kitchens and hallways. We see design moving away from minimalism and getting more decorative, and these mounts are just another way to add a level of design interest. (By the way, we love them!)

Curvy Design

Another trend that harkens back to the ’80s is the idea of curved doorways, furniture and cabinet profiles. Instead of just doing a typical square opening, for example, we’re seeing more homeowners opt for a version of an arch. This is a softer approach to design that has European roots as well. In fact, our team just did our first curved island — picture a standard rectangular island, but with clipped corners. We see this shapely trend continuing to gain steam in the new year. (Fun fact: Our favorite Lulu and Georgia also named arches and curves as a trend in 2020!)

Now, Tell Us…

What trends are you seeing for 2021? It’s interesting to look back and reflect on home design trend predictions from this time last year, such as this one. You can also read more trend predictions for the year ahead from here and here.

For even more design inspiration, see our list of favorite interior design books. You can’t go wrong with these, which skip trends and help you curate a classic look for your home.

We’d love to help you with your home design projects in 2021. Get in touch and tell us about your plans!

Decorating Your Home for the Holidays!


One of the most beautiful things about decorating for the holidays is all the ways you can bring the outdoors in. From Christmas trees to poinsettias to mistletoe and eucalyptus garland, decorating with live plants is a lovely way to bring the holiday spirit into your home. One of our favorite ways to feel festive is to hang fresh holiday garland from a bannister, mantel or mirror. We tapped our friend Tara Guenther, owner of the Chicago floral shop Taxaflora, to answer all your questions on how to make a fresh holiday garland of your own.

holiday garland

What should I look for in a fresh holiday garland?

The main types of greens that are available in garland form are cedar, pine, magnolia, olive and eucalyptus. You can find these at a local garden center or a big-box store (like Lowe’s or Costco), or pre-order them from a florist. Here, a few online options that sell live garland, too (check shipping times before ordering):

How do I calculate how much garland I need?

Measure the length of your banister or your mantel (or whatever you’re aiming to hang the garland on). Then, calculate 1.5 times that dimension. For example, a 6-foot mantel multiplied by 1.5 would mean you need 9 feet of garland.

holiday garland 

What materials do I need to hang a fresh garland?

The main way to hang a fresh garland is zip ties, but you can also use strong fishing line. (Avoid wire, as it can scratch finishes.) Then, after you’re done hanging, you can add embellishment with extras like satin ribbon, or silk if you want a luxurious touch.

How do I keep fresh garland looking fresh for the whole month of December?

Lightly mist it with a spray bottle every day. It sounds obvious, but don’t hang a garland right above direct heat. A fresh garland hung above a wood-burning fireplace really doesn’t stand a chance of surviving (and is a fire hazard, too).

What are some unexpected spots to place a fresh garland?

If you have a bay window or a side table in a foyer, those can both be lovely spots. Layer them with holiday plants to create depth for an eye-catching display.

holiday garland

Can you tell us more about Taxaflora?

I’ve been drawn to flowers since I was young, starting out making my own bouquets with flowers from my mom’s garden. After managing a floral shop in downtown Chicago for a few years, I realized I wanted to start my own company. I opened Taxaflora in Logan Square in 2018. Online, I offer a few holiday items that can be shipped, like wreaths. For local Chicagoans, I also offer private classes on how to make your own fresh evergreen wreath.

More of our favorite holiday decorating resources

Hanging fresh garland is an easy and beautiful way to start decorating your home for the holidays. But don’t stop there! From traditional (think wreaths with bows in every window) to modern (a few simple candles on the mantel), there are holiday decorating ideas to suit every taste. You don’t have to turn your home into a scene from a Hallmark Christmas movie, filled with kitsch and all the red and green, either. (Although, don’t get us wrong — we love a good predictable holiday flick). Here, a few of our favorite roundups lately to inspire your holiday decorating:

From all of us at Centered by Design, we’re wishing you a very merry holiday season and a cheerier 2021! (By the way, don’t miss our 2020 Gift Guide.) Contact us here to tell us about what projects you’d like to do next year and learn how we can help.

Holiday Gift Guide 2020

The holidays are always a special time. But after a year like we’ve had, we’ll all cherish the coming weeks more than ever, no doubt. This year, the Centered by Design team has put together a décor-focused interior designer gift guide to share with you.

On top of all the decorations and lights and celebrations, I always love the holidays because of how much I enjoy buying gifts for people. Gifts are such a personal, nice way to show loved ones how much you care about them. I think a lot of people get nervous about buying décor for someone else because they’re worried it won’t “go” with their home or fit their style. That’s why each piece we’ve curated here is meant to be classic and timeless — and to fit perfectly into anyone’s space.

And if you still can’t decide for the choosiest loved ones on your list, you can’t go wrong with a book. We’ve included some of our favorite selections below for the Entertainer, the Decorator and the Art Lover.


For the Entertainer

interior designer gift guide 1 Glo Linen Placemat, $29, ABC Carpet & Home 
A set of these neutral placemats makes an elegant table setting you can dress up or down.

2 Itza Wood Gathering Tray, $98, Bloomist
Whether it’s used to wrangle keys, cell phones and masks or added on top of an ottoman with a vase of flowers, this simple tray is always chic.

3 Color Key Rectangular Tray, $84, Jayson Home
This multicolored tray is pretty enough to stand on its own or gather odds and ends on an entryway table.

4 Beldi Glass Collection, $5-$34, Jayson Home
We love these multifunctional pieces, which can be used as decor or actual servingware.

5 Key Bottle Opener, $48, Jayson Home
Jazz up your wine ritual with this snazzy opener that’s sophisticated enough to leave out on the bar.

6 “Barefoot Contessa Parties,” $23, Amazon
You can never go wrong with Ina Garten, the woman who gifted us all giant cosmopolitans during quarantine.

Wood Gathering Tray from Bloomist

For the Decorator

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Meet Our Design Team!

November 17, 2020 Interior Design, Interviews 1 Comment
Chicago interior design firm

You know the old adage, “it takes a village”? Not only about raising children, this holds true at Centered by Design, too. Far from a one-woman business, I have to hand it to my amazing team that helps to make our Chicago interior design firm a success. I truly could not do what I do without this crew, who inspire both our clients and me every single day. We thought it would be fun to get a little personal today and share more about who we are, how we got here and what makes our design-loving hearts flutter.

Claire Staszak

Title: Principal, Owner and Creative Director

Chicago interior design firm

What I actually do: As a small team, we all wear a lot of hats! I consider myself part entrepreneur, part creative director and part personal renovation coach at our Chicago interior design firm.

Where I grew up: North Shore of Chicago

Education: BA in psychology and journalism from University of Dayton; certificate in kitchen and bath design from Harper College; and several years in the business learning the ropes (this is where the real lessons are learned!).

How I got into interior design: In my late 20s, I felt unsatisfied in various jobs I’d held. I worked in marketing and events for REI, and development and marketing for a local art center called Lillstreet. Long story short, my now-husband and I took a year sabbatical to live and travel in Australia and New Zealand. All the down time during our travels made me realize I was extremely creative and visual and that I wanted to be an entrepreneur/business owner. When we returned stateside, I went back to school and started this blog at the same time. Centered by Design naturally grew as I gained experience and eventually went out on my own.

Favorite color palette: I could never pick just one! One of my go-tos though is classic black and white; it looks good with a pop of any color. I’m also always drawn to blues, greens and pinks.

My personal design aesthetic: I like to think of Centered by Design as old souls creating timeless interiors, helping you find your personal sanctuary. We design based on the client and the architecture. I’m driven to help people determine how they want to live and what feels like sanctuary to them. Sanctuary is not reserved for the yoga studio or mountain top—we can derive a great sense of peace from our home. This can look colorful and bright to some clients, or neutral and soft to others. My aesthetic comes from training my eye over the years and understanding what does and does not work in a space. We also love millwork, antiques and designing spaces to not feel brand new.

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The Warwick Reno – Fall Home Tour 2020


Today I’m excited to share our fall home tour! But first, let’s talk about 2020. It goes without saying that this has been a really tough year for everyone. Now that we’re nearing the holiday season, I’m looking forward to what positivity and newness 2021 will bring.

This year was one of great hardship and change, but I’ve been looking for ways to find the silver linings— namely, more time with family and to think about how to design the best spaces to fit our lifestyle. Since we are all spending much more time at home lately, I decided we should update ours — a 1932 Tudor-style brick bungalow in Chicago — and bring some more happy patterns and colors into the house.

One of the things I was missing from our current design, I realized, was nature. Sure, we had greenery sprinkled throughout the rooms, but we live in the city, and it’s hard to get out and truly feel like you’re getting away from it all. So I decided to find ways to bring nature into our home instead to try to recreate some of those blissful, relaxed feelings I get from spending time outdoors.

fall home tour

I thought it would be fun to give you a peek at the updates we’ve made in 2020. While not a ton has changed since our last home tour — mainly, just the dining room and the playroom, with a few furniture swaps here and there — doing this made me remember how enjoyable it is to photograph your house every few years, if only to help you see it in a fresh light. One thing I discovered through this process: Redoing even a single room can give your entire home a lift.

See what I mean below — I hope these ideas inspire you!

Fall home tour

How We Updated Our Dining Room

Previously, our dining room was centered around casual elegance. I brought in blush, black and gold tones mixed with sophisticated patterns (Greek key and marble) to make the space interesting, but the walls were medium gray and I was craving more pattern and color. My goal in updating the dining room was to bring the outdoors in! And to also help it to feel more cohesive with the living room, which has touches of green already. Read more about my wallpaper choice here.

Fall home tour

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Willa’s Playroom Reveal


Today, we’re talking all about playroom design, and I’m going to take you behind the scenes in my daughter’s special room. The first thing to know about our playroom is that it wasn’t always a playroom! Originally, this space in the back of our house was my home office. Because it’s right off the kitchen, it became a natural place to have our daughter, Willa—who’s now two-and-a-half—play, as I can keep an eye on her while making breakfast, dinner, etc.

When we started calling it a playroom, though, we never really made any updates specifically for her. We’d just thrown a changing table and some shelving in, added a rug and tons of toys. It still had my office vibes and once we were stuck inside so much due to COVID, I wanted to remake this room into a happy space that felt more intentional for Willa. Take a look at the design board, below.


playroom design

Choosing a Playroom Color Scheme

Red is her favorite color, and I knew that her cousins already had a super-cute red kitchen from Pottery Barn (similar here) that we wanted to bring into the room. When I came across this wallpaper from Schumacher, called the Carly, it felt so happy and ’70s. It went great with the red theme, without being too red—almost a sophisticated yet playful take on the color. This was important because even though it’s no longer my office, I spend a lot of time in there, too, and wanted it to be a room that would be a pleasure to be in.

playroom design

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Our Greatest Hits: Wallcoverings

cole and sons fan wallpaper black+white

Not sure what to do with your blank walls? Wallpaper is a great place to start. It’s majorly back in style, and a far cry from your mother’s harvest apple border and stripes. Plus, the options available now are nearly limitless. In addition, the color palette set by wallpaper can help you pull other elements of your room together, resulting in a designer-worthy space that will bring joy and inspiration to your home.

Are you are looking for the best places to buy wallpaper, along with art, pillows, bedding and more? Check out Our Favorite Resources for Interior Decorating, where you’ll get details on more than 65 unique sources (with links!) to get that designer look in a range of interior styles.

12 Best Places to Buy Wallpaper

I often get asked about the best places to buy wallpaper and I’ve used a TON of it over the past few years. Today I’m sharing more than a dozen of my favorite sources with you. Below are my favorite spots to shop wallpaper and lots of links for more information. Happy pattern hunting!

My No. 1 piece of advice for wallpaper is to not be afraid of patterns! Do your research and spend time looking at and figuring out what types of patterns you love. The one you choose should ultimately be one that you want to spend a lot of time with. Even small spaces can benefit from a jolt of pattern and color (see these ideas from another favorite source Common Room).

If you’re nervous about committing to a wallpaper, or you are a renter you can try many of the peel-and-stick options available. My favorite source for peel-and-stick wallpaper is Chasing Paper.

If You Love New Traditional Style Try:

Cole & Son – Manufacturers of fine printed wallpapers since 1875.  The Cole & Son archive consists of approximately 1,800 block print designs, 350 screen print designs and a huge quantity of original drawings and wallpapers, representing all the styles from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. Amongst these are some of the most important historic wallpaper designs in the world. Cole & Son has provided wallpapers for many historic houses including Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament.

Centered by Design Portfolio, Cole & Son Feather Fan wallpaper

Centered by Design Portfolio, Cole & Son Feather Fan wallpaper

Morris & Co. – “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” —William Morris

Read all about artist, poet and figure of the Arts and Crafts movement, William Morris and his talented daughter May Morris in this blog post from last year on the launch of their latest collection.

Centered by Design Portfolio, Morris & Co. Pimpernel wallpaper

Centered by Design Portfolio, Morris & Co. Pimpernel wallpaper

Centered by Design Portfolio, Morris & Co. Pimpernel wallpaper

Centered by Design Portfolio, Morris & Co. Pimpernel wallpaper

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How to Update a Kitchen Without a Total Gut Rehab

North Shore kitchen, after - Centered by Design

A major kitchen renovation usually means a major investment. While a brand-new kitchen designed to fit your family’s lifestyle is a wonderful addition to your home (and a good return on investment should you decide to sell), you can also update a kitchen to improve the look, feel and functionality of your existing one.

Especially while homeowners might be feeling a little more budget-conscious right now, in the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, updating your kitchen without a total gut rehab is a smart thing to do. It might cost half (or less!) of what an entirely new kitchen would be, and the results can be seriously impressive.

How do you know if a kitchen update, versus a renovation, is right for you? The key is in the layout. If you feel like your kitchen floor plan is already good and functions well for you—and if you have good quality cabinets, as well—then there are many updates you can do to create a fresh new kitchen.

Here, I’ll walk you through nine ways to update your kitchen working with a smaller budget and an interior design mindset to help you get your dream space.

butler's pantry

Vintage Cutch Colonial, Centered by Design

Paint your cabinets.

This is the No. 1 high-impact update. I recommend you hire a professional to do this, and get referrals, as cabinet painting is different than regular painting (and not every painter offers this service). You want to look for someone who specializes in cabinetry and millwork—ask friends and family for referrals. Painting cabinets works best when you already have solid-wood, high-quality cabinets and you’re planning to keep them for another 5-10 years or so. (Note: Don’t try this if your cabinets are particle board or MDF.)

Do strategic cabinet surgery.

I’d strongly recommend working with an interior designer or a cabinet-specific showroom or builder on this update, as it’s usually not something a homeowner can do on their own (unless you’re a skilled carpenter!). Think of cabinet surgery as a way to go beyond painting to change the functionality of your kitchen by making tweaks to your existing cabinet footprint (i.e., hanging doors on open shelving, or vice versa) that will work better for your needs.

North Shore kitchen, before

North Shore kitchen, before

North Shore kitchen, after - Centered by Design

North Shore kitchen, after – Centered by Design

Remodel (or add) an island.

An island can really change the feel of your kitchen. If the perimeter of your kitchen is working well for you, then thinking about changing your island in some way—whether that’s painting, adding a different top or doing a form of cabinet surgery on any shelves or cabinets—can freshen up the space. It’s less costly than replacing your cabinets, too.

Below you can see two different applications for changing your kitchen island. In the North Shore kitchen (with the blue island) we painted, re-stained the butcher block and added new hardware. The all wood kitchen needed a new island and we choose to design something new and more modern, but that fit within the existing space and layout.

North Shore kitchen, Centered by Design

North Shore kitchen, Centered by Design

North Chicago kitchen, before

Lincoln Square Kitchen – before, Centered by Design

North Shore kitchen, Centered by Design

Lincoln Square Kitchen – after, Centered by Design

Get new appliances.

Appliances are very personal—what works best for you depends heavily on how (and how often) you like to use them. In many kitchen renovations, appliances are chosen first and the kitchen is designed around the appliance list. But if you’re thinking about replacing an appliance, whether due to age or functionality, it’s may also a good time to update your kitchen. This way, you can consider the appliances you really need or want and how to make that work in your space, versus trying to find a new appliance to fit in your existing space.

Lincoln Park Kitchen, Centered by Design

Install new countertops.

Another super high-impact, big change that will give you a good return on investment if you sell is installing new countertops. Almost everyone these days wants quartz countertops, which is a man-made material that’s very stain resistant. It may cost you anywhere from $5,000-$15,000, so you’ll need to have a larger budget to consider this update. But again, it’s going to make a huge difference in your kitchen.

Change the backsplash.

This is a project that could be done in a long weekend, and you might even be able to DIY it. The backsplash is a great spot to add pattern and color to an otherwise-neutral kitchen, too. If you don’t know what you’re doing or don’t feel confident you’ll be able to get professional results on your own, hire an installer.

Switch out your hardware.

The easiest kitchen update you can do, switching out your hardware can be done in a day if you plan ahead. You may not realize just how many knobs and pulls are in your kitchen until you look into making this update. I always say to count three times and make a drawing so you’ll be sure you buy the right amount for what goes where! (Find more detailed instructions on how to count your hardware in our Insider’s Guide to Kitchen Design.) Be sure to do your research on what you’re looking for and determine your price range. You can find great hardware at Home Depot, or you can spend tons of money on luxury hardware. It all comes down to the look you’re after, hardware can be a great place to save or to splurge!

North Chicago kitchen, after

North Chicago kitchen, after

Replace your vent hood.

If you have a kitchen where the hood can be changed, that can be a great visual improvement, as a hood can act like a centerpiece of the space. This is something that will require the help of a contractor or a handyman, because it’s not as simple as just replacing the hood itself—you’ll need someone who understands all the pieces that make it work, including the blower and the liner, plus how it vents! You might want to work closely with your appliance vendor to understand what you need functionally in your kitchen while transforming the look of it. (Of note: If you have a microwave over your range, it’s often in a cabinet and it can be more complicated to “swap” to a hood design). It really depends on the upper cabinet layout. Consult a professional on this one!

North Shore kitchen, before

North Shore kitchen, before

North Shore kitchen, after - Centered by Design

North Shore kitchen, after – Centered by Design

Swap out lighting.

Lighting can really make a statement in your kitchen, and it’s so easy to switch out if you already have the electrical in place. You can swap out pendants or decorative fixtures pretty simply on your own, but if you’re doing a bigger overhaul (i.e., adding or reducing lighting), you’ll need to work with a designer or good electrician to put together what’s called a “reflected ceiling plan,” which will show the placement of all light fixtures. Be sure to check the temperature of your bulbs when you’re replacing fixtures, as well. I like to use 2700K bulbs, which mimic natural daylight. If bulbs are too warm or too cool, it can throw off the vibe in your space.

We love to play with scale when thinking about lighting. Sometimes going big or going small on purpose helps create an interesting design. There is no perfect size for lighting, but I think these tips from Circa Lighting are really helpful.

Lincoln Park Kitchen, Centered by Design

Cover of Insider's Guide to Kitchen Renovation Questions

If you want even more in-depth tips on how to update your kitchen without a total gut rehab, take a look at our Insider’s Guide to Kitchen Design. This 50-page PDF is packed with advice and all the answers to your questions about kitchen renovations from an interior designer, and will walk you through the kitchen renovation process, step by step. Get a copy here.

Your Kitchen Renovation Questions, Answered in Our New PDF Series

At Centered by Design, we’re big believers that interior design—including all those kitchen renovation questions you might have—doesn’t have to be complicated. And even if hiring an interior designer isn’t in the budget for you right now (or perhaps you just really love to DIY), you should have access to tools and resources that can help make your home—and your life—more beautiful. That’s why we’re thrilled to announce the launch of a big project we’ve been working on: Designer Advice Made Simple.

White kitchen

What is Designer Advice Made Simple?

A collection of thoughtful, educational PDFs (plus interviews with industry pros and an accompanying IGTV video series), Designer Advice Made Simple is all about equipping you with the expertise you need for improving your home, from style guidance to practical advice on renovations. We developed this series to help answer many of the most common questions we get when working with homeowners on renovations and interior decorating, drawing on our depth of experience in the Chicago interior design world. 

butler's pantry

Who is Designer Advice Made Simple for?

If you don’t have hours to spend on the Internet researching questions about a kitchen renovation and want the help of an interior designer—at a fraction of the price—these PDFs are for you. The advice we’re providing through Designer Advice Made Simple is all-encompassing, designed to help homeowners in any stage of life envision and execute the look of their dream home. Our hope is that novice decorators, or anyone doing a kitchen renovation, will find valuable insights in these PDFs.

bedroom with gray nightstand

What does Designer Advice Made Simple cover?

Our largest, most comprehensive PDF is all about kitchen design, one of our favorite areas of expertise. In the Insider’s Guide to Kitchen Design, you’ll get 50 pages packed with interior designer advice on renovating your kitchen, from planning and budgeting to construction and the finishing touches.

We’ve laid out this PDF in a way that feels friendly and accessible, like you’re learning from a friend who happens to be an interior designer. We believe that design shouldn’t feel overwhelming or stressful, but curated, personal and fun—and this PDF will walk you through it, step-by-step, to help make the process of renovating your kitchen enjoyable, and the results just what you dreamed of.

Cover of Insider's Guide to Kitchen Renovation Questions

Already have your perfect kitchen? That’s excellent! We have more resources that might be helpful to you in other areas of your home. For example:

Our Favorite Resources for Interior Decorating

Stop scrolling Pinterest endlessly when you learn interior designers’ favorite sources for sourcing wallpaper, art, pillows, lighting, bedding and more in this must-have guide. Included in this PDF are more than 65 resources—at varying price points and styles—to get a designer look throughout your home.

favorite interior designer resources

Insider’s Guide to Decorating with Color

We’re all staying at home more than ever. If your neutral walls are feeling less than inspiring lately, turn to this PDF guide for an interior designer’s paint color recommendations for every type of room—plus an explanation on paint sheens and how color can transform the feel of a room.

guide to decorating with color

Insider’s Guide to Decorating with Window Treatments

Windows can feel like a blank canvas—and also overwhelm when it comes to decorating. If you’re stumped on drapery styles, Roman shades and pleating (to name a few), these PDFs will demystify window treatments and help you to find the best style for your room, as well as provide tips on installation.

decorating with window treatments

You can shop the full collection of our PDF design guides here

Want to learn more about why Centered by Design is a top resource for kitchen design and renovation? Check out this post from DIY Playbook, who we recently worked with on a top-to-bottom kitchen redesign. You can also get more free kitchen advice by tuning into this Q&A on DIY Playbook’s Instagram with our founder and owner, Claire Staszak.