A Day Full of Sunsets

I thoroughly enjoy being a professional kitchen designer!  It allows me to use my artistic skills to create beautiful designs and my analytical skills to make sure everything installs properly and functions flawlessly for my clients. The smile of a happy client and the ongoing referral to their friends and family is something that I find very rewarding.

One of the keys to being able to do the job effectively is to thoroughly understand the design of the appliances on the market. Such a solid understanding allows me to make sure I can design around them such that they function as intended and fit seamlessly into the kitchen design. As a way to stay current on appliance design, I often participate in programs sponsored by the various appliance manufacturers. As you might imagine, some of these can be quite dry but occasionally an opportunity comes along that I look forward to with great anticipation. Such was the case  when my day job afforded me the opportunity to take a tour of the operations at the Sunset Publishing headquarters with the team from General Electric. There would be an opportunity to sample from the Sunset wine cellar, cook in the Sunset test kitchen, stroll through the Sunset test gardens and learn from the GE and Sunset teams. I wasn’t about to say ‘no’ to that!

For those of you that live (or have lived out west), you will know that Sunset magazine is a wonderful collection of all things great in the western states related to travel, home, garden, food and drink. It is a magazine that is right up my alley. It brings me wonderful articles about so many of things that I am interested in and about which I write in this blog and on my other blog – CatTail Creative. [Back when I lived in the Midwest, I thought the magazine was geared towards senior citizens. Boy, was I wrong!]

First Sunset Magazine Cover

First Sunset Magazine Cover

I arrived at Sunset Publishing’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California a few minutes early so I used the time to talk to Amy Olmsted (associate publisher) about the roots of Sunset magazine. As it turns out, it was founded in 1898 as what we would now call the ‘in-flight magazine’ for the Southern Pacific Railroad’s train, the Sunset Limited, which ran from New Orleans to San Francisco. The Sunset magazine was available on board and covered topics that would generate interest in all the wonderful things to do and see once the traveler got to the western states. In the 1920’s, the magazine was purchased by Lawrence Lane, former executive with ‘Better Homes and Gardens’, who reformatted the publication into something more in line with the format we know and love today. Since 1990, Sunset has been part of the Time Warner family and is still going strong.

Once the GE program began, we took a tour of the grounds. The gardens are laid out by western region with the southernmost part of the garden housing the plants found in the southwestern states. As you walk north, the plants evolve to those found in the Pacific northwest. It makes for a very nice way to ‘stroll up the coast’ and allows the Sunset photographers to occasionally use the grounds for a regional photo shoot without having to travel outside of the Bay area for the appropriate flora. Very clever!

In the Sunset Test Garden

In the Sunset Test Garden

Also out on the grounds is the infamous Sunset test garden where they try out the plants that they feature in the magazine as well as the occasional egg-laying chicken or honey bee colony.

The headquarters office itself was architected by Cliff May. Widely known as the father of the California ranch-style houses, it is no surprise that he designed a ranch-style office building complete with courtyards and beams. It is magnificently done right down to the original drinking fountains that still function throughout the building. Quite impressively, virtually every office space has both a window and access to the outdoors. Compared to the cube farms found in so many of today’s office buildings, if you have to go to an office to work every day, this is a great office space from which to work.

It may come as no surprise that I found the test kitchen fascinating.

In the Sunset Test Kitchen

In the Sunset Test Kitchen

The food editor explained to us that all the recipes presented in Sunset go through testing in the test kitchen by serious home cooks, not professionals. The test kitchen has stations that allow all the recipes to be tested on both gas and electric equipment to make sure the recipes work regardless of what type of equipment we all have to work with at home. In order to accomplish this, the test kitchen is laid out with four mini-kitchens in the space with each mini-kitchen having all the necessary appliances needed to make any meal. From this description, you might expect the test kitchen to be a restaurant-grade sea of stainless steel but it isn’t. It is designed to be a home-like space that puts the home cooks at ease. Complete with warm wood cabinetry and clean lines, it is both functional and beautiful. I don’t know who the actual kitchen designer was who developed the space plan but kudos to whomever it was. The job was well done!

While in the test kitchen, I got the opportunity to put the goat cheese crumbles on the quail and brussels sprouts dish that the GE chefs demonstrated for us on the GE appliances found throughout the Sunset test kitchen.  After enjoying that dish, we headed in small groups to the underground wine cellar for a chance to try some of this year’s Sunset Wine Competition winners with Wine Editor, Sara Schneider. [Imagine having a job where you have your own wine cellar at the office and wineries send you all sorts of bottles to sample. Not bad.] A glass of Benzinger’s 2010 Tribute was a perfect cap to a perfect program…as was the bottle of Au Bon Climat pinot noir that we each got to take home.

Thanks so much to GE, Sunset, Amy, Sara and the whole team who hosted us for a delightful visit. If you find yourself in the Menlo Park, California area, the Sunset gardens are open to the public for a self-guided walking tour. You won’t get the opportunity to cook in the test kitchen or drink in the wine cellar but the architecture of the headquarters and the stroll in the garden is worth the stop. You might want to bring your resume along as well. Who wouldn’t want to work in this delightful environment…and then you could cook in the test kitchen and drink in the wine cellar every work day. Sweet! ;-)

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Pretty and Practical

Being degreed both as an engineer and an interior designer, one of the things I often tell clients about my work is that I focus on making everything I design both beautiful and functional. You can only imagine therefore how happy I was to see a kitchen pantry that I designed a few years back show up in today’s Houzz article, “Photoflip: 80 Pretty and Practical Pantries“. With over 7 million photos to choose from in their database, the fact that they selected one of my photos to be included in their collection of 80 examples makes me feel quite honored.

Kitchen that Includes the Pantry Featured on Houzz.com

Kitchen that Includes the Pantry Featured on Houzz.com

Take your own flip through the article for some nice design ideas specific to pantries. The one from Project Partners Design is #56. In the actual kitchen that includes this pantry, it sits behind a full-height glass door so it had to keep up appearances with the rest of the kitchen. Designed in collaboration with the homeowner and Elizabeth Hill of Selby House Ltd, it has always been one of my personal favorites as well.

Thanks Houzz.com!

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The Easiest Path to (dis)Function

For the past sixteen years, I have had the pleasure of doing what is, for me, a dream job – designing and implementing beautiful and functional kitchens and baths. You might think I have seen it all but I can still say that each project brings something new.

Transitional KitchenOn a recent photo shoot of a kitchen remodel completed earlier this year, I had the opportunity to look inside the cabinets to see how the homeowners were using the many convenience options that we designed into their new space. Now usually when I peak inside, it becomes very obvious why we put on doors and drawer heads…to hide the clutter! I avoid photographing any of these function-improving features because, well, even though they work well, they just don’t make for great photos. But in this case, every drawer was lined with shelf paper that coordinated beautifully with the materials we chose for the kitchen and every kitchen gadget was neatly arranged.

This isn’t a ‘show’ kitchen by any means; these people are gourmets and they love to cook – they just do it in a beautifully organized manner. It didn’t take long before I had asked permission to photograph inside the cabinets so you could see some of the key convenience options in use that make a well-designed kitchen function flawlessly.


Roll-Outs – In my opinion, this is probably the single-most important feature to put into a kitchen design.Roll Outs For any cabinet that isn’t all drawers, there should be adjustable roll-outs behind the doors. This provides access to every inch of storage in the cabinet. No more lost items that work their way to the back only to be found when you go to move. And, by being fully adjustable, they often work even better than drawers because you can position them to fit the size of your stuff. See how even the big stock pots can work well on a roll-out?

Dog Food StorageDouble Waste – Ninety-five percent of all kitchens I design contain a double waste and ninety-nine percent of all homeowners put the trash in one and the recycling in the other. Occasionally though there is good reason to break that rule. Those other five percent use a single waste, or a trash compactor, or have a ktichen so close to another area where they put the recycling that the double waste isn’t necessary.

This kitchen has a single waste and a built-in compost receptacle by the main sink. Another double waste is in use by the prep sink for recycling and the dog food – a neat and easy way to handle the kibble and the bits.

In-Counter Compost ReceptacleBlanco Solon Compost ReceptacleWhile this may not be as in demand everywhere as it is here in northern California, I suspect it may just be a matter of time. The ease of being able to dump the kitchen scraps, the coffee grounds, the melted ice from a finished beverage glass, paper scraps and anything else that eventually goes out to the garden is tremendous. With a flush-mounted lid in the counter top, there is no more ugly or smelly compost bin to sit on counter or under the sink. In my own home, Keystone and I agree that, after the roll-outs,  this may be the smartest feature we built-into our kitchen. It works great!

Knife BlockKnife Block – The big block that sat on-counter was quite the style years back but now it gets looked upon as just another bit of kitchen clutter we would rather hide from view. This is where the knife block in the drawer comes into play. All the blades are stored safely, are easily accessible and it doesn’t matter if your tools are a mélange of different makes, models and handle styles. With the counter top block, you had a large, one-time expenditure in a matching set. With a knife block in a drawer, you can acquire better tools by making your individual cutlery investments over time. Or doing like one friend does who receives one additional piece each year as a gift from Mom.

Spice Storage – Here we used a spice drawer where all the bottles sit angled in the drawer for easy access. Spice StorageThis approach works well although it does require the use of a particular-sized spice bottle to properly fit in the drawer. Often I prefer to put spices on the back of a door so they are at eye level and the bottle size isn’t critical to making things fit. But, in this kitchen, you may have noticed the aluminum-edged glass doors that are flanking the hood. This precluded me from putting the spices on the doors so the drawer become the next best choice. Good spice storage is key because, with those little bottles, out of sight can quickly become out of mind.


Whether it is one of the five options highlighted here, a special mechanism that allows access to a blind corner or a shallow drawer that allows the use of drawer space under a cook top, there is usually a ‘convenience option’ available that makes good use of every inch of storage space in a well-designed kitchen. While it may seem like eliminating these options is an easy way to cut costs when faced with the sticker shock of your dream remodel, that is the last thing I would recommend. It is these very options that will determine how well your dream kitchen will function (or not) for years to come. Invest wisely, my friends. ;-)

Shallow Drawer Beneath Cooktop


Materials Used in this Kitchen: Brookhaven cabinetry by Wood-Mode, Vista Veneer (perimeter), Matte Java on maple (perimeter). Edgemont Recessed (island), Matte Harbor Mist with Pewter Glaze on maple (island); Franke sinks; KWC faucets; GE Monogram cooktop, refrigerator, dishwasher, double ovens, warming drawer, wine cooler and trash compactor; Zephyr hood; JennAir microwave drawer; Blanco Solon compost basket; Caesarstone ‘Organic White’ counter (perimeter); Super White Quartzite counter (island); Artistic Tile ‘Green Crackled’ backsplash; Lumber Liquidators hardwood flooring; Top Knobs hardware

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Avoiding the Biggest Mistake

What is the single biggest mistake made in kitchen design? From my point of view, it isn’t going too trendy with the choice of materials or color. It isn’t using too big or too small of an island or mis-calculating the storage space or the countertop area required. It isn’t spending all of your budget on appliances such that there is nothing left to do the other important components of the design. While all of these can be poor decisions that I prefer to avoid, in my book, the single biggest faux pas is not designing the kitchen to be in keeping with the rest of the home.

You know it when you see it. You walk into a beautiful traditional home; possibly brick on the outside, shuttered windows, six-panel doors, hardwood floors, and crown in each room. It all flows wonderfully as you move from room to room and then you enter the kitchen. There before your eyes is an ultra-modern kitchen inspired by the latest in commercial, restaurant spaces. They spent a small fortune on the stainless appliances and the euro-cabinets and the glass tiles and the streamlined fixtures, but something is just not like the other rooms and not in a good way. It just doesn’t feel like it belongs with the rest of the home.

Now, I am not saying you can’t put modern elements in the kitchen of a traditional home nor am I saying that traditional elements can’t go in a contemporary dwelling. Absolutely it can be done but there needs to be some degree of transition to make it all work as a cohesive whole.

Kitchen Before M1_Project Partners DesignSeveral years ago, I worked with a client who understood this completely. I entered her home and she gave me a tour…ending with the kitchen. At which point she turned to me and said, “Which room here is not like the others?”. The obvious answer was the kitchen. She had remodeled and decorated every other room in the house with a comfortable, transitional vibe but the kitchen was still “builder traditional” – the arched-door cabinets with no trim details, no eye candy in the form of a nice backsplash, no attractive focal point (the white microwave is not my definition of pleasing to the eye), and the island achieved on the cheap by the builder simply installing an over-sized piece of stone atop a cabinet to yield an overhang and a knee space. It functions but that’s about all it has going for it.

M1 KitchenBy stealing about two feet of space from an office behind the kitchen, I rearranged this kitchen to function, make a statement and be consistent with the decor of the other rooms in the home. Now when you enter the room from the front of the house, the custom hood stands out and in a pleasing way! The touches of frosted glass lighten the look of the dark wood and add visual interest as your eye moves around the room. The wet bar hides beautifully behind the big doors with the circular handles yet seems to belong next to the large, circular wall art of the family room off to the right. And, while the kitchen certainly has a contemporary flavor, the use of crown and other traditional details allows it to work in a traditional home.McGrory Kitchen

The result is that the kitchen now looks to be part of the design of the rest of the home rather than the odd man out. Quite a change from where we started!





If you are interested in the selections and the names of the other trade partners on this job, refer to the project on my Houzz.com portfolio. Any of the details that I have on record are recorded there.





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A Pleasant Surprise

Generally, I am not a big fan of surprises. I am just too much of an organized planner to go with the flow unless it is part of my PLAN to go with the flow! ;-)

Summer, 2014 Issue

Summer, 2014 Issue

Recently, though, a pleasant surprise showed up in the form of the latest issue of Better Homes and Gardens Special Interest Publication, “Beautiful Kitchens & Baths”, summer 2014. The magazine arrived inside a white envelope from Meredith Publishing rather than just a loose issue in my mail box. I wasn’t at all sure why I was receiving this special issue but I am a sucker for a good kitchen and bath magazine so I started flipping through. When I got to page 92, it all became clear! There was a beautiful full-page photo of a master bathroom I designed for a Chicago-based client a few years back. Over the next six pages was a nice article complete with quotes and designer insights I had given the field editor shortly after we completed the job.

How nice of the publisher to send me a copy. Otherwise, I never would have known.

As my thank you to them, go pick up a copy for yourself. The issue is on newsstands through July 21st and is filled with great insights from many good designers. Or, here is a link to purchase a digital copy.

The article about 20 design trends that will stand the test of time is spot on in  my opinion!


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Finding Inspiration in the Strangest Places

A couple of weekends ago, I excitedly looked forward to attending an Edible Art exhibit in Oakland, California. Before you make the same assumption that Keystone did, this show was not about art you can eat but rather art about things that are edible.

I read a local magazine entitled ‘Edible East Bay‘ and it always includes such beautiful drawings to accompany their food-related stories – stylized mushrooms in intricate watercolor detail, linoleum block prints of vegetables, pencil sketches of seeds and sprouts and the like. This show was promoted as an opportunity to meet the artists and see some of their work. In my mind’s eye, I expected a large show with lots of art to look at and perhaps even a chance to spot the perfect piece or two for a client’s kitchen.

When we pulled up in front of the venue and it was a small, one story office building, I began to suspect this event wasn’t going to be as I had anticipated. Unfortunately, the show was a lot smaller than I was envisioning and the art itself was on the small side too (postcards and 8 x 10’s) so I came away with nothing except dashed hopes.

Metalwork Sparrow by Gunter Reimnitz

Metalwork Sparrow by Gunter Reimnitz

This past weekend, at the last minute, we decided to pay a visit to the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show. I went with a mission of figuring out a few native plant options for our front garden and figured that anything else we learned would be gravy. You can probably already guess that I came away unsuccessful on my original mission however at this show I was pleasantly surprised to find wonderful, high-quality art from watercolorists, tile artists, fabric designers and more.

The iron works by Gunter Reimnitz’s Abraxas Crow Company were superb in every detail.

The garden chairs re-purposed from propane tanks in landscape architect Logan Sowers’ vignette were amazingly comfortable. They would make a quirky addition to any contemporary garden.Propane Tank Furniture by PPD

An interesting art piece in one of the urban garden vignettes was made from garden hose set in a pattern and lit from inside. What a clever idea!

A bonsai exhibit that displayed miniaturized coastal redwoods and live oaks also included a section sponsored by the California Suiseki Society displaying a small section of stones from their collection that will be on display in Oakland this June. I learned that Suiseki is the Japanese art of stone appreciation. I always appreciate a beautiful graining pattern, color or sparkle in a stone countertop or backsplash, but this art form looks at stones that have been shaped by water, weather and wind to evoke thoughts of mountains, lakes, waterfalls, animals and more. Fascinating!

Art from a Garden Hose

Art from a Garden Hose

You just never know where you are going to find that next bit of inspiration. Even though I didn’t find that for which  I went looking, this year’s San Francisco Flower and Garden Show was a gold mine of design inspiration for me. I can’t wait until next year’s show!

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The Happiness of Being Hand-Picked

It is funny how a little bit of recognition always feels good regardless of what prompted it. This morning I opened my email to find a message that read as follows:

“You were hand-picked by one of our writers to be featured in an editorial ideabook on the homepage of Houzz.
I scratched my head and wondered why one of my design photos would accompany an article about relocating and then I saw what they did. They used that photo that I blogged about a few months back that is my most-popular photo in my portfolio showing a happy chocolate lab hanging out in the combination dog’s room/laundry room that I designed for a client a few years back. The happy dog in his happy home went well with the writer’s advice about handling pets when relocating. I guess free publicity is free publicity so I’ll take it!
And next time I go to photograph a completed design, I think I’ll incorporate more pets and kids in the photos. That seems to appeal! ;-)
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You won “Best of Houzz” 2014!

It is always nice to open your email and find a message that makes a nice start to your day. Being a design professional, when I opened my email earlier this week and found this lovely note from Houzz.com, it certainly put a smile on my face!
“Hi Project Partners Design and congratulations,
We’re writing to let you know that you’ve been voted by the Houzz community as a winner of our Best of Houzz 2014 awards! Your work won in the Customer Satisfaction category, which is based on reviews you received on Houzz in 2013, as well as other factors related to your profile. We have already placed a “Best of Houzz 2014” winner badge on your Houzz profile page. Congratulations and thank you for being part of the Houzz community. “
Thank you, Houzz! I appreciate the positive feedback and am honored to be a winner along with so many other talented professionals in the design field. I was honored to receive a Best of Houzz award in 2013 and continue to be grateful to my happy clients for taking the time to write a review of their positive experiences working with me and my firm. I couldn’t do it without them!
Below is the press release that came with the email. If you would like to know more about Houzz, the press release explains what they do in their own words and provides the links to their site. Thanks again, Houzz.com!

Best Of Houzz 2014 Award 

Annual Survey and Analysis of 16 Million Monthly Users

Reveals Top-Rated Building, Remodeling and Design Professionals 

[FREMONT, CA], February 4, 2014 – Project Partners Design of Fremont, CA has been awarded “Best Of Houzz” by Houzz, the leading platform for home remodeling and design. The 15-year-old kitchen and bath design firm operated by Theresa M Sterbis, AKBD, was chosen by the more than 16 million monthly users that comprise the Houzz community.

The Best Of Houzz award is given in two categories: Customer Satisfaction and Design. Customer Satisfaction honors are determined by a variety of factors, including the number and quality of client reviews a professional received in 2013. Design award winners’ work was the most popular among the more than 16 million monthly users on Houzz, known as “Houzzers,” who saved more than 230 million professional images of home interiors and exteriors to their personal ideabooks via the Houzz site, iPad/iPhoneapp and Androidapp. Winners will receive a “Best Of Houzz 2014” badge on their profiles, showing the Houzz community their commitment to excellence. These badges help homeowners identify popular and top-rated home professionals in every metro area on Houzz.

“Houzz provides homeowners with the most comprehensive view of home building, remodeling and design professionals, empowering them to find and hire the right professional to execute their vision,” said Liza Hausman, vice president of community for Houzz. “We’re delighted to recognize Theresa M Sterbis of Project Partners Design among our “Best Of” professionals for customer satisfaction as judged by our community of homeowners and design enthusiasts who are actively remodeling and decorating their homes.”

With Houzz, homeowners can identify not only the top-rated professionals like Theresa, but also those whose work matches their own aspirations for their home. Homeowners can also evaluate professionals by contacting them directly on the Houzz platform, asking questions about their work and reviewing their responses to questions from others in the Houzz community.

Follow Project Partners Design on Houzz. For more information, visit Houzz.com.

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It’s a Dog’s Life

Back in 2009, a couple who were frustrated with cutting and managing photo clippings for their home remodeling project came up with the idea of an on-line photo database for homeowners. They created the website www.Houzz.com. In just four years, the site has taken off and grown to the point that it now houses over two million photographs that have been downloaded into peoples’ ideabooks over 280 million times! There are over 2 million professionals from the home construction and remodeling trades who have their portfolios on Houzz. Since early 2012, I have been one of those design professionals. I have roughly 175 photos from my portfolio showing my work in 51 homes over the years.

I find it both informative and interesting to go through my on-line photos from time to time to see which ones get frequently downloaded and, based on peoples’ comments, see why they were downloaded. In this way, I learn and continue to grow as a designer. Reading comments in English, French, Dutch, Russian and more, I also find it fascinating how good design ideas translate. A good design idea is a good design idea the world over.

BrookhavenRecently I took a gander through my on-line photos and found it interesting that my number-one all-time most-downloaded photo is from a laundry room that I designed back in 2010. While there are lots of folks who like the folding area with open space below or the functionality of the room as a laundry and mud room space, a huge number of people have shared that photo because of what I did to incorporate the dog’s cage into the space. Comments show me that people have taken this idea and shared it to create special places not only for their own dog but also for their kitties and their litter boxes and even for their children with a secret play cubbie.

This makes me smile. While I know I have designed thousands of spaces that have made families happy over the years, I find it pretty rewarding to know that I have also brought comfort and happiness to their four-legged family members. Let’s keep those tails a-waggin’. ;-)

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Beauty is Only Skin Deep

How many times have you heard that old adage? While I rarely use these exact words in day-to-day conversation, I often find myself explaining to clients that my goal in any kitchen or bath design project is to not only make it look good in the short term but to have it last a lifetime. I don’t want the beauty in my designs to only be skin-deep; I want it to be built by people who do quality work on a foundation of fine craftsmanship that will last until they are ready for something different.

Recently, I completed remodeling a powder room in my own home. While we were at it, we made sure everything was up to code. So, it came as a great surprise when we started having a sewer issue a few weeks ago. It wasn’t pretty. What went down in the toilet came up in the garage stationary tub. How could that be? I called the plumber out to rod the line and when he tried he couldn’t do it. The snake went in but just hit a muddy dead end about 40 feet out. Hmmm.

Now a neighbor had told me that the previous owner had the sewer lines all replaced a few years before we bought the place so there really shouldn’t be any reason why they would be clogged. We put the camera down the line figuring we would identify where the powder room line joined up and see if we could see any problem. We all watched that camera go through the main line and I was pleased to see that the pipe was spotless…no sludge, no cracks, no roots. Exactly what you want to see in your sewer main EXCEPT we didn’t see any pipe that connected in from the powder room. Hmmm.

This meant it was time to do a little digging. We dug down at the point where the joint should have been only to find this…

Improperly Replaced Sewer Lines

Improperly Replaced Sewer Lines

Whoever had done the work for the previous owner only did half the job! They pulled new pipe through the main line but completely missed the secondary line. Whether this was accidental or intentional, I will never know. I don’t even know who did the work in order to make sure I avoid this contractor in the future.

All I can say is I have yet another demonstration of why you want to hire quality contractors and use quality materials. My powder room still has it’s beautiful new skin but, as you can see, it was only skin deep!

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