Manchester’s Karen Swanson has focused her professional career designing the one room that is now the undisputed center of the American home — the kitchen. Her company, New England Design Works, has tackled projects of all shapes and sizes, from Rockport to Boston. She says she focused on kitchen design because it brought together everything in her own life experience. Along the way, she’s received reputation for being the best. In fact, earlier this month she was named “Best Kitchen Designer” in Boston Magazine’s 2020 Best of Boston Home. In this Q&A, Swanson shares her nonlinear journey to kitchen design, her advice for home projects and describes the rewarding process of working through challenging designs.
You just won Boston Magazine’s 2020 Best of Boston Home. How did that happen?
Over this past year, my work has been published several times, twice cover stories! So perhaps my name was familiar to the editorial staff at the magazine. I will say, however, that the news came as a surprise, certainly a most welcomed one. I love what I do and am passionate about my work but there are a lot of gifted designers, so it is certainly the biggest accolade in my career.
How did you get into kitchen design?
It has been anything but a straight line to reach this point. Out of college, I worked in sales prior to pursuing a more creative path. I took course work at Massachusetts College of Art and Design in addition to completing the Kitchen and Bath Design program at the Boston Architectural College. I was at home with my kids while they were little and when my youngest was off to kindergarten, I began working for a cabinet shop and eventually formed my company, New England Design Works.
My approach as a kitchen designer draws on skills developed from every part of my life: from loving to cook and therefore understanding the function and flow of a well-laid-out kitchen, from raising kids and entertaining in a kitchen that for many is truly the heart of the home, from understanding a variety of design tenets such as balance, proportion, positive space and negative space and how incorporating these principles into a design leads to a more harmonious outcome.
So, everything led me to what I do now. Even the sales job that I started with, that I found soul crushing at the time, taught me to hone my listening skills, which are essential to understanding what my clients hope to achieve in their home renovations.
You’re local. Are your clients local?
I am grateful to have worked throughout the North Shore as well as in the greater Boston area. I’ve worked in projects from Manchester up to Rockport, in Hamilton, Wenham, Marblehead, and down and around Boston.
What are some key things people should keep in mind when tackling kitchen design?
Broadly speaking, it is helpful as a kitchen designer when my clients have a sense of what they like. Modern, transitional or traditional design. Often clients share images they've collected and when they verbalize what they like about the image, it is a helpful starting point. Kitchens are built around architectural elements, appliances and a budget. It can be a complex process of balancing it all. Having trust in a designer and hiring a talented builder with excellent finish carpentry skills is generally a winning combination.
What’s your favorite type of project?
I love puzzling through challenging designs. In my practice these are often in older homes or in smaller spaces. I love working with space to create a plan my client didn't know would be possible and which exceeds their expectations. I give particular thought to attempting to design such that the outcome feels like it was always part of the original house versus an awkwardly integrated renovation.