Let’s call it the “Law of Reduced Expectations.” It describes what happens when you have to admit that no piece of mass-produced furniture will work exactly right for your space.
You can avoid this vexing condition by having built-in cabinetry designed and installed to your exact specifications. Style and function are limited only by the imagination. Cost depends on the materials you choose and the complexity of the construction; basic built-ins made from readily available resources are only slightly more expensive than what you’d expect to pay for free-standing furniture, while something like an inlaid zebrawood bar that encloses a wine fridge would obviously be much more costly.
The benefits of built-ins go far beyond mere storage, although being able to stash your stuff out of sight is a major plus. “In organizing a room there’s a balance between the functional part, the decorative part, and the architectural part,” says interior designer Michael Shannon, principal at Michael Shannon Designs in Philadelphia. “Built-ins can be the layer that transitions from the architecture of the room to the furnishings. A millwork solution, as opposed to a furniture solution, can also organize the space as a whole.”
Custom cabinetry lends itself to that too-often overlooked element: lighting. “I”ll often use built-ins as a place to begin lighting the space,” adds Shannon. “When you have one fixture hanging in the middle of the room, there’s no sense of space; the light is just being thrown out with nothing to receive it. Adding downlights in the cabinetry helps to define the physical parameters of the room, making it actually feel bigger.”
Gary Munch, president of Boss Enterprises Inc., in Wilmington, stresses the importance of understanding the specific environment in which the fitted furniture will be installed. “For our firm, it’s about bespoke services,” he says. “It’s truly one-off—for you, and you only. It’s a very tailored service. Often, fitted furniture needs to relate to the casework in the house.”
When Munch meets with clients, he encourages them to consider the big picture. “It’s essential to do the analysis on the front end,” he says. “Ask yourself, ‘How important is this space? Is it a focal point? Is it an architectural element? Are we trying to create a response with this piece?”” The answers to those questions help homeowners decide how to allocate their cabinetry budget.
Boss Enterprises, which has been in business for three generations, is committed to using renewable, recyclable, and reclaimed resources. “We love to use old wood,” says Munch, a carpenter by trade. “Whenever we hear that a building is being deconstructed, we try to find out if there’s anything we can reuse. Last year we got 15,000 board-feet of old Douglas fir timbers from a church in Wilmington. It’s great when you can save something old. That really appeals to us and our clients.” Using wood with a past is especially appealing when one is restoring one of our area’s antique homes.
Seth Cavallari, who founded Brandywine Woodworks in 1995, agrees. He’s always on the lookout for trees that have come down, and is a strong proponent of minimizing his eco-footprint. A peek into his storage shed reveals large planks of cypress, cedar, walnut, and oak; nearby, immense circles of sycamore will be repurposed into tables.
Cavallari, who also teaches yoga and Pilates, is conscious of the ergonomic harmony that built-ins can achieve. “It’s a system that fits in with the style of the house,” he says. “The cabinets don’t look like they were slapped there. I also like the way we can take an awkward spot, like the empty area under a staircase, and make it into a useable space.”
The process for designing, building, and installing custom cabinetry follows the same steps as any architectural project. After the clients” needs are discussed and the scope of the project is defined, precise measurements are made on site. Detailed drawings—done by hand, by computer, or both—are scrutinized, adjusted, and refined. Clients look at different materials and choose what appeals to them.
Classic cabinet styles may come to mind when you hear the term “built-ins,” but the units don’t have to be traditional. Cavallari has seen a growing interest in live-edge furniture, where the natural shape and bark are integral to the finished piece.
Munch has noticed a shift toward transitional and contemporary looks. “A lot of our clients in this area have already done several projects,” he explains, “and they’re looking for something a little different on the design side.”
“Mixing materials is another trend,” says Shannon. “Wood can be combined with laminate, with metal mesh, with fabric, and with other woods. You can do several rooms with small changes in the basic vocabulary, which makes each space feel unique yet consistent with the whole.”
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of custom cabinetry is that it will leave you with no regrets. “When you choose built-ins, you get exactly what you need,” says Shannon. “You don’t have to modify the furniture … or your expectations.”