Jean Stoffer’s initial foray into the kitchen and bath world was as an interior designer, working on the ‘softer’ side of the industry. “I have a business degree and I worked for an interior designer as her business manager,” says the founder of Chicago-based Jean Stoffer Design. “I was intrigued by what she did and I was fortunate enough to be her apprentice for a couple of years before starting my own business in interior design. Then I realized my strong suit is anything to do with math and fractions so 20 years ago I made the transition into kitchen and bath design.”
These days Stoffer focuses on the ‘hard’ stuff… “anything that requires specific installation instructions, such as appliances, built-ins, plumbing, electrical, countertops, tiles, stone and cabinetry,” she says. “My favorite part of design is organizing the space… taking a raw space and asking, ‘what if?’ That’s where my brain works best. A lot of people are very good at picking out faucets, cabinet doors, light fixtures, appliances, etc. Aesthetically they’re good at putting things together, but organizing the space is where people need a professional… to think through how a space will be used and to locate elements where they are needed. Then, to make it all look beautiful… that’s the ticket!”
Creating ‘dish dressers’
Stoffer splits her time between designing spaces for new construction homes in the city for urban professionals in their late 30s and early 40s with young families and remodeling older, larger suburban homes for baby boomer clients. “I have a variety of work, which makes it very interesting,” she says. “My city clients have a more urban, transitional aesthetic… clean lines with a lot of white, gray and metal… very simple designs. My remodels are typically more traditional in design style with more texture and color.”
With either type of client, the design is often focused on the appeal of an older home’s architecture… homes that actually are old – oftentimes dating back a century or more – or new homes that are built to look old, replicating Chicago’s late 19th Century/early 20th Century greystone and brownstone homes. “I work with a great builder who is taking down old, dilapidated homes in the city, replacing them with something that looks like it has always been there,” she says. “My designs embrace the architecture… the tall windows, detailed moulding and hardwood floors, while keeping the kitchen design very clean so the architecture can take center stage. It’s important to make the kitchen function with updates. But it also needs to look like it has always belonged in the home.
“I really think about the kitchen as something other than just a room with cabinets,” she continues. “I think of it as a living space, aesthetically as well as spatially. Instead of having cabinets that hold dishes, I create ‘dish dressers’… spaces that are much more architectural and less like cabinets on a wall. It’s also about giving clients what they want, plus a whole lot more. As a professional, I know what’s out there so I can help my clients see beyond what they had hoped for.”
While design elements are often made to look like they are from a bygone era, Stoffer is cognizant of incorporating the latest in technology. “My clients truly get the best of both worlds,” she says.
Appliance manufacturers in particular are making that easier than ever to accomplish. “Manufacturers, such as those that make refrigerators, are designing appliances with hinge systems that allow full integration,” she says. “You don’t have to allow for any clearances. You can embed the appliances, clad them and put them anywhere to make them look like anything. It’s extremely exciting!”
As the founder of the business, and its sole employee, Stoffer wears a lot of hats. But since she enjoys the business aspects as well as design side, that’s fine by her. It helps her maintain complete control of her business philosophy: 100% integrity. “In a kitchen, especially, there are a lot of moving parts,” she says. “At some point, something will break. I faithfully try to help my clients solve any problems, at the very least pointing them in the right direction.”
She is also adamant about staying on top of communication. “I get back to people quickly,” she says. “Even if I can’t answer their question immediately, I let them know I’ve received their message and give them a deadline for an answer. Kitchen and bath projects are stressful, requiring a lot of time and a lot of decisions. If my clients can depend on a timely response from me, it’s reassuring to them.”
Satisfied clients are a critical business component since she relies solely on referrals. “I don’t have a showroom to draw in clients… every single client I have is through a referral so doing a good job is critical to my success,” she says, adding that she has remodeled her own kitchen to serve as a showroom of sorts. “I have a local cabinet company that private labels for me,” she continues. “But for other design elements I’ll go to wherever the best fit is for my client.”
It seems to be working since Stoffer is staying plenty busy. “I’m as busy as I can handle and still do a good job,” she says. “And that’s something I’ve had to figure out. I really enjoy the people I work for. It’s a long process from the first meeting through completion of a project so I really get to know my clients. And I truly enjoy them and that’s a big blessing. I feel fortunate.”