Five Under 40: Kitchen Designer Brett La Hay

Colorado Homes & Lifestyles' Class of 2017

The first installment of Colorado Homes & Lifestyles’ Five Under Forty awards in 2014 was a giant success, and the tradition has only gotten stronger with each subsequent year. This year, the mass and magnitude of talent that arrived in Colorado Homes & Lifestyles’ inbox was both exciting and inspiring. 

We called on the 2016 Five Under 40 award winners to help us with the difficult task of selecting five of the finest from a pack of worthy contenders. 

The class of 2017 is shining bright and upping our design quotient inside, outside, and all around the state. 

Here we get to know one of the award recipients, kitchen designer Brett La Hay of Kitchen Distributors, and see some examples of her work.

Portrait: Jennifer Olson
"It's the combination of the unexpected, the layers, that make a kitchen spectacular." — Brett La Hay

It’s all about the details for Denver kitchen designer Brett La Hay. “It’s the little moments that make a kitchen unique,” says the self-described perfectionist, a Nebraska native who arrived in Denver in 2005 to study interior design at the Art Institute of Colorado. “It’s the routed-out hardware in an island that makes it look like an old furniture piece. It’s the leaded-glass detail in an open cabinet that displays your favorite dishware. Otherwise, everything’s just boxes, just cabinets. It’s the combination of the unexpected, the layers, that make a kitchen spectacular.”

La Hay, who previously worked as a project manager at Bulthaup, got into kitchen design in part because she loves to cook. “It’s my thing. I always knew that I loved kitchens and the design process. The kitchen is the most impactful area of a home. It’s where you spend all your time. Though I have always loved design, I knew I didn’t want to pick furniture and fabrics and colors. I always liked construction. I liked learning about codes and having a puzzle to figure out how to put together. That’s more challenging. With a kitchen, you’re fixing your puzzle pieces together and ultimately trying to find that perfect art piece.”

Photo: Scott Hasson 

THANKS, MOM AND DAD: “My parents have been extremely supportive throughout my entire life. Every idea or dream I had growing up, they would support and encourage to the end. They worked hard and expected us to work hard in return. They opened many doors for us but never achieved our goals for us. My mom loved art and wasn’t able to pursue it as a career path; throughout my life, I’ve felt that extra fight to achieve my goals, not just for myself but for my family and the family I’m building with my husband.”

FORM VS. FUNCTION: “For me, the function is first and foremost. If a kitchen doesn’t function in the space, then it doesn’t matter how pretty it is. First, it has to be a working area—the client has to be able to produce and create in there. After doing actual floor plans and detailing that out, then you start elevating it, creating the prettier moments. But the best advice I ever got—from both a professor and a colleague—was this: You can come up with a beautiful design that you’re super excited about but then you have to ask yourself: ‘Would you buy it?’ If the answer is ‘I don’t know; it might not have enough storage for X, Y and Z,’ then you have to rethink it.”

In an addition on a Bonnie Brae bungalow, La Hay mixed clean cabinetry with rustic detailing to pay homage to the original home. [Photo: Ben Eyster]

INSPIRATION POINT: “Often, the biggest inspiration comes from the actual client, or their home. That’s their personal space. That’s them. So that’s where I start. I look at what they’re wearing, what they have in their home, even their demeanor. You can tell if someone’s bold, if they’re passive or shy, if they’re sweet. That can really determine the style of a kitchen. Reading people is a huge part of my job. And being empathetic, I am designing someone’s personal space, and that can be a very emotional journey. You can be the most spectacular designer, but if you have a horrible attitude or ego, who cares how great you are? Being positive and trying to find solutions is what makes a great designer.”

PET PEEVES: “The whole phase of the black-and-red-and-stainless steel kitchen of the early 2000s. It wasn’t a well-thought-out palette. If you keep your color tones true to what you see occurring naturally outside, you can’t go wrong. It’s when you start adding superficial detailing that you get problems. For me, one of the best ways to get inspired is to step away from residential design. I go on a hike, travel—a huge part of our lives—look at clothes and textiles. Anything that sparks my imagination is inspiration.”

A refined transitional Cherry Hills Village kitchen includes two furniture islands (the family entertains often) and a striking arch over the stove. [Photo: Emily Minton Redfield]

BEST COMPLIMENT: “When my clients call me their friend and want to hang out after we’re done with the project. It means I’ve impacted their life on more than just a superficial level. It’s a long process. You really have to get to know your clients as people. You have to like them too. If you don’t like your clients, the overall design is going to show it. There’s nothing better than getting text-message pictures from a client after work saying, ‘I’m cooking in my kitchen and I absolutely love it.’ ”



Categories: Stylemakers, TTT In the News