Michael Kaestner is the principal designer at Philadelphia-based Kaestner Designs. Initially desiring to enter the sports medicine field as a physical therapist, Kaestner graduated college with a degree in Health & Exercise Science. Finished with school for the time being, Kaestner decided to take up a job at Lowe’s Home Improvement upon his mother’s suggestion. The HR director told him they needed kitchen designers. Having always had a creative side to him and feeling drawn to physical art in different mediums, Kaestner decided to jump in with both feet and start designing kitchens. The rest is history. 

Michael Kaestner is now 20 years in and is a certified kitchen, bath, and interior design professional who started Kaestner Designs in 2018. Michael has served Philadelphia, the Philadelphia suburbs, southern New Jersey, central New Jersey, and Delaware areas for two decades. He is the Programs Chair of the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the NKBA and is also CLIPP certified.  

He took the time to sit down with Connected Design (CD) and discuss his career journey, design process, and what he prioritizes when working with each of his clients.  

This floating oak island tabletop is just one of the features of this transitional two-toned kitchen in Cherry Hill, NJ. Contractor: Simone Home Remodeling. Photo: Rebecca McAlpin. 

CD: Are there any people in the industry who inspired you? 

MK: My peer network. I feel like those contacts, those touch points happen for a reason. I would say it is a good group of people who have helped me along the way and continue to help me. I am an advocate for giving and accepting help. That cyclical effect of friendship and mentorship with colleagues is immensely helpful for me.  

CD: How would you describe your design style? 

MK: I am drawn towards Scandinavian design: clean lines, a little minimalist. I also like stuff, so there is this feud in my mind where I want the color pops, the statues, things for dogs, textures, and aspects you can have in any style of design. Whatever the audience wants, I create. Sometimes I get a project that is carte blanche and I am able to make the calls, however, it is not about the ego for me. Collaboration is important, and that sometimes sways the design that I would initially pose or recommend to a client. Having said that, I will always recommend what I feel is best for a space. 

This vertical lift deep countertop cabinet provides safe storage and accessibility of the stand mixer as well as libations at a residence in Newark, DE. Contractor: ROVA Remodeling. Photo: Rebecca McAlpin. 

CD: What are factors you consider when designing a space? 

MK: An adage I live by is don’t try to put ten pounds of flour in a five-pound sack. If you overdesign a space, it starts to feel cluttered again. There is also the concept of aesthetics. I want to know where I can step, and if clients give me permission to overstep. That is when I am going to try to wow them with what is going on in the industry. A lot of clients are educated through social media, which can tend to lead the conversation sometimes. The key thing is to keep an open mind. At the end of the day, my best work is a collaborative effort between me and my clients. Much of that is about being able to evoke ideas from your client’s brain; to be an archaeologist and dig things out. 

CD: How do you reconcile a design clients see on social media with what is possible realistically? 

MK: Social media is great for inspiration. However, there is not a direct correlation between what you see there and how it is going to look, or what we can physically do within a space. It is my job to break it down to the design elements and illuminate those features that are attractive to my clients. There have been many instances when clients do not want the whole picture; they want certain tones and textures, they like the way a door opens, or they want an architectural window. After that, we discuss the budget. If all those videos on social media flashed a price tag every time they showed something, I think most people would say, ‘I can’t afford this.’ My role is to add clarity to the entire process. 

CD: What is a common obstacle that arises when you are designing a space? 

MK: When we are discussing a physical space, sometimes there are limitations to what I can do. Sometimes it is a budget issue. People do not always want to rebuild their room, but to give them what they want, we sometimes have to follow that path. Every project has limiting factors. Designers can also get paralysis by analysis like clients do. However, with experience, we can shed light on things faster. We must choose a couple of options and make our peace with letting go of certain things that in our heart of hearts were best for the client or design, while also realizing that they didn’t fit into the timeline, budget, or spatial requirements. 

CD: Can you tell us about any projects you are currently working on? 

MK: I am working on a lovely home near St. Joseph’s University that needed a facelift 30 years ago. I am the second designer on this project and, from what the clients told me, the first firm wanted to simply use the space as it exists. I pushed the envelope a bit and asked what their budget was to drive the conversation a bit. The reason I know they are in it to win it is because they keep adding more things towards the scope of the project. There is also this kitchen project in South Jersey where a client was downsizing to a much smaller home. He wants a larger range, an additional oven, a new garden window, and a larger refrigerator. It is a tiny footprint, but I am good at small spaces. So, I have one room that is a large footprint, and another that is much smaller with the ability to grow into an adjacent room. It is like using two different brains when you work in these big open spaces versus smaller spaces, but I must stay grounded and implement all the features and benefits that the client wants with my knowledge and professional understanding of the spatial requirements.  

CD: What has been your favorite project that you have worked on? 

MK: Any project where I executed an idea that was outside the box, or the client was skeptical about, and it worked. Projects where the client brought me an idea or concept that was out of my comfort zone keep me on my toes and help me improve as a designer. When I can implement something that clients bring to me, something I have never done before, and then we execute it together, that’s when the magic happens. 

When life hands you lemons, use them in a photoshoot of a cheerful custom blue kitchen. Contractor: Keystone Home Remodeling. Photo: Kristina Kroot. 

CD: Do you consider the entire design of a home when designing spaces like kitchens or baths? 

MK: Yes. For some clients, we can go off the path with a crazy backsplash or some funky color cabinets. But for most clients, depending on the layout of their home, I want to elevate a room so that there is homeostasis between the kitchen and other rooms. It provides harmony and clients appreciate that. Unless I realize that there is a trend in the home that would suggest otherwise, I try to incorporate those principles. 

CD: How do you integrate technology into a space you are designing? 

MK: If clients want to go all out with it, I immediately look to integrators that I can partner with. The key thing is to recognize the client, their lifestyle, and if there are any limitations. It is good to stay up to date on what is going on in the world of integration so I can know what to suggest to them and how early I can bring in the integrator to develop the conversation further and understand the grand scheme of the project. 

CD: Finally, if you could give someone looking to enter the kitchen, bath and interior design field a piece of advice, what would it be? 

MK: Talk to everyone and do not be afraid to ask questions. There are a lot of design events that are held around cities like New York and Philadelphia that people can sign up for and go to for free, especially for students. Also, never doubt yourself. Comparison is the thief of joy. In my 20 years, there have been ups and downs in the industry and shifting emotions with how I felt as a designer, but as long as I stayed focused on my goals and why I started doing this, good things continued to happen. There are ebbs and flows in life, and you just must embrace all of it. Just ride the wave.