Designer Stefani Stein came onto her client’s California new build later than she would have liked—by two whole years. By then the opportunity to nix unflattering downlights and adjust awkward window placements had come and gone. To top it off, the townhouse’s Venice Beach location meant a heap of strict building codes to follow. Her trick to softening all the utilitarian newness: adding warm, earthy details and antique accents. For this 160-square-foot kitchen, that included everything from Arabescato Orobico countertops to sculptural lighting.

Do: Always Opt for Marble 

Making the case for natural materials might be easier said than done, but Stein stands by her stance on using marble countertops whenever possible. “Composite and synthetic stones have done an incredible job of marketing, so much so that I can see clients getting physically tense and panicked when looking at marble,” she says. But engineered options aren’t as indestructible as they’re made out to be. “In a honed finish, and with basic upkeep, marble is much more durable,” she says. Unlike the alternatives, it can also be rehoned and resealed if your metal candlestick happens to leave a rust mark (like one client’s did). Basic marble in California can run $25 to $28 per square foot. For something a bit more beautiful with flecks of gray and brown, for example, expect to spend at least $38 per square foot. And a really exquisite piece (think: clear veining and colors), she notes, can go as high as $100 per square foot. 

Don’t: Skimp on the Plumbing 

“People don’t always understand why there is such a price difference on plumbing,” says Stein, but she points out it’s the difference between plastic and brass fittings. “I always specify lines that are known for durable elements such as metal drains, brass valves, ceramic cartridges, and metal escutcheon plates,” she adds. Plastic (although more affordable) wears easily, leading to snapped handles or leaky valves—it’s worth paying a little more up front rather than dealing with the cost of repairs later. Stein also prefers matte brass when it comes to plumbing, which is why she chose California Faucets’s almost-black Bella Terra bronze finish—its dark silhouette pops against the kitchen’s sleek, neutral cabinets and simple tile backsplash. 

Marble Countertops

Do: Go for Paint-Grade Cabinets

To let the stone countertops shine (and save a few dimes), Stein stuck with basic cabinet doors rather than oak, ash, or walnut. Since it wasn’t necessary to see the wood grain—it would have distracted from the marble’s intricacy—she chose flat panel cabinets (often a combination of maple and MDF) in taupe to keep things simple. The minimalist approach was the way to go. 

Don’t: Forget About Mood Lighting

Downlights without dimmers lack in the ambience department; Stein likens their effect to an office or cafeteria. “To me, lighting is everything,” she says. By hiding her client’s blender and toaster in a quasi-appliance garage and freeing up counter space, she could incorporate a large table lamp—her go-to finishing touch, not to mention essential for the crucial transition from meal prep to cocktail hour.

The Goods