See more of the story

The challenge: Sam and Allison Werler recently bought their first home, a modest 1954 rambler in Richfield. They liked the first-ring suburb, which offers easy access to urban amenities. "Richfield is becoming a place where younger families are moving in and fixing up houses," said Allison. But their small, dark and cramped kitchen hadn't been updated in decades. "It was just really ugly," said Sam.

The design team: Puustelli USA and interior designer Lisa Loushin Kroskin, 612-405-2227,

The starting point: Looking for ideas for their kitchen makeover, they went to last year's Minneapolis Home & Garden Show. "We walked through, and everything looked the same," said Sam. "At the last booth, we saw this really modern-looking cool stuff." That was their introduction to Puustelli and its eco-friendly kitchen systems, a well-known brand in Scandinavia, only recently available in North America.

The obstacle: The biggest roadblock to transforming the Werlers' kitchen into a light-filled modern space was its size. It also had multiple doors to other rooms. "It was a cube in the middle of the house with four walls around it," said Sam. "We wanted to open the space up." Doing so would be a budget-buster for the couple, who also were planning their wedding. So they decided to settle for giving their kitchen a Puustelli facelift within the existing footprint.

The surprise: The project was going forward, when the couple got an urgent e-mail from Bjorn Freudenthal, vice president of sales and marketing for Puustelli USA. "He said, 'We need to talk ASAP,' Sam recalled. He was worried that there was a complication with the project. But when he called Freudenthal, the entire Puustelli USA team was on the line to announce that the couple had won Puustelli's Kitchen Giveaway — which included free cabinets and countertops. That meant the Werlers had enough money to completely re-engineer their kitchen. "I almost went off the road," said Sam. "It was pretty cool."

Making room: To create a larger footprint, the Puustelli team closed off the back entry into the kitchen, removed a load-bearing wall between the dining room and kitchen, and installed a structural ceiling beam. That made room for a large peninsula, with workspace for baking and food prep, where the wall used to be. Opening up the space also allowed more natural light to flow in. Even after removing the wall, however, space was still limited. To make the most of it, the oven, microwave and TV were stacked in a niche. They also chose a smaller refrigerator to make room for a cooktop on the same wall. Instead of a pantry, they installed deep drawers to provide storage for pots and pans. With careful planning, there was room for a dishwasher, something the couple had been doing without.

Room swap: To allow for better flow, designer Loushin Kroskin proposed flipping the living and dining rooms. The dining room opened into a hallway where a TV could be mounted, capturing that as part of the living space while still allowing it to function as a hallway. Putting the dining room where the living room had been would improve access to the patio and grill. "At first I wasn't sure, but it's a good change," said Allison. "Now the dining room is right there, and bringing out food is a lot easier. The flow of it works really well."

Sleek new aesthetic: Like many millennials, the Werlers admire the clean lines of "Mad Men"-era design. "They love the midcentury-modern look," said Loushin Kroskin. "That was the inspiration." The new kitchen's streamlined aesthetic evokes that era, but uses modern materials. The white countertops of nonporous ceramic are tough and durable. "It doesn't scratch," said Freudenthal. "You can put hot pans on it or spill red wine, no sealing needed." The peninsula was topped with sturdy butcher block in dark birch. The upper cabinets are stained birch with glass door fronts and backs, while the lowers are finished in a "technical veneer" — thin layers of poplar, stained to resemble exotic zebra wood. The new ceramic tile backsplash runs all the way to the ceiling, forming a crisp white backdrop to the glass-doored upper cabinets. The kitchen's original red oak floor was kept, with new wood feathered into the old, then both stained to match, for a seamless look.

Cost control: Creative design solutions helped the couple stay within their budget, said Loushin Kroskin. The oven/TV niche has wallboard openings rather than expensive cabinets. The hood above the stove is made of painted plywood rather than metal. "It's a clean look and kept the cost down," she said. And Sam's uncle, an electrician, contributed all the electrical work as a wedding gift to the couple.

Other design tweaks: The dining room also got some updates, including a new floating bar cabinet, which is bolted to the wall and finished with the same veneer as the lower kitchen cabinets. The yellow Chicago brick fireplace was painted white and topped with a streamlined modern mantel, a slab of dark-stained wood.

The payoff: The Werlers' new kitchen has dramatically changed the way they live in their home. "We cook a lot more now," said Allison. "We want to be in the kitchen." And entertaining is much more enjoyable. "It's fun to host friends now," said Sam. "It's completely different. Before, it would be the girls in the kitchen and the guys in the living room watching sports. Now everyone can congregate around the peninsula. Much better!"

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784 • @stribkimpalmer