As she presents to a class of residential design students at Virginia Tech, Ellen Cheever, an icon in the kitchen and bath design industry, points proudly to the alcove behind her. The area is being transformed into a library housing the records of her 48-year career — a collection she recently donated to the university’s Center for Real Life Design.
“Ellen is a big name in the kitchen and bath industry as a designer, a writer, and an educator,” said Julia Beamish, professor and head of the Department of Apparel, Housing, and Resource Management. “She helped to conceptualize our center and set up its advisory board.”
Cheever, who is planning to semi-retire as principal of Ellen Cheever & Associates in Wilmington, Delaware, not only donated the compilation of her life’s work and other historic documentation about kitchen and bath design, but also redesigned the space where the collection now resides. That space — the Design Library Honoring Ellen Cheever — is in the style of a home office.
The residential design students were among the first to see the new space during a seminar Cheever presented about lessons she learned during her career.
The students glance down at the floor as Cheever pulls back a portion of the protective covering to give them a peek at the latest evolution of kitchen surfaces.
“You have to be careful with the materials you choose for your clients,” she told them. “A few years ago, everyone wanted stone-tile floors. But that proved problematic. If, say, you dropped a jar of mustard, the container would shatter, and you’d have a big, staining mess. That type of floor can be unforgiving.”
In renovating the space containing her collection, Cheever chose for the floor surface a descendant of linoleum, a new vinyl product that is softer, stain resistant, and easier to clean.
“Although trends are a consideration,” she says, “good kitchen and bath design focuses on the evolution of materials. That’s why it’s important to stay current with the industry, rather than relying only on personal preferences or past product specifications, to solve design issues.”
Cheever, a Certified Master Kitchen and Bath Designer, has remained a relevant and influential figure in the industry through her roles as director of educational services and textbook author for the National Kitchen and Bath Association. She also holds certifications from the American Society of Interior Designers and is a certified aging-in-place specialist through the National Association of Home Builders.
Cheever is the author of more than 20 books and manuals on kitchen and bath design standards, including three of the updated National Kitchen and Bath Association’s Professional Resource Library volumes. Additionally she has been a columnist for Kitchen & Bath Design News magazine as well as a seminar leader for close to 20 years. In 2017, Kitchen & Bath Design News included her in its inaugural list of Top 50 Innovators. The publication notes that this classification honors the industry’s finest dealers, designers, and leaders who are redefining the kitchen and bath trade.
The newly renovated library housing the Cheever collection features products provided by industry-leading firms. Plain & Fancy Custom Cabinetry donated the cabinets; Corian Quartz Surfaces, the countertops; and Häfele America, the hardware and LED lighting system. DeHart Tile, a Christiansburg, Virginia–based company, donated the Armstrong vinyl tile flooring.
In deciding where to donate the original books, columns, research projects, and seminar materials she had written since beginning her career in 1971, Cheever said she chose the Center for Real Life Design because she wanted to provide a valuable resource to residential design students.
The center offers students and professionals a laboratory for exploring residential design and technologies that address the demands of families and consumers. It includes six operational kitchens, which represent various price levels, product selections, and space designs. These kitchens also reflect the diversity of today’s households, by including features that accommodate young children, older adults, and people with disabilities.
Virginia Tech will celebrate Cheever’s contribution on November 1 with an afternoon of events in Blacksburg that are open to the university. Cheever will present “Reflections of a Career in Kitchen and Bath Design” at 2 p.m. at the Biocomplexity Institute of Virginia Tech at 1015 Life Science Circle. An opening of an exhibit of her work will follow at the Wallace Hall Gallery, along with a reception celebrating the Cheever Collection in the Center for Real Life Design, housed in Wallace Hall at 295 West Campus Drive.
“I hope my experiences, both personal and professional, will help students be better prepared for a career in kitchen and bath design,” Cheever said. “I learned from many great people over my career and this is my way of giving back.”
Written by Leslie King