Man on Fire

Renowned for his award- winning designs and dead-on intuition with clients, David Stimmel shows that a man’s place is in the kitchen.

It’s not usually a good thing when your name appears in divorce papers. But if you’re David Stimmel, it may mean you just picked up more business. Among the stipulations and legal jargon in a recent Philadelphia-area divorce settlement was one very specific demand: a Stimmel kitchen.

“I guess she was the one moving out of the house, and wanted to make sure the kitchen in her new place was up to the same standards as the one I had done in the ­couple’s home,” says Stimmel. “I couldn’t believe it.”

But it’s not too hard to believe. The ­Philadelphia-based designer is a regular recipient of Kitchen and Bath Business magazine’s Kitchen of the Year award. His kitchens frequently appear on HGTV (he designed all 40 kitchen variations shown on the network’s interactive design website) — and these days, in a growing number of homes throughout the Philadelphia region. His business spreads mainly through word of mouth, and because his clients are consistently overjoyed with their kitchens, business is booming.

At 41, Stimmel has been in the design business for 20 years, as the head of Stimmel Consulting Group in Ambler for the last seven. While he will work on other rooms, kitchens have become his niche, a career specialty that in hindsight seems clear. As early as 16, he was working as a draftsman for a custom kitchen designer through a program at Cheltenham High School. And even then, his boss told him, “You are meant to do this.”

Stimmel’s own epiphany came much later, when he was working for a builder. He had just recovered from an illness when his mother, who raised him by herself in Glenside, had a stroke in front of him. “It just really put everything in perspective for me. It made me really want control of my own time,” he says.

He had the added benefit of friends and colleagues who had seen what he could do professionally and were pressing him to go out on his own. One of his biggest supporters was John DiDonato, owner of Marble Concepts in Northeast ­Philadelphia, a supplier Stimmel worked with often.

Walking around DiDonato’s shop, where the granite, marble and other stone he supplies for counter­tops and other surfaces is cut, polished and fabricated, Stimmel says, “This guy is the Godfather as far as I’m concerned.” DiDonato downplays this title, but not the swift kick he was determined to give Stimmel to make him take the next step. “He was just so good, such a creative designer, and his customers liked him so much,” says DiDonato. “If you look at several rooms done by one designer, you can almost always tell who did it, because they’re all a variation on one room,” he says. “Not with David. No two look alike, because he designs each one according to each client. That’s why he’s so good. And really, he just needed that push, that vote of confidence, to get him out the door.” Today, Marble Concepts supplies all the stonework for any Stimmel project without an outside architect.

Loyalty is a very big thing for Stimmel. He employs the same team for all his installations. And while he has designed — and won awards for — kitchens ranging from $40,000 to way over $100,000, the common denominator is his own loyalty to his vision. “It’s not about the budget,” he says. “It’s just about doing something great, about a ­client who’s into the project and really wants to make it work, to do something cool.”

It’s no surprise that kitchens, seriously functional rooms, are Stimmel’s specialty. He likes things to be used — really used — for the purpose for which they were created. He once put more than 30,000 miles on a rather delicate sports car in one year, and was told by the shop, “That is not what this car is for.” Stimmel gets excited: “But cars are meant to be driven,” he says. It’s an attitude that’s visible in the way he designs his kitchens.

“David is really in the upper echelon of all designers,” says Georgie Skover, a design consultant for Stimmel and owner of GLS Design, a Princeton company that specializes in kitchen and bath design. “He has a natural talent for seeing space architecturally, which is hard to do,” she says. “He can visualize how a design will look in his mind and translate that to paper — then translate that to reality. Many people are good at one or two of those steps, but not many can do all three so well.”

For Stimmel, the design process is only about his clients. After talking about what they want, he provides them with three to five concepts, and works with them to narrow it down to one variation that will be perfect for their particular needs. All meetings take place in the clients’ homes — never Stimmel’s office — so as to constantly work in the space at hand. He goes along to pick out appliances and place orders. And before you commit, you can go on a ride-along to view past clients’ kitchens, which the past clients are more than happy to allow. It’s a sort of live portfolio, and helps clients really see space and how it can be used — and how Stimmel can make it happen.

A couple from Gladwyne was one of Stimmel’s earliest clients once he was out on his own. One kitchen, two bathrooms and about eight years later, the homeowners say, “It’s just amazing. He can listen to the story of how you live and go ‘poof’! Here it is, exactly what you need.”

For the couple, this did not mean a kitchen for cooking and entertaining, but a space where the family could live, one that functioned well in its awkward placement under a loft in a house converted from an old barn. ­Stimmel created a space that works perfectly for them: a kitchen divided by a large island where children can sit on stools, and cabinet placement that not only hides the usual pots and pans, but a computer and shelves for paperwork. “There were very few ‘back to the drawing board’ moments,” says the couple. “He’s just so knowledgeable, though not in the ‘I’m an expert and you’re not’ way. He’s not intimidating at all.”

For Stimmel, it’s about versatility and his love of the job. “There’s no pigeonholing me,” he says. “And it’s my passion, completely; I could do this 24/7, 365 days a year. I’m married to it.” And clients can rest assured there will be no surprises this designer can’t handle. “My motto is, that as a designer, it’s not about dealing with perfection, it’s about dealing with the imperfections,” he says. “You gotta be able to roll with it, no matter what comes up.”