Krystal Steele, a Western Kentucky University junior majoring in interior design, says pursuing the school’s new undergraduate certificate in kitchen and bath design is a hedge against a weak economy.

The 20-year-old from Bagdad in Shelby County comes from a line of carpenters. Her interest in design was sparked in her father’s workshop, which is now manned by her brother.

“When times get bad, everyone will still be looking to renovate kitchens and baths – they may not want to remodel the whole house,” Steele said.

“The advantage to the college students here is they just have to have 24 credit hours and fit them into their schedule,” said Amy Bodell-Hersch, instructor of interior design in the Family and Consumer Sciences Department. The department is in the WKU College of Health and Human Services. A four-year interior design bachelor’s degree requires 120 credit hours.

Kelsey Petty, 22, a junior interior design major from Nashville, loves the fellowship of friends and family in a kitchen. 

“The kitchen is the gathering place in the house. I love residential design. If I have that certificate, it will allow me to specialize in kitchen and bath work,” Petty said.

Bodell-Hersch said a National Kitchen and Bath Association-accredited kitchen and bath designer earns an average of $87,000 a year. The owner of a design firm averages $114,000. Bodell-Hersch, who designed kitchens and baths in the Chicago area, said graduates might earn $40,000 to $50,000 a year starting out. 

The proliferation of kitchen and bath designs was spurred by the baby boomer generation, and now the children of that generation seek innovative kitchens and baths to emulate their parents, she said.

A designer has to walk a fine line between the client and the contractor. When Bodell-Hersch worked for a firm in Chicago, she would go over a five-page questionnaire with the client, who might spend anywhere from $30,000 to $300,000 for a new kitchen. The questions give the designer a feel for the project: Is the primary kitchen user right- or left-handed? How tall is he or she? Is there a consideration to be made for kosher cooking, where meats and dairy must be kept separate?

“You have to be detail-oriented and creative. You have to understand building codes. You have to get information out of your client. You have to multi-task. You use math every day. You create a space that is functional and works for the client,” she said.

Students are taught how to measure a room, how to use the math to figure out how many cabinets in a space and how to prepare an estimate that both the client and the contractor will review. Bodell-Hersch said she was initially drawn to the field because of the challenges of technicalities and creativity and the natural tension between those two missions.

Design crosses socioeconomic groups and now, through the Internet, is accessible to anyone. A WKU graduate from the program can seek immediate employment in a field for which there is high demand. When Bodell-Hersch attended a recent professional conference, professionals there were seeking qualified interns.

The students are also getting a taste of the high-stakes world of design. WKU students will participate in the 2013-14 NKBA Student Design Competition, where the top prize is $2,500 and a free trip to Las Vegas to show their design to working professionals. The competition is top-flight and Bodell-Hersch said the 50 top schools in residential design in the nation will have students submitting proposals. Each student receives the same criteria for a kitchen and bath design. 

Bodell-Hersch said the kitchen and bath certificate program and the interior design major offered at WKU has the capacity to grow in size. Murray State University and Sullivan University of Technology and Design in Kentucky offer a four-year degree program with a kitchen and bath concentration. Other kitchen and bath NKBA-certified programs are at Indiana State University, Brigham Young University, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and the University of Georgia.

— Chuck Mason covers education. Follow him on Twitter at or visit bgdaily

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