Still reeling from a quote for custom kitchen cabinets, a West Seattle homeowner came to Wesley Sisk with an audacious question: Could he make that same aesthetic happen with Ikea?
Unless you’re prepared to go full custom (and pay accordingly), a kitchen remodel generally means working with a fixed range of cabinet sizes. Then there’s Sisk, who spent the past two years constructing a stylish midpoint between big box and bespoke. His company, Brave Element, uses basic carpentry and specialty doors (and a hefty dose of ingenuity) to transform standard-issue cabinets from the Swedish home superstore famous for its no-frills pricing.
The resulting kitchens—stark and modern, midcentury walnut, lots of classic white shaker—push Ikea’s capabilities far beyond what you’ll find in its Renton showroom. “It’s through the roof how many options there are,” says Sisk. Though tapping into this potential requires a Matrix-level awareness of the company’s mainstay Sektion cabinet line, not to mention design savvy and stamina to cull the required parts from Ikea’s store and website.
But the West Seattle project came with a particular challenge. The homeowner—who prefers to omit her name for privacy reasons—wanted to install additional kitchen cabinets to match the ones already in place. The existing inset models suit her remodeled 1910 farmhouse, but are way more intricate than the typical overlay version. “It looks more like furniture,” she says. “It just feels more like part of the home.”
Brave Element’s installers deployed their arsenal: They added custom doors from Semihandmade, a company that specializes in upgraded fronts for Ikea cabinets, and covered the cut-to-size cabinet boxes with panels to match those elegant doors. A cover conceals the exhaust fan over the stove; molding and a unifying coat of paint reinforce the built-in look.
To get that inset, Sisk took painstaking measurements to MacGyver some face frames, “to make it look like it was all one piece,” and set the doors and drawers to line up exactly. The result looks crafted just for the space. The homeowner got to expand her kitchen, add a handsome pair of entryway cabinets, and reclaim unused space beneath some eaves with built-in bookshelves. All for perhaps 35 percent less than that original custom quote (though comparing costs in a remodeling project is obviously a nebulous art). The price difference left money for some new furniture. But cost aside, “He really understood where I was coming from,” she recalls of Sisk’s design.
Sisk didn’t even know Ikea made cabinets when he answered a Craigslist ad for an installer gig back in 2012. A week in, he decided, “this is the only thing I want to do for a living.” Today, he still dorks out on the merits of Ikea’s Sektion cabinets the way others might rave about their favorite book or band: “I can’t believe how quality these things are for how affordable they are. It doesn’t make any sense. And they go together so easily.”
He grew up helping with his dad’s garage cabinet business, transforming stacks of particleboard into shelving right there in a customer’s driveway. Decades later, he drew on this skill set to rescue Ikea assembly jobs when the parts ordered didn’t line up with the reality onsite: “You know, eight feet of cabinetry meant to fit in a six-foot space.” His then-colleagues grumbled, but Sisk thrived on creative problem solving.
After a decade as an installer, he started his own business and found a yawning niche between what we want our kitchens to look like and what we can afford. A reality that’s especially apparent after a year spent shut inside our homes, imagining what they could be. Since Ikea’s in-house planning tool doesn’t exactly encourage aftermarket adaptation, Brave Element employs its own designer and software. The number of made-for-Ikea custom doors available in the U.S. seems to grow by the minute; one of the biggies, Los Angeles–based purveyor Semihandmade, is opening a showroom adjacent to Brave Element’s offices in Kent.
The company’s trio of installers—with a few more in Portland and San Diego—work mostly on kitchens, but also transmute Sektion into built-in media centers or dressers, walk-in closets, even window seats with drawers. Full disclosure: I found Brave Element in my hunt for affordable laundry room cabinets last year; Sisk’s crew installed a simple setup cut to fit my washer and dryer. It looks about twice as expensive as the actual price tag.
“These don’t have anything to do with the shitty Ikea coffee table that you had when you were in college,” Brave Element director of operations Leah Solomon says of its cabinets. Her formal title, Admin Wizardess, befits the sorcery required to overcome Ikea’s pandemic-driven shortages. Solomon cajoles company reps and scours its website daily to source missing components. Most of the time, a project’s install day arrives before all the necessary parts do. When that happens, Solomon draws from an emergency supply she keeps at Brave Element’s offices. Outsmarting Covid-era supply chains might be Brave Element’s biggest Ikea hack of them all.