The challenge: Homeowner Nancy Follano loves to cook and entertain big groups, but the kitchen in her Mendota Heights split-level home wasn’t up to the challenge. “It was outdated. I hated it,” she said of the original early-1990s kitchen. She wanted modern functionality and a sleek contemporary look.

The designer: Architect Ben Awes, CityDeskStudio, St. Paul, 651-644-1106. The contractor was Stinson Builders.

The starting point: “She wanted the ultimate gathering kitchen,” said Awes. But Follano’s existing kitchen was small and closed-off, with a separate dining room she rarely used. Awes worked within the existing footprint of the home but completely reconfigured the space, removing interior walls so that the entry, kitchen and dining room became one big gathering spot. To create space for a walk-in pantry, Awes bumped into Follano’s three-car garage and took half a stall.

Fresh idea: A center island was a must-have for Follano. “She wanted it to be very functional — a chef’s kitchen,” said Awes. “The island is the new hearth of the home.” But she also needed seating. Awes came up with several design options, including an unconventional one, which consisted of a combination island/built-in dining booth, as opposed to the typical island with stools placed around it. “It was an aha moment,” said Awes. “Basically, we cut the island open, pulled it apart and put the dining table in it. She loved the idea.”

Multipurpose: The island’s banquette, with washable faux-leather cushioned seating, also has built-in storage drawers, with quartz countertop ledges for balancing a plate or a glass of wine. “There are clear places to stand and talk,” Awes said. The custom, granite-topped island/table also has six hinged legs that can be repositioned to accommodate diners’ legs, and the top can be removed.

Bold hues: Follano chose black cabinets for the island and high-gloss laminate cabinets in bright red for the perimeter, with a white glass backsplash. To complement the dramatic color palette, Awes suggested deep purple-blue face brick floor pavers with dark grout. “She wanted something unexpected,” he said. “Wood didn’t seem quite right. So I said, ‘What about brick?’ She loved it.”

New view: Follano’s original kitchen had a single window above the sink. Awes replaced it with a large bank of windows to let in more light and leafy views. “It brings in another color — the color of the outside,” Awes said.

Improved function: A free-standing table now overlooks the lower-level family room with a big TV. “You can use it as a buffet or a bar,” said Awes. And cooking for a crowd is easier, thanks to an oversized 48-inch range and two double wall ovens. “It gave me more time with my company — I was able to get more food prepared ahead of time,” Follano said.

Unexpected twist: Follano was able to enjoy her new kitchen for only a short time. Shortly after it was completed, “I met the man of my dreams,” she said. He lived on the other side of the metro area and had children established in a school district there, so Follano moved to Plymouth. “It was so hard leaving that kitchen,” she said. She had wondered if her unusual kitchen might make it harder to find a buyer. But the home’s new owner, Joan Demeules, said the kitchen made the sale. “I loved the red cabinets. Such a cool pop of color! It’s a wonderful place to cook. And I like how it flows. It’s really the centerpiece of the house. I hosted a rehearsal dinner, and nobody wanted to leave the kitchen.”