Beyond the Box

Kitchens are built around cabinetry, making it critical for kitchen designers to stay abreast of current cabinet trends.

From clean-lined designs and an increased interest in painted finishes to the growing importance of interior accessories that maximize accessibility, cabinet trends continue to reflect aesthetic and organizational needs.

Additionally, current economic conditions, combined with an increasingly savvy and educated consumer, have sparked changes that sometimes have more to do with business than design – and these, too, are having a profound impact on the kitchen cabinet market.

A Changing Consumer

There’s no question that more consumers are doing their research online, and as a result, they know far more about products than in years past. In fact, according to Scott Korsten, marketing director for Harrisburg, SD-based Showplace Wood Products, “Some shoppers, might know more details about the product than the salesperson does.”

As a result, they not only know what’s out there, but they are also better equipped to shop around to ensure they get the maximum bang for their buck.

Steve Wilcox, director of product development and marketing for Sunny Wood and Sagehill Designs in Cerritos, CA says, “The largest trend is that consumers are looking for perceived value at any price point. It is crucial to have the right styles, materials, finishes and functional features all working together to make a new line of cabinetry successful.”

He continues: “The challenge for dealers is to be able to find a product that meets these criteria in their market and with their clientele.”

In a more budget-conscious economy, some consumers will compromise style and design when necessary, says Perry Miller, president of Kountry Wood Products in Nappanee, IN. “Consumers are much more educated about the products, and therefore value may at times influence design,” he says.

Korsten disagrees. “We think people are still buying what they want – if they are convinced they are getting the best value they can. Someone who has a certain quality expectation isn’t likely to compromise,” he says.

Ray Ducharme, director of marketing for Executive Cabinetry in Simpsonville, SC agrees that style is still the driving force behind cabinet purchases. “They still want the look they dream about,” he says. However, they want it at a cost that suits them, he adds.

“Value to today’s consumer means, very simply, more for less,” says Ducharme. “In a climate where the consumer’s mindset may be ‘I want it all, but I do not want to pay for it,’ they can have it all.”

“Customers want to feel like they are getting a bargain,” agrees Jeff Ptacek, CKD, product manager at Fieldstone Cabinetry in Sioux Falls, SD. “If they feel they are getting a good deal, they’ll lean towards this other door that might be 5-10% off the normal door.” He added when customers buy a less expensive door style, then they are more likely to upgrade the interior.

Inside Story

Cabinet interiors are increasingly important because more designs are focusing on maximizing space and accessibility. As homes – and by default kitchens – are becoming smaller, the need for organizational tools is on the rise. This isn’t new – the demand for more functional storage space has been increasing consistently in recent years. “Smaller layouts put more pressure on finding good places for these items and they require more creativity on the part of the designer,” says Korsten. “Any product that helps organize a kitchen is in demand; increasing organization in the kitchen helps clients know where they put things, which takes stress out of their lives.”

Rod Brewer, v.p./marketing and product development for Mid Continent Cabinetry, in Eagan, MN, says, “In many ways, smaller kitchens are more efficient kitchens. I think that people are looking for highly usable storage solutions, so dealers and manufacturers need to show how to use interior storage to make their lives better.”

“Being able to access all of the space in a cabinet is important,” says Sandy Nierengarten, creative design coordinator for Crystal Cabinet Works in Princeton, MN. Elements in highest demand include roll-outs, spice racks and pull-out pantry units. Ptacek agrees. “No one wants to get on their hands and knees anymore, so they want everything to come to them,” he says.

Ducharme has seen a growth in drawer bases, as well as more storage accessories from pull-outs to toe-kick drawers. And Miller says that consumers are also using ceiling height to get more storage, by using taller wall cabinets or stacking wall cabinets.

Defining Customization

Having the design, style and organizational capacity that meets the exact needs of the consumer is increasingly valuable, in all price points, and with all cabinet options, manufacturers agree. “The definitions may be changing, however, due to the pressure on dealers and manufacturers to provide improved features and benefits,” says Wilcox.

Ducharme says, “Stock cabinetry builders are trying to reinvent themselves by increasing their offerings; mid-priced lines are continuing to strive to please the consumer with the pursuit to remain constant, while the high-end custom lines are looking to provide a lower-cost alternative to increase their market share.”

Nierengarten says that several modifications that were previously only available in custom lines are now offered in semi-custom. While she doesn’t think designers will compromise style for value, she does say, “Value is more important than ever.”

Ptacek says, “I don’t think there is a true ‘stock’ line out there anymore. Everyone is doing things they didn’t do two or three years ago. No one wants to say ‘no’ to an order today, so they are allowing various modifications.” He says that Fieldstone does more customizing now than when the firm had a full custom line.

On the other hand, there will always be different categories of consumers, and therefore a need for all categories of goods. Don Harvey, purchasing manager at Grabill Cabinet Co., in Grabill, IN, says, “Definitions are not changing, but stock and semi-custom are doing a better job of providing a custom look at a value price point. In stock and semi-custom, they are still delivering a nice design; however they are compromising quality of finish and construction.” Consumers who opt for true custom lines are able to get high-end style, design, finish and construction, which he says is the true value.

Korsten expresses some concern about confusing category definitions. “Consumers place a lot of emphasis on the word ‘custom’ but we feel it is often misused by cabinet builders,” he says. “We call ourselves semi-custom because we don’t do custom wood species and custom door styles, but we’ll build custom configurations and we’ll do custom paints. So, the big question is, what is custom and who defines it?”

Simple Style

In keeping with recent years, the trends in design continue to favor simple, clean lines with less ornamentation. Harvey sees a movement toward a transitional or more contemporary look, with rich finishes coupling with a clean, simplistic design. He has also seen a trend toward higher-gloss finishes, dark stains and two-tone projects.

While Korsten agrees that clean, simple lines are the growing styles, he cautions, “don’t count out the more decorative, ornamental designs. Even though clean and simple is growing, there are plenty of very traditional, ornamental style projects being sold. The growth of simple is only marginally so.”

Nierengarten says that subtle curves are still popular. She adds that clean, simple lines are becoming more popular, but “there is demand [for] some ornament, but toned down and more subtle.” Her firm’s Shaker style designs and slab door styles are most popular, along with simple raised panels, she says.

Some manufacturers don’t see a pattern toward any particular style. “There is less consistency in styles as designers tend to have more of a theme,” says Miller.

Manufacturers and dealers also have personalities of their own that impact design, says Wilcox. “At Sunny Wood, we are tied to what we call consumer lifestyle trends. Basically, this is how end consumers are living now. How they are living helps determine what sort of products they need and also determines the style, wood finishes, wood species, etc. they may desire.”

Ducharme says that, for Executive Cabinetry, a transitional style is most popular, with wide frame widths leading the way. The firm has seen requests for exotic veneers on slab doors, and has also had some demand for an elaborate Old World look, with glaze distressing and crackle finishes as accent pieces.

Wilcox has also seen a market for subtle glazes, light finish and physical distressing on finishes. “Some say that the distressed finishes are out, but I think that depends on the consumers needs,” he says. “We’re still seeing needs for some consumer lifestyles that really like a rustic look. Current trends in residential furniture also confirm this.”

Elements of Design

Design trends are all over the board, in part because consumers are still looking for individualization in their kitchens. “[Consumers] don’t want an ‘off the shelf’ solution,” says Brewer. “They want their kitchens to reflect who they are and how they live.” Many manufacturers are responding to this desire by expanding their offerings, particularly in available paint choices and door styles.

Korsten, for instance, says, “Showplace has increased its product offerings to the point of having 69,611 unique combinations of door style, wood species and finish available straight out of our catalog. We have been in full-blown product development mode for quite a while.”

As companies expand their offerings, a wide variety of wood grains come into play. While maple and cherry are still most popular, many others are creeping their way into the cabinet market as well. In the West, alder is a popular choice, says Ducharme. Ptacek says that his firm has also seen a pickup in hickory and Lyptus. Others are using walnut and birch in their new collections.

Finish choices still trend toward darker stains, but manufacturers are also seeing a rise in painted finishes, especially in non-standard colors. Ptacek says custom colors have taken off – even in surprising shades like cardinal red. “[Consumers] want something different than the person next door,” he says.

Harvey is also seeing a bigger demand for paints and glazes, particularly in very light colors, but sometimes in designer colors that make a bold statement. He adds, “Two-tone projects are being seen more, two stains or stain and paint mixed within the same project.”

While framed cabinetry still leads in the U.S. market, interest in frameless is on the rise, say some manufacturers. “Framed cabinetry is still in greater demand by our clientele; however, frameless continues to gain momentum,” says Harvey. “Frameless cabinetry is viewed as [offering] a greater value without sacrificing function and aesthetics,” he says.

Ptacek says that the market for frameless design hasn’t hit the U.S. like it has in Europe, and while they used to hear people say they needed to offer a frameless line, they haven’t heard that lately. However, there is a desire to see less of the frame, he says, so the door sizes have increased.

Miller says that his company does not offer frameless cabinetry and is seeing a growing trend toward the Shaker look in full overlay, and any mitered door. Ducharme agrees that, with improved assembly techniques, mitered door styles are growing, with both stained and painted finishes.

Wilcox, on the other hand, is seeing more framed inset doors rather than overlay styles. He sees raised panels and recessed panels with beading as popular.

Brewer notes that case construction is less important than consumers getting the look they want at whatever price point they are in. “Most dealers and installers are used to traditional framed cabinetry, so that has the biggest market share,” he says.

Green Needs

Environmental responsibility is a natural part of the landscape these days, so it comes as no surprise that manufacturers identify it as an important part of the conversation about cabinet trends. At the same time, customers interested in value seem to shy away from green products that have a higher cost.

Korsten says, “People still like to feel they are ‘doing the right thing’ by asking about [environmentally friendly products], but they are only compelled to buy green if the product fits their desired look and is cost neutral. We are not yet seeing a movement to green purely for the sake of going green,” he says. However, he adds, consumers will, in many cases, appreciate and give “extra credit” to dealers who find a productive way for their old cabinetry to be re-used, such as donating to a Habitat Restore.

Harvey says that the increase of contemporary designs has opened up and driven increased demand for reconstituted veneer products with cleaner, straight-grained looks and exotic offerings due to consistent supply and sustainability. He also adds that an all-wood cabinet continues to be preferred over other materials, such as MDF and particleboard that traditionally contained greater levels of formaldehyde. Grabill has eliminated MDF and particleboard lines of construction in favor of an all-plywood box construction. However, the firm has also introduced an “exotic” species offering featuring several of the reconstituted and bamboo veneers, a sustainable option to other alternatives.

Ducharme says that at Executive, they are focusing as much on “healthy” as “sustainable,” because their typical consumer is particularly interested in products that promote health and well being. “Our message is, you don’t have to pay more to make the healthy responsible choice. Waterborne UV stains paints and topcoats are standard. Three-quarter-inch, No Added Formaldehyde Domestic Plywood is our standard. You don’t pay more. Our consumer gets a Greenguard Children and Schools Indoor Air Quality certified kitchen and does not pay a dime more for it. This message resonates with anyone and everyone…not
just the green buyer.”

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