Same Difference

While it may be true that an outdoor kitchen might not be as smart in Anchorage as it would be in Amarillo, designers nevertheless are reporting much the same overall trends emerging from coast-to-coast: contemporary and transitional styles are hot and getting hotter. While the economy has shown everyone a noticeable dip in business, green products and the need for expanded product offerings are the order of the day no matter where you are designing.

“In the past, the Midwest was much more conservative and had a strong Prairie School Design aesthetic,” reports Ellen Cheever, CMKBD, ASID, CAPS, principal of Wilmington, DE-based Ellen Cheever & Associates. “The South was very formal, traditional. Only the coasts boasted much contemporary design.”

Cheever says that there has been a marked shift toward a range of contemporary and transitional styles over the past decade. “I’m seeing it throughout the U.S. now.”

“We are seeing a lot of contemporary ‘Island’ design,” says Tiare Noelani Cowan, CKD, v.p. of Honolulu, HI-based Archipelago Hawaii. “Our clients seek a sense of place with being Tommy Bahama-kitschy.” She sees her clients becoming more daring in their color and material selections.

“We serve high- and medium-end projects in the Scottsdale, Paradise Valley and Phoenix areas,” says Dana Finch Hayes, president of Scottsdale, AZ-based Kitchens Southwest. “While in some areas traditional inset, white painted cabinetry remains strong, we’re seeing a strong move for contemporary looks and green materials.”

Rebecca Reynolds, managing partner of New Canaan Kitchens of New Canaan, CT sees her market as affected by the existing style of homes in the area. “We are a bedroom community of New York City. The design styles we are producing, typically, are traditional or transitional, because most of the homes in the area are built that way. People here are sometimes too afraid to be bold or unique, or to experiment with new ideas, especially color.”

“Design trends here are getting more sleek and modern,” says Jill Y. Dybdahl, owner of Dybdahl’s Class Kitchens in Middleton, WI, a suburb of Madison. Her thoughts seem to buck the old notion of midwestern traditional design, thanks to the not-so-subtle hand of globalization. “Our market has expanded and drawn new resident transplants from all over the world. With them, they are bringing more transitional and contemporary tastes.”

All Over the Map

Versatility has been the key to success for many of these firms, though, and being able to serve the range of styles a market demands is paramount, designers agree.

Cheever notes that even though contemporary is on the rise, it is a unique blend of European contemporary – with a touch of red, white and blue.

“Contemporary is much ‘warmer’ here in the States than it is in Europe – woods used more than colored synthetic surfaces as cabinet finish materials, for example. Stones and tiles are more often added in, and there is certainly more contrast in color than the monochromatic western European look,” she reports.

Cheever sees contemporary styles appealing more to younger consumers because the look is perceived as easier to live with and maintain.

Dybdahl agrees, “Gen-Xers are looking for simple, clean lines, in part to break away from the traditional style that they grew up with.” Because of their exposure to design, culture and art from around the world in the Age of Information, this generation brings “knowledge and sensitivity to eco-friendly products.

“Ironically, the once-traditional baby boomers are aging and desiring designs with easier maintenance and cleaner lines as well. The signs here point toward the growth of contemporary,” she adds.

“Clients here are getting more daring as far as color is concerned,” says Cowan. “I think HGTV has helped with that.”

Reynolds’ corner of Connecticut might be in love with modern design, but she maintains that the style of the homes holds the average client back. “I really don’t see a lot of change here from traditional style,” she says. “New Canaan has become known for its modern homes – like Philip Johnson’s Glass House – however, even with the wealth of modern styles being shown in magazines, I don’t see mainstream buyers trending that way, yet.”

Product Preference

So now that designers have acknowledged that contemporary – in taste or design – is hot, what products are the rising stars in the trend? The answer is uniform: green, and with looks that will defy the shifting of trends.

Dybdahl states, “There’s been an interesting shift in the past year in what the client desires. There’s been a shift away from ostentatious glitz in the home toward wholesome products that are naturally beautiful, protect the environment and yet stand out as something unique. Paperstone, for example, is made of recycled paper with cashew shell resin. Once installed, it looks like soft leather.”

Hayes sees exotic woods growing in demand, as well as green materials. “I also see an increase in the interest in using concrete countertop applications, and we have installed many displays in our showroom to provide examples.”

Cowan sees hope in sustainability. “Green design is huge here. We are hopeful we can start to produce some of our very own recycled products here in the islands. A company just started up here called Re-Use Hawaii and they dismantle homes and salvage whatever building materials they can for reuse. They have a warehouse where people can go to purchase these items for use in their renovations, things that would have otherwise been in landfills.”

The challenging economy is one thing that does seem to vary from place to place.

“I think the name of the game today is value and choice. If a client’s on a tight budget and can’t afford to purchase cabinetry from me, I want them to at least have a good design, because that’s what will set their kitchen apart and make it special for them,” says Reynolds.

Dybdahl sees the trend in Madison turning toward aging in place due to economic realities, and notes its effects on the choices her clients are making. “Consumers have become much more deliberate in their choices. Most consumers are thinking far beyond the real estate value of their investment because they are planning to stay in their homes for many years. They are selecting products and designs that will be there with them,” she says.

Cowan is largely unfazed by the economic downturn, in part because operating in Hawaii has always put a higher premium on the products she specifies.

“Because we’re on an island, everything has to be shipped in, so in addition to longer lead times, our cost of goods is bumped up as well. Locals are used to it, but people who move here are shocked at the difference in material costs,” she notes. “We’re finding, in general, that people have no problem paying for good design and functionality, but they are really shopping the materials and letting go of some of the decorative details because of the cost.”
Hayes notes, “Budgets are smaller, but luckily we have a wide range of products and can meet most budgets while providing the value we have built a reputation on.”

No recession can last forever, though, and economists are already pointing to a recovery. Reynolds, who closed her physical showroom earlier this year due to rising overhead without rising returns, concludes, “I think people will slowly emerge from their ‘safe house’ and begin to recognize that putting money into their homes is still one of the soundest investments they can make.”