Nice Niches

In a tough economy, the designer who offers the most, wins. Many kitchen and bath designers are throwing out the playbook and taking a fresh look at both their strengths and the needs of an ever-evolving marketplace to help their businesses stand out.

This month, KBDN looks at three designers from different regions and how they have adapted what they know of their abilities, experience and market to develop a design niche.

The Kashered Kitchen

Aaron Lapp isn’t shy about his passion for work, and the challenges of designing a kosher kitchen are a big reason why. Lapp, of Teaneck, NJ-based Kozy Kitchens, specializes in kitchen designs that facilitate the adherence to kashrut, or Jewish dietary law.

Kozy Kitchens’ geographic area is conducive to this specialty, and Lapp believes it is one that has sustained him through slow economic times.

“I do believe that because I have this specialty and my area is populated by many Jewish people, I get more business than another dealer who doesn’t have that specific experience,” he says.

Estimating he has worked on designs for several hundred kashered kitchens in the last eight years, Lapp can quantify how his specific knowledge put his business in a position to promote itself as a premier dealer/designer for kosher kitchen designs.

“The first thing to understand about Jewish dietary law is that it restricts dairy products from being cooked with meat,” he says, explaining that this means one space must effectively contain two kitchens. “You will almost always find two sinks, dishwashers, ovens and occasionally two microwaves. Most times, there will be a six-burner cooktop to avoid cross-contamination. The challenge is to find space for all of it and also create practical prep areas, counter space and just make it all look amazing.”

If space is not an issue, designing these kitchens presents no particular issue. But as designers of any size kitchen will attest, space is an issue 99% of the time.

Lapp notes, “Smaller kitchens are naturally harder. Many times you have to compromise and go with a double sink instead of two separate ones, or a single dishwasher for meat dishes because of space, resulting in handwashing the dairy dishes.”

Meat and dairy plates must be stored in different places, as well, so storage is another issue. But a chief concern in a kashered kitchen is the material used on prep spaces, because it must be nonporous to prevent cross-contamination.

“Because Passover requires that you cannot have any residue of bread particles on your counters, the countertop needs to be able to be 100% cleaned,” according to Lapp. The generally suggested method is to pour boiling water on the surface, although some of the devout will use more extreme methods like applying a blowtorch.

“Obviously this means you need a good quality surface,” the designer points out. “Granite is porous, but because it is sealed, some believe it can be used. Quartz surfaces are nonporous, but because the slabs are engineered and not 100% natural, there can be questions.”

Appliances, too, come with such questions. “Most high-end appliance brands offer a Sabbath mode as a standard, these days,” he continues. Sabbath (or Shabbat) mode is intended to allow observant Jews to use the appliance on the Sabbath, when they are prohibited from doing any ‘creative’ work, which is generally interpreted as flipping switches (which creates a circuit), preparing food and making a fire. Sabbath mode on an oven, for example, means that the standard six- or 12-hour automatic shutoff is overridden (because food that is cooked prior to the Sabbath may be kept warm, which also means warming drawers are a great addition to a kosher kitchen), and any light on the oven such as an LED display or a light that might go on when the door is opened is disabled.

“My guess is that appliance companies have figured out that observant Jews do a lot of appliance buying for their kitchens – well, double, actually – so it made sense to add the Sabbath feature. It’s almost hard to find a big brand that doesn’t offer it – GE, KitchenAid, Jenn-Air, Wolf, Viking, etc. – they all have it,” Lapp says.

It is the connection between spirituality and the kitchen that makes the process both challenging and rewarding for Lapp’s clients. “I love it,” he concludes.

Allergies by Design

For Gail Patton, CKD, CAPS, the notion of an area of specialty was a homegrown one. When the 36-year industry veteran was a teenager, she developed what was first thought to be severe hay fever, but was later recognized as an allergy to corn and corn products.

“I soon discovered that almost 95% of processed food has some type of corn in it. I had to rethink my whole way of cooking, of eating,” says Patton, who is the principle of Gail Patton’s Designs in Jackson, MI.

Although she covers the full spectrum of budgets, design styles and clients, she says that having had a dietary restriction has made her more conscious of the importance of sensitive design.

“I now approach my designs with ergonomics in mind first. So much of trendy design focuses on the look first, the function second, but with a client facing a challenge, you don’t get that luxury,” she adds.

Time is key; kitchen designers working with a client with a dietary restriction or an allergy will require more time to work out the details. It’s worth it, says Patton. “It definitely takes more time to work out all the details. But it’s very important that, as a designer, you develop some kind of specialty. You won’t use it every day, but focusing on how to overcome a specific challenge in a way that will give you the benefit of some expertise will make you a better designer even on the ordinary kitchens you work on.”

Patton acknowledges that it does take patience, compassion and understanding. “You must go through the frustrations with your client, you must be willing to listen.” But the payoff is worth it, she insists.

Food allergies, in particular, create some interesting needs. “It changes how you think about kitchen design. You have to assume a worst-case scenario with every severe allergy; to take even a slight chance of cross-contamination could be potentially fatal,” she says.

Storage is generally the issue in these kitchens. To prevent against possible inclusion of an allergen, cooks will generally prepare things from scratch, which means including room to store bulk products.

“There also may need to be room worked out for items like stand-mixers, prep space for kneading dough, etc. If there’s a pesticide allergy, veggies might be homegrown, there might need to be separate sets of tools for different jobs and room to store them, a need for a larger pantry or freezer – the list of needs can be really endless.”

To anyone looking to develop a specialty, she advises: “One does not become an expert by going to classes. You learn what people are in need of over time, by listening. The joy of seeing an excited and happy client keeps me moving forward. Encouraging the afflicted client to control his or her problem instead of letting it control him or her is worth all the extra time and work.”

Limitless Designs

Limitations that affect good design come in many forms. Universal Design, intended to help people age-in-place, is a concept whose meaning has expanded over the years to include design for anyone with a physical limitation. In a country battling an obesity epidemic, there is a need to accommodate with compassionate and expert design a growing segment of the population with restricted movement due to size or other physical impairment.

That’s where Cynthia Shull, an obesity design and ADA specialist at Sacramento, CA-based Kitchen Mart, is making a name for herself. “I had been designing these types of kitchens for years, but only thought to start specializing and advertising it when I realized that there are no easy answers for clients with challenges – especially those who don’t fall within the standard ADA requirements,” says Shull.

“Specialty kitchen designs for those with different needs are as important as a medical specialist for an illness. Generalists are super for creating beautiful and functional kitchens, but specialists base their designs on specific needs such as a person’s size, disability or limitations, etc.,” she says.

Those who work with these types of clients have come to know the products they work with extensively.

“A faucet for someone with carpal tunnel syndrome or rheumatoid arthritis may be one that is on a sensor so that there is virtually no need to touch it at all, and that seemingly small detail may be the difference between a client being able to fully utilize the kitchen or not,” Shull continues.

Although she gets many clients through referrals, Shull has begun to advertise her specialty by putting it on her business cards and flyers.

Shull begins with an extensive questionnaire she’s developed over the years to nail down the basics right away. “It allows me to evaluate and gently ask questions of my clients to determine how they cook and what their physical limitations are. For example, I find I bump up many dishwashers to a taller height since bending over and reaching those dishes in the back lower rack is not physically possible for some.”

She advocates blind corner racks, push button-controlled appliances and other common-sense, easy-to-use solutions. “I try to always include those items for aging-in-place purposes, things that are adaptable for everyone.”

Finally, Shull advises that the specialty takes compassion and patience in the information gathering. “The biggest challenge is getting my clients to openly discuss their wants, needs, limitations, even frustrations about how they have to cook now. Once I get that info, I can begin the design process.”