Global Innovations

Change is the one constant in the kitchen and bath industry, and this is true whether you live in the U.S. or abroad. However, in recent years, design innovations have become increasingly global, as evidenced by the recent EuroCucina Fair in Milan, Italy.

With 2,450 exhibitors and more than 270,000 attendees from 140 different countries, the EuroCucina Fair encompasses several key events: The EuroCucina Fair itself (the acknowledged premier kitchen furniture exhibition in Europe), the International Bathroom Furniture Exhibition, the Salone Satellite (a great spot for searching out innovations because it showcases numerous prototypes of furniture invented by creative young designers), and a pavilion devoted to “technology” (prototypes and concepts of electrical appliances for tomorrow, as well as the best offered today).

This event is both exciting and stimulating, filled with many lessons that can be applied to American kitchen and bath design.

The Big Picture

One of the most exciting insights from this event was the worldwide recognition of a kitchen as a living space. Globally, families are asking for a multi-activity room.

While in the past EuroCucina displays focused exclusively on the working elements of the kitchen, this year, almost every setting included adjacent furniture (tables, chairs and other elements) to suggest an environment to live in – not just to cook in.

The show planners stressed this design change, noting, “The [exhibits] showcase the role of the kitchen as a place where people tend to congregate, the heart of the home, a creative laboratory. Thus, kitchens, like bathrooms, are central when it comes to domestic dwelling planning. Furnishings, like the technology [seen in today’s high-end appliances], are seen as worthwhile investments, to be chosen with care in the search for functionality and creative sophistication.”

The importance of the bath is also global. Statements from the show planners in Milan could have been written about K/BIS.

“From Swish bathtubs to Decor radiators that defuse aromatic essences and basins conceived as accessories in their own right, the ample showcase in the bathroom sector defines the bath as a place of relaxed ambiences, smart high-technology and designer domestic spas for personal pampering. It has now become a central room, a place for wellness and relaxation, a milieu that does not merely respond to service needs but which, in some cases, also extends to fitness and body care.”

In North America, there has been a cooking transition from chore to shared hobby. The leaders of Poggenpohl have observed this as well, commenting, “The trend shows an increasing number of men displaying an interest in ‘kitchen and cuisine’. In recent years, kitchens have turned into event and representation areas frequently equipped with audio systems.”

Poggenpohl presented a new “Kitchen for Men” in cooperation with Porche Design.

The theme of a kitchen as a gathering area was echoed by Ulrich W. Siekman, head of SieMatic, when he said, “For a long time, the kitchen was viewed as a work room clearly separated from the living and eating areas. In the future, it will act more as a Great Room, in which family and friends come together.”

Regarding the new SieMatic range called S1, he went on to say, “In our S1, [consumers] will enjoy not only the cooking, but all of the family activities; for example, it is possible to integrate PC, CD, DVD, radio, Internet and an iPod charging station as desired – all with sophisticated accoutrements. Additionally, an ingenious lighting system allows the creation of individual color waves adjusting to the time of day and the occasion.”

How does the recognition of a broadly held global view of a kitchen as a gathering space help North American specialists improve their designs? Recognizing how important shifting the focus from the kitchen cabinet arrangement to the total living environment solution is a key to future success.

With global designers also planning the kitchen as a living space, there is inspiration from throughout the world. Therefore, there is a challenge to continue design education beyond North America.

For example, making frequent visits to international manufacturer Web sites is important. Rather than immediately clicking on “gallery,” visit a press room first. Why? Press releases will typically be accompanied by images that might not have made their way yet to the general “gallery” on the site – so the latest designs can be viewed there.

Twp Modern Themes

Another interesting aspect of the event was the emergence of two different modern style themes, each with different approaches to the design process.

North Americans enjoy a more casual, warmer version of Contemporary or Modern design. These clients embrace the Asian concept of “complex simplicity,” the perfection of imperfection. In contrast, designers in North America categorize “European Contemporary” as being sharp and crisp. As a global design community, these different Contemporary design presentations are noted.

Sometimes the scope of how different the planning process between European designers and professionals in the U.S. is overlooked. Who controls the design specifications is the difference between the two professional communities.

Europeans understand the value of the design elements of these collections resulting in highly stylized environments.

Therefore, in the European industry, the manufacturing firm provides design leadership. This is why there are collections created by designers of note for the finest manufacturers. Roberto Lucci (a noted furniture designer), for example, created a new design called Starlight for Snaidero that showcased doors and molded handles of DuPont Corian.

In Europe, the design of the entire line is controlled by the manufacturer: Available sizes are determined by the industrial designer, not by the designer in the field. In fact, European kitchen designers are often referred to as “resellers” or “merchants” because they represent the designs created by their manufacturers.

North American designers take a different approach: The individual kitchen specialist is considered the designer and works with individual component parts provided by the cabinet manufacturers in custom sizes to create the room setting for the clients.

Why discuss this different approach to “going to market?” All of the designs created by these fine European artists demand the field designer follow the design ethic at the foundation of the collection. For example, there was an extensive use of integrated finger pulls in cabinetry. This detail is possible when there are a limited number of door sizes in a line. A door handle can be proportionately sized within a limited range, but it is not possible to do that with cabinet sizes available in 1/4" increments.

What do North American designers learn from this observation? Be more disciplined when working with a client who has selected a cabinet manufacturer that offers specific “collections.”

North American kitchen and bath designers will best serve the client by developing a design as engineered, rather than manipulating pieces to assemble a “one-of-a-kind” room.

Traditional VS. Classsic

Also of note, there is a great difference between North American consumers and that of the Italians in the interpretation of Traditional – or Classic.

There were a multitude of “Classic” kitchens presented among the exhibits at the fair. I had never seen such rooms before!

The definition of Classic interiors in Italy is formal. Therefore, it is not an easy transition from Classic furniture to Classic kitchens.

Everything from gold leafed white painted columns to glittering crystal chandeliers in these small-scaled Classic rooms demonstrated the vast difference between the European concept of “Traditional” – defined as Classical – and the North American definition of Traditional. In the U.S., architecture inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, with its beautiful woodworking finished with a simple milk paint is Traditional.

So, what can be learned from this? When working with clients from a diverse cultural background, it is critical to clarify the definition of beauty from a client’s perspective. An Asian family’s definition of soft colors might be different than a Mainline Philadelphia family’s view. Study the clientele, ask them to show pictures or furnishings in other areas of the home to engage them in a “visual” conversation, rather than a verbal one.

Although the European definition of Classic is different from ours, I did see two interpretations of Transitional I think can span the Atlantic Ocean nicely. The first was a simple white display by Maistri: a simple glaze finish on a white door. The second was the new SieMatic BeauxArts kitchen designed by Mick deGuilio, a respected North American kitchen designer.

SieMatic defines the space as “The Story of an American Dream.” The collection combines old and new, hand-hewn and crafted, as well as machine-made, and a matte finish juxtaposed to streamline metals – all beautifully presented. This Transitional and eclectic approach can create individual, fresh rooms for each client while respecting the collection’s design integrity. Global clients searching for something between Traditional and Modern design could happily live with this interpretation of interior architecture.

Total Environments

Another interesting trend was toward wonderful “total environments” created by European professionals.

This use of space is not new to American designers – but we can expand our design talents by studying the shape and form of the exhibits at the fair. We Americans consider the kitchen part of a Great Room space – Europeans place the kitchen at the center of such a gathering space. Therefore, the shape of cabinet runs, as well as the relationship of work centers to one another and to adjacent furniture, is changing. In Europe, it’s common to see long, tall walls of storage that conceal the majority of equipment and foods, as well as some appliances. Seating areas are not simple counters popping up from islands; they are expansive gathering tables at right angles to an island or peninsula, or an extension of an island or peninsula.

The key learning here is to start the planning process with the overall room to develop a good understanding of all of the furniture requirements for that room. Consider the kitchen an element of the furniture. After this overview, create the total room solution – then, begin to plot the functional work space.

Curves are Back

This year, curved shapes really stood out at EuroCucina. One display was notable: Produced by Val Cucine, designed by Alessandro Mendini and sponsored by Alessi, this kitchen reintroduced the beauty of the curved line.

The designer said, “This kitchen is arranged on a few precise concepts: well-trusted technology, energy savings, environmental protection, ergonomic precision, and finally, a formulated aesthetic that is not based on ostentation, high tech or minimalism, but is a search for the intimate, the evocative and the emotional that is always the basis of my work.”

What can be learned from seeing curved cabinetry being emphasized once again? The learning is not as simple as reintroducing curves into designs, although we will see them. The revelation is simply a reminder to think beyond squares.

Lessons for U.S. Designers Evident in European Design Details Seen at EuroCucina Fair

While not all of the European trends evident at the EuroCucina Fair will translate well to kitchens and baths designed in the U.S., a number of specific details offer some big picture lessons that kitchen and bath designers will find valuable. Consider the following details seen in the displays, along with the key lessons that can be learned from them.

Storage Ideas

  • Much better utilization of the sink cabinet – drawers cut out to fit around the sink, providing some storage.
  • Large, oversized, well-engineered drawers in base cabinets.
  • New touch-latch mechanisms on doors, allowing a “no hardware” look.
  • Full door tall cabinets with new hardware: Doors move forward and then slide to the side.
  • A table sliding system that allows a large L-shaped surface to slide on a channel between the top of the door and the bottom of the countertop.
  • Drawers that open and close electronically.
  • Much better utilization of countertop space to provide storage behind the sink or along the counter meeting the back wall.
  • Electronics being used to lift and lower complete storage sections in peninsula areas or in the backsplash space.

Lesson: Refocus on new ways to improve accessibility to storage within cabinetry.

Materials

  • No wenge wood; some use of American cherry. Walnut introduced in many of the exhibits.
  • A reintroduction of black and white gloss. Taupe and cream wood stains, laminates and lacquers frequently showcased.
  • More stainless steel being used in countertops, as well as accent doors or drawers within the cabinetry.
  • Black and white neutrality, taupe with white or cream as a second neutral.
  • Violet, lilac, purple combined with white or taupe seen throughout the show.
  • Huge black-on-black (gloss and matte) naturalistic patterns on back walls.

Lesson: Learn more about color. Learn to combine dissimilar materials.

Cabinet Door Styles

  • A reintroduction of integrated finger pulls within the cabinetry, and elongated, horizontal elements finished to match the cabinetry, or a new adaptation of C and J channels.
  • Door styles arranged in cubes of space.
  • Doors framed with alternating material, thus creating horizontal lines.
  • A major introduction of curved shapes in cabinetry, as well as counter surfaces.

Lesson: Focus on the shape of the cabinets in kitchens that are to be created, as well as the cabinet layout.

Counter Materials

  • No glass tops.
  • Honed or plain stone.
  • Very thin counters faced with similar materials to match cabinets.
  • Combination of thick and thin wood edges.
  • Combination of angled round-overs and other shapes with a second tier of counter material in a flat-edged presentation.

Lesson: Pay more attention to the details in surfacing.

Appliance Technology

  • LED lighting everywhere: inside the cabinets, activated by a door or drawer being opened.
  • A hood moved up and down above an island: an excellent solution for providing ventilation only when it’s needed – out-of-the-way otherwise.
  • Induction and electric cooking seen everywhere, but very little gas.
  • Hoods as sculptural highlight to the room, rather than only as a functional ventilation system.

Lesson: Pay attention to technological changes ahead. Keep an open mind.

In the Bathroom

  • Heated towel bars as art.
  • Showers and toilets combined in separate compartments so the vanities and tubs can stand alone.
  • More color in the bathroom.
  • Sculptured, one-of-a-kind vessels and pedestals.
  • Bathtubs created from alternative materials.

Lesson: When it comes to master bathrooms, shift the focus from hygiene to wellness.

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