Clean & Green

There’s no question that today’s kitchen cabinets are all about color. Going green continues to be the hottest trend around, but color is also showing up in myriad options for painted cabinets and unusual finishes. And while clean lines may have cooled the demand for excessively ornate detailing in most of the country, upscale consumers still want cabinetry that offers unique design elements that give it some personal flair.

Indeed, designers striving to create one-of-a-kind kitchens for upscale consumers recognize that the cabinet design, finish, detailing and interior options are all critical to that campaign.

Additionally, the media attention being paid to the green movement is creating more environmentally conscious consumers who are increasingly looking for products that minimize pollution, make use of sustainable woods, conserve energy and reduce waste.

Of course another kind of green is impacting the market, as well, with economic challenges affecting not only stock lines, but also semi-custom and custom, with increased pressure for differentiation at all price points.

Flexibility, too, is a growing trend at every price point, with everything from appliances to cabinet interiors becoming more flexible to meet the demand for spaces that can be customized to how the homeowner lives.

Manufacturers recently surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News agree that kitchen cabinets need to provide not only efficient, customized storage, but also meet the demand for flexibility, both functionally and aesthetically. And, of course, while it may not be easy being green, it’s even tougher not to be in an increasingly eco-friendly climate.

The Color Green

Indeed, concern for the earth has clearly become a key issue in the kitchen and bath market, and that interest in all things green spans consumers and designers to manufacturers. Increased awareness of the issues surrounding the green movement is having a clear impact on the industry, as evidenced by the growing array of greener product options.

“We are getting calls daily from people who want information on green products,” says Rod Brewer, v.p./marketing and product development for Mid Continent Cabinetry in Eagan, MN. “The Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association has taken a proactive leadership position on this with the Environmental Stewardship Program (ESP).” He adds that the ESP Program was launched in 2006 as an environmental certification program for kitchen and bath cabinet manufacturers, rating manufacturers on air quality, product resource management, process resource management, environmental stewardship and community relations.

Tamy K. Severude, director of marketing & dealer development for Holiday Kitchens in Rice Lake, WI, has also seen the impact of the green movement on business. “There is a lot of interest in green and the word ‘formaldehyde’ in association with kitchen cabinetry,” says Severude. “We are asked many times a day to help the dealer better understand green and the products we have to offer.”

When asked about the latest trends in the cabinetry industry, Laurie Galbraith, design and training manager for HomeCrest Cabinetry in Goshen, IN, puts it simply: “Products and practices that spell G-R-E-E-N,” are among the top trends.

Cindy Draper, marketing manager for Canyon Creek Cabinet Co. in Monroe, WA agrees: “Of course, green building and sustainable products and practices are on everyone’s mind.”

In fact, Yael Tamari, president and CEO of ALNO USA in Boston, MA says that “green is the feature that is most commonly requested” by consumers right now.

While most people agree that the environment should be a priority, the bottom line is – well, the bottom line. And that means price still matters, which is why green products do best when they are marketed to show value as well as eco-friendly benefits.

Scott Korsten, director of marketing for Showplace Wood Products in Harrisburg, SD explains: “The green momentum is more than just a gimmick today. Given choices with neutral pricing and similar desirable style, green wins.” However, he adds, “It is still too early to believe that green will win solely on it’s ‘right thing to do’ merits…Price and style will still generally prevail if the price [of green products] is too great.”

Economic Impact

While green may be the biggest buzzword for design, green is also a major issue when it comes to the economic challenges facing the industry right now. Indeed, greater price sensitivity on the part of consumers has led to changes in everything from product design to marketing.

Increased competition from imports is one result of a more challenging business climate. As Korsten explains, imports are having a “significant impact on new construction and the related stock cabinet lines.” This has a “trickle up effect,” since “the impact on semi-custom can be seen as stock lines look to differentiate themselves from the imports, which impacts the custom lines as the semi-custom brands look to differentiate themselves.”

Draper notes that imports have not yet had a major impact on business due to the “custom nature of our product,” but thinks it will become more of a “competitive factor in the future.”

But Tamari reports, “For most of our competitors, the increase in the Euro has increased their prices, and has therefore hurt their sales.” She explains that ALNO has adjusted prices in the U.S. making it unnecessary “to increase pricing to adjust to the Euro.” This, she says has made them “more competitive than other importers.”

To address the current challenges, many manufacturers are making changes in how they market their products. According to Draper, “We are marketing to high-end, multi-family housing developments as well as continuing to develop dealer partnerships. As far as marketing to the end-user, we have increased our marketing support efforts to help our dealers and contractors capture business in the remodeling market.”

But some manufacturers are taking a more positive view of the current economic challenges. As Steve Wilcox, design and marketing director for Sunny Wood Products in Cerritos, CA, sees it, “We view today’s market as an opportunity to focus our attention more on the needs of our dealers and the final consumer. Nothing is easy any more, but we try to offer a unique product that is meaningful to the customer from an emotional, functional and economic perspective.”

And Korsten notes, “Our strategy has always been to listen to our dealers, support their needs and provide predictable products and service. This core value helps us retain dealers in tough times and makes us an attractive alternative for dealers who have been disappointed by their current cabinet brands and now have time to evaluate making changes for the better.”

Then there are some manufacturers that say the economy isn’t impacting them at all. For instance, Sandra Wolf, director of marketing services for DeWils Industries, in Vancouver, WA, states that DeWils continues to expand markets, “specifically in the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and Southeast.”

“Because we are about 65% remodel and 35% new home, we have been able to hold our sales strong,” explains Severude.

“We are being asked to do more and more on the custom end because of the value for the price.”

In the end, most of the manufacturers surveyed said they remain optimistic about business, and recognizing the cyclical nature of the business, their plan is simply to stay the course, focusing on meeting the ever-changing needs of their customers.

Paints & Stains

But green – the eco-friendly or the economic version – is only one of the factors impacting the kitchen cabinet market right now. Style trends are also key, as consumers embrace color back into the kitchen.

As a part of this trend, painted cabinets are gaining ground in the kitchen cabinet market and manufacturers are introducing some new stains as well. When it comes to cabinet finishes, though, paints and stains seem to be moving in opposite directions on the spectrum. The most popular palette of colors for painted cabinets is one of soft tones and pale hues. The industry is also seeing a lot of white-toned, opaque colors gaining in popularity.

Stains, on the other hand, are appearing in far more dramatic and deeper tones.

Korsten says, “Painted finishes in varying shades of white and off-white continue to be very popular in virtually every region.

These finishes were once confined to use in coastal areas, but there really aren’t any regions where they are out of place today.”

Brewer sees painted finishes in high demand, “particularly in combination with a glazed finish.”

Severude agrees that “paints with glazes” are popular. She says that the latest cabinet glazes, however, are turning up in refined, softer colors than in years past. Additionally, he cites medium to dark stains as being in vogue as well.

Korsten concurs, “Stained finishes are continuing to move more to darker finishes and browner tones. Premium finishes involving more ‘furniture’ characteristics – such as multiple hand-distressing and finish steps – are gaining momentum.”

Wolf has also seen an increase in demand for dark stains. She adds that demand for hand-rubbed furniture glazes has also been up.

Of course, while dark woods and lacquers are popular, according to Tamari, she also says that a variety of door options can “feature innovative colors that instantly make the kitchen the most unique room in the home.” Hence, it’s increasingly common to see an island cabinet done in a contrasting color to personalize the kitchen and add an element of color.

Draper agrees: “Color is making a comeback, along with the mixing of door styles within the same room.” She adds, “Specialty finish techniques such as burnished colors, sand-through-to-wood and distressing are quite popular, along with custom color matches.” She further notes, “Dark stain colors are also popular on all wood species, as well as mixing white or crème painted cabinets with dark woods.”

Galbraith also mentions consumer interest in “colors that cross-over – not really a true green but not really a gray tone…”
Wilcox also points to some key trends: “We are seeing trends toward richer colors in brown and wine-colored tones,” he says. “This is just a continuation of the current trends in residential furnishings. We are also seeing trends in detailed rubbed painted finishes. Finish distressing and hand applied features are very important…fly-specking, cow-tailing, dents, scratches and glazing all allow for finishes that have a custom appearance.”

Wilcox adds, “Regarding the sheen of finishes, we still see matte to semi-glossy finishes as the mainstream. Hi-gloss finishes don’t seem to be as important for today’s interiors.”

Style Trends

While many manufacturers and dealers continue to see an increased interest in contemporary, clean lines, others maintain that the furniture look is a still a trend, and that traditional looks are still holding their own.

Wilcox believes that the furniture look never goes out of style, since this allows designers to create a one-of-a-kind look for their clients that can reflect the overall style of the home. He states, “We are seeing the need for more furniture-like design and decorative finishes. Features such as inset doors, select veneer treatments and hand-detailed finishes are very important.”

Draper agrees that the furniture look is very much in vogue. She notes, “For example, where a freestanding island is designed to look different from the rest of the cabinetry and decorative moldings, ornamental appliqués, legs, feet, refrigerator and dishwasher panels are used throughout the design.” Draper continues: “Furniture-style cabinetry gives a more traditional and decorative look, and can really showcase the homeowner’s personal style.”

On the other hand, there is clearly a substantial demand for a more streamlined look. “Consumers want a high-style kitchen that reflects their design preferences,” says Tamari. She contends that “contemporary and minimalist trends prevail – as well as transitional [styles].”

Wolf concurs that more modern, cleaner looks remain the hot trend right now: “The biggest trend,” she says, “is the move toward contemporary kitchens and metal doors,” though she adds that “Craftsman door styles are very popular as well.”

Wilcox points to “casual traditional or casual contemporary” as two styles preferred by consumers. “Casual traditional takes its primary inspiration from traditional furniture and cabinet styles, but is a bit more clean-lined with a more casual finish treatment,” says Wilcox. Alternatively, “casual contemporary styles are cleaner transitional styles with an updated finish treatment. All of [these] styles are meant to be familiar to the customer, tie in with other home-based fashions, yet still be fresh and new.”

Korsten says that the “traditional square-raised panel door style has been, and probably always will be, the number one style.” He adds, however, that “There is movement toward cleaner, sleeker looks and wider-framed styles.”

Brewer says, “Styling trends are moving in two directions simultaneously. The full overlay decorative doors used in traditional designs are doing well, but the wide rail Shaker, which is used in more modern designs, is also doing very well.”

But some traditions never die. “Shaker is a proven style that has stood the test of time,” says Draper. “Shaker is popular for its clean lines and flexibility – it can fit design themes from rustic to contemporary,” she adds.

Wood Choices

When it comes to wood choices, variety is the watchword, according to manufacturers. Certainly traditional woods such as maple, cherry and oak are holding their own. Galbraith says, “Maple continues to reign, especially at the mid-price points. It takes a wide range of stain colors as well as the paint colors.”

Exotic woods, however, have also been making inroads in the industry during the last few years. Manufacturers cited bamboo, zebrawood and mahogany as some of the more unique products being used for kitchen cabinets.

Designers are also mixing and matching exotics with more common wood materials to create a distinctive look. According to Draper, “Exotic wood veneers have…become very popular recently – mixed in with traditional wood species or even metal doors. Exotic wood veneers fit the consumers’ desire to be different and have something unique.”

Trends in detailing also allow for designers and their clients to make a statement. That is, in part, due to growth in technology that allows for more detailing, even at middle price points. And, of course, changes in the home itself can impact details. For instance, Korsten notes, “Taller ceilings allow for bulkier moldings and multiple steps of molding. And, greater use of carved moldings makes coordinating with accent pieces essential…”

Functional Efficiency

“Offering the best storage available is key, but pairing it with superb organization is even better,” says Tamari. As the kitchen becomes the center of the home, encompassing far more than simple food prep and cooking functions, smart storage becomes more important than ever, and manufacturers have stepped up to the plate to deliver.

As a result, standard, cookie-cutter solutions to organizational challenges have increasingly given way to innovative, flexible and efficient storage solutions that meet the specific needs of the homeowner. Storage that can be personalized for how the homeowner lives and works is in demand right now, as designers strive to help clients get and stay organized.

“Storage systems are big in virtually all of their forms,” says Korsten. “People are interested in finding ways to organize their lives as a way to reduce stress. This involves creating spaces to place all sorts of items that tend to create clutter,” he adds. Korsten also says there is an increasing demand for cabinets for trash and recycling and a growing number of requests for “base cabinets with larger and deeper drawers.”

Severude refers to top-of-the-line storage accessories as “kind of like having all of the toys of cabinetry.” She says there are “lots of interior wire accessories for convenience and organization.”

Draper explains that part of creating flexible storage involves thinking outside the box. For example, she says, “Narrow, pull-out cabinets with shelves are used next to cooktops to hold spices, but may also be wired in the back and used near a desk to hold phone chargers and other electronics. Small apothecary drawers can take advantage of the narrow spaces between cabinets.”

Wilcox adds that “exposed wine bottle storage and functional corner storage continue to be important.”

Brewer sees drawer storage options as preferable to door and roll-out tray storage in base cabinets because they can store a greater variety of different-sized objects. “Drawers are being used for storing everything from the traditional pots and pans to plates, cups, glasses and food,” he says.

Wolf points out that drawers alone aren’t enough; rather, consumers are looking for more well-organized drawers, with wider widths to accommodate oversized items.

Indeed, as consumers become more interested in customized storage options, manufacturers are increasingly called on to step up their game to deliver a variety of innovative, creative products. The end result is that designers have more choices than ever for creating kitchens that meet their clients’ specific needs.

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