Sign of the Times

Every designer want to create something unique and special. In fact, for many, the creative aspect of this business is why they got into the kitchen and bath design field in the first place. And creativity isn’t just about personal satisfaction; it’s also a key selling point with clients, who often choose designers specifically for their ability to create something truly one-of-a-kind.

But, for many kitchen and bath designers, the question persists: How can we, as design professionals, best utilize our skills to promote our business with a signature design style, approach or philosophy?

After all, most kitchen and bath firms are in constant pursuit of an edge to separate their firms from the competition.

When it comes to creating a design “signature,” there are two schools of thought. The first is made up of those who believe that designing kitchens is akin to sports officiating: If they don’t know you’ve been there, you’ve done your job. For that reason, designers subscribing to this theory maintain that the only true signature style is to have no style at all. Rather, they say, listening to the client will lead to a good layout, good mechanics and engineering – and ultimately, a unique trademark.

Otherwise, they argue, every kitchen becomes a cookie-cutter replica of the one before, ironically making it appear as though the designer is lacking in originality, repeatedly resorting to one technique at the cost of creativity and personalized function.

The other school of thought is made up of those who believe that creating a unique, signature style is a viable way to market their design acumen and help to brand themselves and their firm.

According to Gary White, owner of Kitchen & Bath Design in Newport Beach, CA, the best way to distinguish a design firm is to simply give the clients what they want. “I have always preached that it’s the client’s home, not yours. Your job
is to help your clients realize their dream, not regurgitate your own,” he explains.

Margie Little, CMKBD, an independent kitchen and bath designer from the San Francisco Bay area, agrees: “The goal is to create the signature style of the client. The final design wouldn’t be my signature; rather it would be my take on the design after spending time with the clients and striving to satisfy their needs.”

Gail Drury, CKD, CBD, and president of Drury Design Kitchen and Bath Studio in Glen Ellyn, IL, notes that it is possible to simultaneously balance a signature design style with a layout that meets the client’s needs.

“The challenge is to be creative, yet make sure your ideas are easy to engineer and reproduce,” she says.

She explains that new layout explorations often require a lengthy design process, perhaps including multiple phone calls with a cabinet supplier to work out details or repeated calls from installers who need guidance on the installation.

To that end, just about any design element can become a trademark as long as it is communicated effectively and used with the client’s best interests in mind.

Mark Daniels, owner, designer and builder for Manassas, VA-based Mark Daniels Kitchen and Bath Remodeling, explains:

“I keep the customers’ ideas at the forefront while sharing my signature details regarding cabinet, electrical and appliance placement.”

He adds: “This allows for the customer to be actively engaged in the design process while making informed decisions.”

According to Little: “If I were to promote a ‘signature’ aspect of my business, it is that I’m an independent. I don’t sell cabinets, I don’t sell appliances and I don’t have people working for me. The clients are free to use whoever they choose.”

Daniels adds: “A collaborative relationship with the customer is essential to the success of a signature design. Customers come away feeling that their needs have been addressed and the contractor has the satisfaction of knowing that the customer has been educated in the design process – all while retaining his signature quality.”

He concludes: “A signature style is not created, it evolves. In the end, I need to be more satisfied than the customer, because after all, they don’t see what I see.”

Inspiring Details

So, where should kitchen and bath designers begin if they are interested in developing a design signature?

Drury believes that, for starters, designers should continuously look for inspiring details.

“A great way to find ideas is to always carry a camera with you when you travel and take snapshots of interesting elements you see. This could be an architectural [element] like an old door or entrance to a building, a leg on a piece of furniture or something from nature,” she says.

She also points out that these types of elements are most effective as a design signature if they have not been incorporated into kitchens before.

But, Little also warns that designers should not compromise function in order to incorporate unique design aspects.

“A kitchen is a failure if it isn’t convenient,” she says. “Therefore, I always talk to my clients about what they want to see and if they really understand what that means to their design. If they do understand, then they get their way because they are going to live there,” she explains.

“The client’s design wishes turn out to be an asset to the design process,” concurs Jennifer Gilmer, CKD and owner of Jennifer Gilmer Kitchen & Bath, Ltd. in Chevy Chase, MD, who adds that those demands will force designers to think more creatively. She adds: “I will also tell my clients that the kitchen tells us what it wants and needs by virtue of what the space is like.”

Creating Your Signature

There is a wide range of products, materials and layout applications that can easily become a signature element for kitchen designers.

For instance, Daniels points out that a tactic he incorporates is the use of tile on backsplashes as a “full half-diagonal with full tiles and the balance [featuring] equal borders.”

“This keeps tile symmetry and avoids small pieces,” he says.

He continues: “With sinks, I like stainless steel undermount single bowls where everything goes through the disposer, as well as small prep triangles and clean-up areas.”

Gilmer adds: “Appliances are conducive to a signature technique because we are the specifiers of the appliances. For instance, I can’t make a refrigerator look like a beautiful armoire or piece of furniture, unless I use one that can be fully integrated; and I can’t make an incredible hood without the proper insert and custom stainless lining.”

Tricia Tidemann of Minneapolis, MN-based North Star Kitchens, LLC adds: “I don’t like to see appliances, especially in an open floor plan. So when I can, I integrate all appliances as fully as possible.”

According to Drury, there are certain areas in the kitchen that can be utilized as focal points. “The main one is the cooking area or ‘hearth’ area,” she points out.

To that end, Drury cites mantel hood applications, as well as stone or metal hoods, as ideal candidates for signature touches. 

“I think a kitchen nook/family room area should be comfortable and have a homey feel,” adds Daniels. “For instance, I like nine-foot ceilings on the first floor but with a stepped soffit to accommodate 42" uppers with a 3" crown. The center section of the soffit area could have interesting details such as beaded ceiling, shadow-box picture framing or a variety of textures and colors.”

“Color is the one thing that people have been relating to all of their lives [and] it is something that most people have a connection to from the beginning of the design process,” Gilmer describes.

Shapes, too, can be part of a signature, according to Little, who says: “If there’s a shape that I would consider my signature, it’s the L-shaped kitchen with an island because there is a social aspect to it. Kitchens are a place to interact with your family, and this technique allows you to interact with them instead of ignoring them.”

Gilmer offers additional advice to keep the design aesthetically striking and functionally sound. “Remember, it’s important to have flexibility by separating the refrigerator and freezer, using counter microwaves and refrigerator/freezers, for instance.”

Daniels concludes: “Being able to [interpret] the client’s personal tastes while creating a functional design makes for a satisfying project for the customer – and for me.”

A Bright Idea

According to White, lighting is another area that is conducive to signature styles.

“I have always said that lighting is worth 50% of the emotional impact of a space for 10% of the budget,” he explains. “With light, I can create an environment that changes to suit your mood, the season or time of day or the latest fashion color – forever.”

He continues: “I’ve always believed space to be more psychological than physical, with color and light being two of the most powerful tools in regard to controlling the psychology of space. Therefore, I create my signature style in an incognito [way].”

Daniels agrees: “Placement of canned lights and other lighting elements can showcase the beauty of a kitchen as well as achieve optimal visualization for the cook.” He suggests concealing undercounter lights, if finances allow; and also to avoid placing can lights over walkways, but rather to center them on upper cabinets 24" from the wall.

Gilmer concurs: “Task lighting is probably the one item, besides appliances, that designers should apply to their designs over and over.”

Daniels adds: “Natural lighting is a gift from nature that contractors don’t always take advantage of. Window placement and the addition of greenhouse windows can dramatically enhance the beauty of a well-designed kitchen.”

He also recommends installing a greenhouse or standard window that travels down to counter height for an added visual interest, as well as using pendant lights over islands.

Gilmer concludes: “Once the right kind of lighting is discovered, it’s good to be safe and use the same ones in most designs.”

Showroom Style

According to Drury, showrooms offer kitchen designers a great opportunity to promote the signature aspects of a firm. She says: “There are so many kitchen showrooms out there producing cookie-cutter kitchens. To be successful in today’s marketplace, having a signature style is a must. If you don’t do something to set yourself above the rest, you will just blend in.”

Gilmer suggests that showrooms offer a diverse range of styles, while still maintaining a warm and inviting feel; with the goal being to make customers feel as though they are walking into their own home. “A design style should be reflected by the showroom. The client should feel as though it is a reflection of what his or her final design will look like,” she explains.

She adds that her firm is in the process of installing televisions in the front display window of her showroom which will constantly loop her portfolio pictures. “This expands the showroom by showing all of your work, and not just what you can fit into your showroom,” she says.

Daniels also believes that the showroom is the perfect place to lay the groundwork for the signature design process – and more importantly – the relationship with the client.

“An experienced kitchen and bath contractor can be a tremendous asset to customers, informing them of the constraints they are faced with yet offering them reasonable alternatives, while also considering their wishes and guiding them in
their choices,” he points out.

“You do not need to spend hours laboring over new design ideas for each client,” Drury adds. “In fact, it is just the opposite.

By using variations of the same signature design elements over and over again, you can quickly and effortlessly move from project to project.”

According to Daniels, the only thing that can limit the design process is the client’s budget.

“Ideally, the customer and designer work together, each bringing their own signature styles to the table. The difficulty of designing a great signature kitchen lies not with floorplans, but in working with an existing footprint with limited funds to maximize a designer’s and customer’s satisfaction,” he says.

The E-Signature

Citing a more tech-savvy clientele, Gilmer believes that technology is another powerful tool that can help kitchen and bath designers make their work stand out.

“A lot of our clients are from the tech generation and like to know that their designer is able to answer to that and use the latest technology in the design process,” she offers. “For that reason, I believe that [kitchen and bath designers] who are afraid of new technology will be left behind, and those who use it to their advantage will thrive.”

White agrees: “The newest styles seem to be driven by technology even more than imagination. In the future, I look to use virtual engineering to create environments tailored to the human form.” 

He concludes: “Now, we can control the technology to make our dwellings more ergonomically and environmentally friendly and better serve our needs and art. It is in this way that I intend to leave my signature.”

Sign Language

According to Drury, the impact of a design signature will be greatly reduced if kitchen and bath firms do not create an equally dynamic marketing campaign to support it.

“A portfolio of work is a must,” she says. “I would suggest that all kitchen and bath designers get a professional photographer, and then create a good advertising campaign that really sticks in people’s minds.” 

To that end, she suggests using tasteful ads that feature common elements so that people will recognize them instantly as being from your firm.

Gilmer agrees: “The first and most important step to effectively market your kitchen designs is to get good photography so that you can create a portfolio and display your design work.”

“My portfolio shows many varying projects in different styles,” says Tidemann. “I love to create new and exciting kitchens and try to stay away from duplicating a look so that each kitchen is truly the client’s own ‘signature kitchen.’”

Gilmer continues: “I [also have] an ad campaign where I purposely leave a lot of white space, and, in each issue I show a new kitchen. Sometimes, I’ll just show a close-up detail shot of something unique in that [particular] kitchen. Often, people can’t wait to open up the magazine to see what kitchen will be featured and they look to see if their kitchen made it into the publication.”

Daniels states: “Marketing a signature kitchen design style comes with the ability to market experience with an artistic, yet functional design. However, having the reputation of performing quality work at a reasonable price – and attaining the respect of customers and colleagues – is paramount in achieving success.”

Therefore, he cites referrals as the most effective marketing tool.

Daniels concludes with a unique perspective: “From a marketing standpoint, a successful signature design style might be compared to a successful artist whose artistic ‘pieces’ are very much in demand. I consider building kitchens to be an art form, and my signature style affords me the pleasure [and satisfaction] of knowing that I have successfully achieved the balance of art and functionality in my client’s kitchen design.”