Custom Appeal

Just as beauty is said to be more than skin deep, today’s kitchen cabinets are about a lot more than just their surface appeal. While a stylish appearance is always key, the hottest trends today have as much to do with how the cabinets are made and what’s inside of them as they do with appearance alone.

Customization – both for the sake of creating something unique and in order to provide specialized storage solutions personalized for the user – remains a key trend in kitchen cabinetry, as designers seek out ways to help clients make their kitchens truly their own. Indeed, custom touches are prevalent at all price points, along with cabinet programs that let the homeowner pick and choose from a wide selection of corbels, moldings, feet, beadboard and other options to create a look all their own.

As Tamy Severude, director of sales & marketing for Holiday Kitchens in Rice Lake, WI states, “The cookie cutter kitchen is a thing of the past.”

Patrick Byrne, executive v.p. for Custom Wood Products in Roanoke, VA, agrees. “I truly believe that we are in the fashion business as opposed to building cabinets to store the dishes,” he notes, explaining that the ability to offer a custom look is essential in appealing to the fashion-conscious consumer.

According to Severude, “Because the kitchen is the showcase of the home, everyone wants their kitchen cabinetry to look like furniture. [They want] moldings at the top of the cabinets, under the wall cabinets and around many bases.”

But while custom touches are all the rage, an excessively ornate look is not. Indeed, whether the look is traditional, transitional or contemporary, cleaner lines and a more streamlined appearance seem to be the style watchwords of the day, according to manufacturers interviewed by Kitchen & Bath Design News.

“Green” remains a growing trend, from environmentally friendly manufacturing processes to lyptus and other green wood species.

Changing Market

Additionally, the changing face of the market has had an impact not only on overall cabinet sales, but on product choices and trends, manufacturers note. “While the new housing market may have dipped, the remodeling market accounts for approximately two-thirds of annual cabinet sales in the industry and continues to stay strong,” says Doug Chadwick, v.p./sales & marketing for Canyon Creek Cabinet Company in Monroe, WA.

That’s good news for kitchen designers, according to Chadwick, who explains, “Homeowners tend to invest in a more high-end product than the ones they replace” when remodeling. As a result, he notes, “Consumers are becoming more color-specific in their requests, thereby increasing the number of custom colors we find ourselves matching.”

Steve Pfister, director of sales & marketing for Mouser Custom Cabinetry in Elizabethtown, KY, agrees: “The biggest change [recently] has been a shift from new construction projects to more remodeling projects as the new construction market has cooled.”

With remodeling now driving the market, many kitchen and bath dealers have had to shift their focus, with cabinet choices increasingly taking their cue from the existing home’s style to ensure a continuous design style. As H.R. (Jim) Harvey , executive v.p. for Sunny Wood Products in Cerritos, CA, notes, “Consumers are seeking kitchen cabinetry that comfortably fits within the ‘lifestyle’ of the home.”

Pfister also notes another trend that is coming out of the changing market. “We’re seeing more re-urbanization projects.

Many major cities are reclaiming older sections of the inner city and revitalizing the areas with residential investment incentives. There is a movement back to these revitalized urban neighborhoods.” This kind of change is good for the city and its people, he notes, as well as for those in the kitchen remodeling business.

Style Choices

While manufacturers and designers agree that there’s a tremendous diversity in style preferences today, certain prevailing trends continue to emerge.

“The timeless look of Shaker-style doors continues to hold strong, as well as the sleek, contoured lines associated with contemporary themes,” says Chadwick.

And, while Severude says that Holiday Kitchens sells “more traditional looking kitchens,” she notes that the company is also seeing “an increase in the simple elegance of contemporary [designs].”

Pfister sees a movement toward “more transitional and contemporary styles with minimalist designs.” He says this is so even when the kitchen is traditional overall – a function of traditional designs becoming more scaled-down and less ornate. He adds that simple farmhouse or cottage designs are popular, as well. Pfister describes this trend as having “cleaner designs with fewer wood accents and carvings.”

On the other hand, Harvey says that “styles now are no longer quite as clear cut as they have been in the past.” Harvey explains that now “there is strong evidence for hybrid styles.” Evidence for, in other words, “a mixture of traditional elements as well as some casual or contemporary elements are all blended together to make a pleasing whole,” he adds.

While some style preferences are obviously impacted by regional trends – with traditional designs favored in the middle of the country and contemporary being most popular on the West Coast – manufacturers note that the streamlined look seems to be having widespread impact.

Customization is a hot trend across the boards, manufacturers agree. In fact, Severude explains that 75 percent of her firm’s business is for custom products. Interestingly, she notes that, when it comes to the company’s semi-custom line, “Most of the orders are combined with a couple of custom units to create that custom kitchen.”

Kitchen cabinetry also increasingly reflects the lifestyle of the home. “This translates to cabinetry with furniture designs and finishes with flexibility in use,” Harvey notes. This is true at all price points, Harvey believes, noting, “The end-user is demanding more value.”

Wood Species

With the growing interest in custom looks, it’s no surprise that designers and their clients are exploring new options in all aspects of the kitchen. As Severude says, “Our clients are not buying vanilla kitchens.” And why should they? Even the materials options have gotten interesting.

While woods such as maple, oak and cherry remain in high demand, designers find that many of their clients are looking for something a little more exotic – not to mention sustainable. As a result, “We’re seeing more requests for exotic woods from the African mahogany family,” says Chadwick. “European steamed beech, one of the most plentiful, sustainable and carefully managed wood species, has been incorporated into our standard wood species offering for those desiring a durable, environmentally friendly wood species,” he adds.

Another popular choice of specialty wood is bamboo. “Bamboo is big due to it being a renewable resource – bamboo flooring is very popular,” says Severude.

Mouser Custom Cabinetry has seen an increase in demand for walnut, primarily for cabinetry in rooms other than the kitchen. Pfister notes, however, that walnut could fit well in the kitchen with the growing interest in dark finishes. The other specialty woods that have been added at Mouser are knotty alder, quarter-sawn white oak and select alder, a clear version of alder. Pfister adds, however, that “maple and cherry still dominate…”

Byrne is among those who think that the call for specialty woods will grow. “People are looking for unusual wood species,” he says. “We recently added lyptus, red birch and knotty alder to our line of woods, and we’re considering adding some exotic species to our offering.”

Finishing Up

While it may sound backward, when it comes to creating beautiful kitchens with unique, furniture-style cabinetry, it all begins at the finish, so to speak. Indeed, manufacturers note that cabinet finishes are hotter than ever. According to Byrne, “The biggest trends that we see right now is in the finishes that are requested. In fact, a great percentage of the product we produce is glazed with some form of distressing.” While this isn’t a new trend – Byrne notes that “finishes in both painted and stained product are very popular and have been for some time” – the trend only seems to be growing, tying into the ever-increasing demand for customization options.

According to v.p./sales & marketing, Vince Achey of Plain & Fancy Custom Cabinetry, in Schaefferstown, PA, the most popular finishes his company is seeing are “painted and opaque.” Glazes are popular, he adds, but he explains that black has been gaining in popularity. Although “custom colors still remain very strong,” Achey says that “white is still dominant.”

Pfister sees “dark finishes as gaining in popularity,” but adds, however, that Mouser still produces “a great deal of off-white cabinetry.” Keying into the growing interest in mixing colors, materials and texture in the kitchen, multiple finishes are also popular, he points out, “including some that mix a solid color with a distressed wood finish for a rustic look.”

When it comes to frameless cabinetry, Chadwick says that high-gloss and specialty veneers are in greater demand. He adds that darker stains are among those most in demand for more traditional cabinetry. Additionally, he is seeing demand for “finish enhancements such as distressing, antiquing, glazing and highlighting for the same category.”

Staying Organized

While design has always been the prime consideration in kitchen cabinetry, the inside of the cabinet has become increasingly important in recent years. Manufacturers have caught on that storage needs to be innovative, accessible and highly functional.
An aging Baby Boomer population has been a key factor in the shift toward more universally designed storage being used in the kitchen, including interior fittings that bring the contents to the user via pull-outs, pull-downs and roll-outs. Likewise, the trend away from wall cabinetry means that every inch of space counts, so corner cabinets, spice pull-outs and the like have become increasingly popular.

Additionally, manufacturers recognize that cabinet interiors are worthy of showing off, which means style counts as much on the inside as on the outside.

Of course, ample storage is always a key concern, and the biggest storage trends in the kitchen are “still the trash/waste recycling, pull-out spice options, cutlery dividers, base drawer cabinetry outfitted for dinnerware, pots and pans, with pull-outs above them for lids, linens and extras,” according to Achey. He quickly adds that pantries that “either pull out or have unique shelving applications for better storage” are also very much in demand.

There’s really no question that people are looking for more ways to optimize storage and minimize effort. To that end, things such as drawer organizers, wire interior accessories, peg storage and improved design for plate, spice, and pots and pans storage are all examples of the product innovations that help consumers stay organized in the kitchen.

Manufacturers are also firmly in agreement that pull-outs are very much in demand right now, mainly because of the ease with which the contents of the cabinet can be accessed, and as Severude points out, “Roll-outs are still our biggest seller.”

The Grene Piece

More and more Americans are stopping to think about the impact of their actions – and their purchases – on the environment. And as such, both designers and consumers are considering the impact that manufacturing processes will have on the environment when it comes to cabinet choices. Consumers are also increasingly aware of and concerned about VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and whether the products they choose have the potential to emit toxins or allergens in to their homes. All of this has strengthened the growing interest in green products.

Manufacturers don’t quite agree on the impact of this movement just yet. There is some confusion as to what processes and agents used in the production process present the most risk. “Green means many things, and who really has the proper definition?” asks Severude. She explains that this movement “will require all manufacturers to reconsider materials and best practices.”

Pfister thinks, “This is the biggest, most important topic of the day.” He adds, “The importance and benefits of ‘green’ design will be top-of-the-mind for the next five or more years.”

Achey, however, argues that ‘green’ is “still not very well defined within our industry.” Achey agrees, though, that this topic is clearly growing in importance for cabinetmakers.

Chadwick also notes the importance of this movement, stating: “There is a growing demand for products and services that are renewable, sustainable and utilize fewer resources during manufacturing. The requests for green products have become mainstream…” Indeed, Canyon Creek has been focusing on “green ideals” since 1990, and was the first company to be awarded the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association Environment Stewardship Program certificate.

Custom Wood Products, also ESP certified, has considered this issue important enough to put it at the forefront of its business. According to Byrne, the company has reduced toxic emissions in its finishing area and other spaces in their plant. He says that an increasing number of clients are asking about whether or not the company is environmentally friendly. Byrne contends, “Green is on our minds and we will continue to do everything that we can to improve the environment.”

Harvey sums it up well: “Being a responsible global citizen is certainly important, and we all need to do our part to design products with a ‘life-cycle’ in mind.”

Made in the USA

As distribution channels expand and moving products around the world has become easier, there’s been much discussion about the potential impact of imports from overseas. Price-sensitive consumers may find these particularly appealing, and even consumers with larger budgets will sometimes look at less expensive cabinet choices in order to splurge on another area of the kitchen, such as commercial-style appliances, or a one-of-a-kind island.

The greatest impact of these imports, not surprisingly, is felt at the lower end, with builder lines facing increased competition from these lower-priced imports. While some mid- to high-end manufacturers dismiss concerns about imports for this reason, others feel they bear watching.

“The largest import [competition] comes from] the stock lines,” says Severude. She predicts, however, that the imports will become more sophisticated over time, and may eventually “tap into the custom market, as well.”

Still, she believes that, long term, these products will not be able to remain competitive due to the fact that the quality simply isn’t on par with what American consumers have come to expect. As she explains, “the luster of the low cost [of imported products] is wearing off quickly with the high amount of damage, delayed delivery, poor quality of service and no flexibility.”
Pfister agrees that imports primarily “seem to be hitting the stock and lower-priced semi-custom markets” right now, explaining that a number of Chinese manufacturers are focusing on this aspect of the cabinet industry. However, he believes that these products may have a greater impact on the market over time, explaining, “The product quality appears to make Chinese manufacturers very competitive, and they will continue to gain market share…”

To address rising costs and competitive threats, some manufacturers are now outsourcing certain aspects of their manufacturing processes overseas. Others are choosing to use “Made in the U.S.A.” as part of their marketing efforts. However, most agree that, in the future, one of the greatest challenges will be finding qualified labor to meet the continued demand.

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