Kitchen Couture

The kitchen has become the central hub of the home for family and entertaining, making it one of the most important rooms for a remodel. As families continue to do more in their kitchens, they want more from them. High fashion style and organization are now key to the modern kitchen, and kitchen cabinetry is the way to accomplish that goal.

“The biggest significant thing to happen to our industry is the kitchen going from a utilitarian need to a fashion subject in the eyes of the consumer,” says Andy Wells, senior director of product design and merchandising for MasterBrand. “It’s our job to take consumers on a journey. We’re trying to build a story and emotionally connect to the consumer.”

From a styling standpoint the industry is seeing both ends of the spectrum. One is very clean, leaning to a contemporary side, but nothing like the high gloss white of 20 years ago. There are still slab clean doors, but mid to dark tones are added to warm up the kitchen for comfort.

On the other side of the spectrum, kitchen cabinetry is also very traditional. There continues to be a lot of ornamentation, so kitchen cabinetry is running the gamut from contemporary to extremely traditional.

“I would say that mid to dark tones are more popular,” says Sandra Luttchens, director of design and training for Omega Cabinetry. “On the traditional side we’re seeing a tremendous amount of glazes where you can get the layering and multilevel look. We’re seeing a lot of impact in the Arts and Crafts, with the quartertone oak coming back.”

Most homeowners are mixing and matching and being very eclectic about their kitchen cabinetry. It’s not the case that all the doors are one color. Some people might put white doors on the top and wood doors on the bottom, or even glass panels on the doors above and solid on the bottom. It has become about homeowners creating their own personal environment. That’s what people are looking for — that individuality. And that applies to all the segments really, whether it’s the baby boomers or Generation Xers.

Every homeowner wants their kitchen to stand out, so they are putting their own personality right into their kitchen. As the lines begin to blur in stark styling for the kitchen, manufacturers now have the opportunity to expand their product lines with much more diverse ornamentation and accessories.

“In the past, cabinetry was very much a milquetoast industry but today where we’ve gone beyond being useful to being everyday and fashionable. As such, we see a lot of change happening in our product more frequently than we ever did before,” says Wells.

The profile of the consumer has changed as well. The consumer is much more discerning and knowledgeable about the process and what they need. Manufacturers have to spend a lot of time understanding all the consumer segments.

“Today it’s about ‘Brand Me’ because all 300 million of us want our own identity and we’re looking for it to be affordable and customizable all in one breath,” says Wells. “Consumer knowledge is huge so we need to know what influences them. What is it that is dinging the bell at them in the marketplace?”

While many cabinet makers have a focus on high style, the other need that the consumers have lately is “organize me.” For instance they don’t want their sink areas to look like a trash areas — they want it to be organized. That’s a huge trend and a strategy right now for cabinet-makers.

Universal design

Homeowners want a lot more functionality in their cabinets and they want efficiency. There is a lot of cross-generational lifestyles living in the same home.

Now it might be a mother, her mother and a small child. Because of this, the product has to be more flexible than it did before, and that can mean multiple cabinet heights for different ages and different uses.

One way internally that universal design is making an impact on cabinetry is in blind corner cabinets. In the past, no one wanted these options because it was difficult to access the storage, but now there are mechanisms on the inside that allow homeowners to open the door and pull out the unit, bringing the stuff that was in the back forward.

“It’s about access inside and really just getting the cabinets organized without having to unload half of the cabinet to find out what’s in it,” explains Luttchens. “Putting in storage enhancements into cabinetry that allow you to see everything is the big push right now.”

One alternative to the pullout shelf in cabinets is the deep drawer. With trays, homeowners have to open the door, pull out the tray, then push it back and close the door. With the deep drawers, they can just pull it out and push it back in. So time is saved, because homeowners don’t have to open the drawers all the way, as they would with a rollout.

“Universal design has been affecting cabinetry for 20 years,” says Wells. “It’s not the case of going into a place and saying I need cabinets. It’s about going in for a interview and identifying its use. Whether it’s for the little kids or the 60-plus boomers, universal design plays into every one of those solutions. And it might not just be about the cooking; it could be about homework, the message center or hobby.”

As a selling tool for kitchen cabinets, it’s important not to sell to the homeowners’ age. Older homeowners’ attitudes have changed and Americans are acting much younger than the generation before them at the same age. So it’s important to design for things they’ll need when they’re older, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be talked about. Discuss putting in pullout cabinet drawers because it’s quicker to get stuff in and out and move on with their day. Don’t talk about the fact that they won’t have to get on their hands and knees to get in there.

Layout design

In the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s the kitchen was really a separate room. Guests never saw the cabinets as the dishes were brought to them. It became more necessary with two working parents that the kitchen became more of the central area of the house - watching the kids and entertaining.

One thing that is important to think about is who is cooking in the kitchen. If both husband and wife are cooking, a remodeler needs to find out if they’re cooking together, separately or maybe they are cooking with the children. How the homeowner answers those questions can make the layout of cabinets very different. This could determine if two separate prep areas would be best or more counter space for side-by-side mentoring.

“As time progresses, cooking has become an art form. Homeowners like to entertain in the kitchen and show their guests what they can make,” says Hilda Mohseni, showroom and trade show design manager for Canac Kitchens. “It has become even more of a social thing; no longer utilitarian. Now people are willing to spend a lot more money on kitchen cabinetry to make the room more appealing. They’re doing a lot more remodeling and keeping up with the trends. It’s like having the latest and newest cell phone.”

Mohseni also says that a well designed kitchen will go a long way, and design first around functionality. Priority No. 2 is designing around good appliances and plumbing fixtures, but be careful not to waste anything.

Where to begin

“From a quality standpoint, I look at what kind of finish is on the cabinetry,” says Luttchens. “Is it a lacquer-based finish or is it varnish finish? Have them test it out by putting fingernail polish on a color chip sample and then use fingernail polish remover to take it off. They’ll find out how durable that finish is, because seeing is believing.”

Another thing Luttchens suggests is to look at the construction of the cabinet itself. Open the drawers and look for the dovetail drawer box. When looking at that, it is important to see if it was finished or cut and left raw — obviously they should be finished so bacterica doesn’t get in there. For drawer glides, look for full extension glides that will bring the drawer all the way out of the cabinet to be able to see and access all parts of the cabinet.

Soft-close glide features are great for anyone with children because drawers can’t be slammed. Shelf thickness is another thing to consider because it should be at least a 3/4-in. shelf so that they don’t warp and sag. Solid wood doors are also important because they get a consistent color and won’t discolor in patches.

Whenever homeowners think about their cabinetry, it’s best to have them give you three lists. One is what they currently hate about their kitchen, the next is their wish list, and the third is their must-have list. The importance of that is not to repeat the mistakes that are in their kitchen.

“The biggest thing that they can help with when working with a remodeler is go to magazines and pull out pictures of kitchens that they like,” explains Luttchens. “Even if they don’t know what it is about it that they like, there will generally be a consistency in the styling or the layout or something that the remodeler will pick up on. A picture is worth a thousand words.”

Moving ahead

As manufacturers continue to give the consumer what they want, they are also looking at ways to keep the trends going while minimizing the environmental impact. The green movement is big with cabinetmakers as they look at sustainability and making sure they use their resources wisely, especially as it becomes a bigger concern for consumers.

Companies are also paying a lot of money for the research to find out what is trendy and convenient in the kitchen. “Research is showing us that storage is a huge issue now. Homeowners want storage on top of their cabinets. This will increase the use of ladders in the kitchen and present some opportunities in cabinet design,” says Mohseni.

MasterBrand has a team that studies trends in North America and in Europe. Their research has shown that while things remain more traditional in the United States, in Europe where a lot of the trends start, colors are making a big push.
Since organization is huge, it’s the single biggest strategy most manufacturers have. When looking at all of the brands, there are hundreds of products designed specifically just to address the needs inside the cabinet.

“I think that organization will be a bigger and bigger subject in the consumers’ eyes,” says Wells. “I think the pace of change in fashion will be quicker, as we see the introduction of color into our product lines become faster and faster every year.”