Hidden Assets

Nature abhors a vacuum, as the saying goes. So, too, do today’s kitchen consumers, especially when it comes to their cabinets. That’s the opinion of manufacturers and kitchen dealers and designers recently surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News.

The trend isn’t just about maximizing every nook and cranny of interior cabinet space, however. It also means designing that interior space with style that’s meant to be seen and appreciated ­– every bit as much as exterior living spaces have been in the past.

“What’s behind these spaces is certainly becoming much more important,” says Philip Martin, business development manager for Häfele America Co., in Archdale, NC. “Cabinet consumers want these things as they entertain in their homes, and the kitchen industry is looking for more accessorization [and more complementary accessorization] as their consumers ask for it.”

It’s clear that the upscale kitchen consumer has had enough of rummaging into dark corners, no matter how well organized those corners might be. And kitchen dealers and manufacturers are stepping up – ready, willing and eager to help consumers throw open those cabinet doors and shed some light onto this traditionally hidden world.

While the storage aid and accessory segment of the market has traditionally allowed others in the industry to steer design trends, focusing instead on introducing new products and refining established ones that help the consumer organize and carve out kitchen space, it is beginning to understand the value of complementing these overall trends. “We’ve introduced a whole new series of products that comes in a range of warmer finishes,” says Martin. “This creates a pleasing look to the consumer, but at the same time [it still emphasizes] a very functional organization in the cabinetry.”

Joey Shimm, marketing director for Outwater Plastics Industries, in Bogota, NJ, sees the rising interest in overall design trends as a sign that the storage aid industry has come of age. “By and large, the most popular ‘industry standard’ items have remained principally unchanged since their introductions,” he says. “Thus, most of the product trends, aside from the occasional introduction of a new product, are primarily aesthetically inspired.”

THE MARTHA STEWART EFFECT

It’s not just about consumers choosing to spend more on their homes, agree manufacturers. They are also educating themselves, coming into the process armed with more refined opinions.

“They have higher expectations and have become much more specific about what they want out of their kitchen experience, and it only follows that what they see on television and on the Internet becomes desirable to them in their own homes,” says Kathryn Constantine, director of sales and marketing for Brown Wood Products, Co., in Lincolnwood, IL.

Rob Jenkins, director of marketing for Rev-a-Shelf, LLC, in Louisville, KY, cites finished interiors as an example of this phenomenon. “They’re becoming a standard now, with mainstream, mid-market cabinet makers offering that.”

“A column is no longer just a decorative element that you put in your kitchen,” emphasizes Constantine, citing a new product from her company that is routed for the electrical box and comes with a matching face plate. “The column is routed all the way through and can be used even on islands to completely hide the electrical.”

The rise in popularity of more design-minded and versatile storage aids and accessories, combined with greater than ever availability, can only help the industry. For dealers and designers grappling with competition and narrowing profit margins, these snazzy add-ons can quickly turn into a lively profit center.

“No [consumer] looks at an accessory [in a showroom] and says, ‘I don’t want that,’ ” suggests Shari McPeek, marketing manager of Rev-a-Shelf. “It’s always been a matter of cost and, if it’s a budget issue, [accessories and storage aids] have traditionally been the first to be cut.”

But that might be changing. Martin cites his company’s recent emphasis on coordinated items as a new way to package its line of storage aids and fittings to the upscale (or upscale-minded) consumer. “There’s a complete coordination of all of the accessories in the kitchen,” he says, “which includes such items as a base pull-out and roll-out internal shelves to match the finishes [in the rest of the kitchen].”

CORNERING THE MARKET

While organization and function continue to be the driving force in this market, thoughtful touches such as silent dampening and touch-close cabinet drawers are gaining in popularity and encouraging manufacturers to think more holistically.

“All of these products have the same end-goal in mind,” says Shimm. “They’re all well-designed, and well-thought out to be as unobtrusive as possible.”

Indeed, all across the board, consumers are beginning to appreciate the value of an accessible, yet unobtrusive kitchen space. Martin’s company has introduced a new corner unit that pivots totally outside of a blind corner on a fluid movement. Even today’s seemingly ageless Baby Boomers (bad backs or not) couldn’t help but appreciate that.

Jenkins’ company offers something similar: “We have a new version [of a blind corner pantry] that we’ve come out with that brings the whole entire unit out of the cabinet and right to your fingertips,” he says.

“Because the hardware technology has improved, consumers are now able to use their corner cabinets for other [and larger] storage items than they could in the past,” says Martin, citing his company’s new upper corner unit with an off-set pole, which allows more square footage to be utilized inside than with a traditional, center pole.

“Everybody is looking for better ways to use corners,” agrees Jenkins.

AT YOUR FINGERTIPS

Manufacturers aren’t stopping at corners. In addition to filling every nook and cranny with such versatile products as decorative filler pull-outs, which all manufacturers agree are hotter than ever, and vertical roll-out skillet holders so that the consumer will never have to fumble for a lid again, manufacturers are pushing the boundaries of interior fitting technology, offering useful options like never before.

Building on the furniture touch-latch technology of decades past, Outwater has introduced a series of soft-touch, full-extension, under-mount slides that come to the consumer’s fingertips. “Touch prompted by a simple push of a drawer front, it eliminates the need for knobs and pulls,”
explains Shimm.

Adam Cornell, sales and marketing director for Catskill Craftsmen, Inc., in Stamford, NY says his company’s islands and carts now utilize high-end, full-extension glides that allow the company to certify for higher weights for storage. “Drawers have to be big [today],” he says. “We’ve designed ours so that they’ll fit even pasta size cooking pots.”

As drawers on base cabinetry and beyond continue to trend up, the design innovation in drawer accessories continues to expand, as well. A young company, BRADCO Stainless Products, in Wichita, KS, which specializes in the fabrication of hand-crafted, precision-fit drawer accessories, offers upscale consumers custom stainless drawer liners.

“Consumers are spending a lot of money on custom cabinetry and wooden drawer boxes,” says Cody Bradbury, president of BRADCO. “At the same time, however, they want the advantages of a metal drawer box.”

His liners and coordinated inserts are aimed at custom cabinet makers who want to offer the advantages of a metal drawer without compromising the hand-crafted nature of the cabinet maker’s work. He cites a slew of advantages, including precision fit and hygiene. “You can just pop them out and wash them,” he says, “and then pop them right back in.”

Many of the carts and islands at Cornell’s company are now featuring drawers rather than cabinets at floor level. Just released this year, his company’s drop-leaves that slide out on drawer-technology glides from the side are experiencing tremendous popularity with consumers, he says. “They are full-extension and can support a lot of weight, such as blenders and mixers.”

Bradbury points to his prototype pastry-drawer lid designed to coordinate and fit on top of his liners as something to look forward to from his company in the future. “It’s great. You can throw a bag of potatoes in there and not worry about it.”

As current design elements continue to expand into the increasingly demanding mid-level market, these luxury innovations are key to maintaining the sophistication in cabinet and drawer fittings that the high-end consumer has come to expect. A more unified, design-minded philosophy toward accessories and storage aids will also work to keep the luxury consumer ahead of the game, manufacturers believe.

To that end, Martin cites his company’s goal of creating an all-around silent and environmentally pleasing kitchen.

“We’ve seen it happen in drawer slides and in cabinet door hinges, and now we’re using it in our pull-outs and revolving corner units,” he remarks. “[The technology] uses an air-piston that takes over when you close the unit and softens it.”

Soft-closing, self-opening and fingertip technology are all hot trends right now. But it doesn’t stop there. Upscale consumers want it all, and manufacturers want to give them every possible luxury and amenity to make the kitchen a more enjoyable place to spend time.

Nicholas Motett, marketing communications manager at WarmlyYours, Inc., in Long Grove, IL, has seen an upsurge in interest for his company’s electric floor warming systems for the kitchen. “We feel that the growth in this market is still very much ahead of us,” he says.

Environmentally- and feet-friendly, WarmlyYours has introduced a new system that goes under free-floating wood, which is a tremendous innovation over the old systems, which had to be installed in a layer of cement. “Our system goes directly between the pad and the floor,” he explains.

Dave Wadley, sales manager for Seating Innovations, LLC, in Lindon, UT, is seeing a trend in his segment of the market towards more contemporary sensibilities. “We’re selling a lot of stainless, oil-rubbed bronze and pewter, but hardly any wood anymore,” he says. Pointing to the increased interest in coordinating accessories into the overall design scheme of the kitchen, he cites a job his company recently completed where the client wanted the backs of the chairs to match the light fixtures in the room.

Explaining why it is becoming more important for accessories to complement the overall design of the kitchen, he says, “We have a lot of places that are eliminating the kitchen table completely, and you lose that center of focus.”

While Wadley’s company works to improve its spring technology for the larger and heavier swivel seats that his consumers seem to want, the firm is also seeing an interest in out-of-kitchen installations, which require their own new technology. “We’re branching out into theater rooms and outdoor kitchens,” he says, pointing to oil-rubbed bronze as a popular choice for outdoors, as it tends to “wear better and absorb the heat.”

The warming trend continues indoors, as some manufacturers see consumers often opting for oil-rubbed bronze, pewter and nickel over the more traditional shiny chrome finishes. Häfele has introduced a new color called Champagne that coordinates with hard-rock maple bottom shelves.

“We’re seeing that chrome is becoming a finish that has been out there a long time,” Martin says. “[Our new finish] doesn’t glare at you like chrome does.”

“Chrome is beginning to show its age,” agrees Cornell. “People are looking for more muted finishes, and brushed nickel along with oil-rubbed bronze are the two hottest sellers for us.”

“Wood is hot for us right now because our wood accessories still continue to grow,” says McPeek. “A lot of people still like the natural look and it’s gaining in popularity for interior accessories.”

Rev-a-Shelf’s successful Vineyard series echoes the drive to keep up with kitchen trends. “We’ve been selling lazy susans for 30 years, and now we’ve added a Vineyard decorative fence on it, which is totally a design influence,” says McPeek.

Manufacturers believe that finishes will continue to expand and grow in the future. “People are doing it with their appliances and they want it to coordinate when they open up the cabinet as well,” remarks Martin.

“We’re definitely starting to play in the decorative hardware sandbox,” adds Jenkins. “The interior storage accessories that we make are becoming more decorative items that designers are going to want to specify.”

On the horizon, Martin sees an increased interest in flexibility in the accessory market, pointing to more adjustable brackets and more adjustability in cabinet functionality as an inspiration for dealers and designers to make life easier for the consumer who has become accustomed to having everything at his or her fingertips. He cites his company’s chef’s panty, where the door shelves were once fixed, and explains, “We’ve now included those to be adjustable because we’ve heard that’s what consumers want.”

States Shimm, “The overall benefits to consumers through the use of these storage aids and organizers are widespread, not only from the aesthetic benefits they provide to a kitchen – which is a readily recognizable tangible – but also for their ability to enable consumers to recreate and utilize the overall given architecture of their kitchens to their fullest potential.”

The upscale kitchen of tomorrow very well may be replete with concept microwaves that incorporate flat-screen television technology, lift-up cabinet doors reminiscent of your old Honda Hatchback and smart drawers that don’t need a hand to tell them what to do, but today’s kitchen, with its coordinated design-savvy accessories, decorative inserts, fold-out and swivel-forward pantries and glide technology isn’t too far behind.

“Everything is being taken to the next level,” concludes Shimm. “Now that [manufacturers] have accomplished to a certain extent the functionality [of these products], they’re focusing on another level, where we will see a greater degree
of refinement.”

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