Ask Judy Litt and she will tell you that, much like the game of baseball, kitchen and bath design is a game of inches. In fact, that is precisely how Litt – an interior design convert and now showroom supervisor for Aaron Kitchen & Bath Design Gallery in New Jersey – describes the difference between being an interior designer and a kitchen and bath designer.
“You definitely have a little more forgiveness in interior design projects, whereas every inch matters in the kitchen and bath,” she explains. “If you are off by two or three inches [when designing a kitchen or a bath], something might not fit and it could possibly ruin the whole effect. Kitchen and bath design is much more technical, spatially interesting and challenging in that respect.”
According to Litt, while kitchen and bath designers are involved with kitchen and bath products 100% of the time, typical interior designers only spend about 20% of their time with kitchen/bath products, with only 10-15% of interior designers even specifying these products. “A typical interior designer would focus more on upholstery/furniture/furnishings,” she explains.
Overall, she sees the difference in the two fields as “a question of technical knowledge. As an [interior]designer, the skill set is with an overall picture. You are trying to create a mood or atmosphere and then blending the pieces together. Once you get into the kitchen and bath, you’re doing more of a specialty. Every inch matters; layouts matter. It’s more physical.”
Before switching over to the kitchen/bath industry, she states, “I was a generalist. I was in my own business for 15 years, and over the years, I started doing kitchens and baths as part of my business. I liked doing kitchens and baths better because I liked the preciseness of it. That’s why I left [my previous field] – because the opportunity presented itself to specialize in kitchens and baths and get away from the generalist mentality.”
Part of it also has to do with her desire to forge closer relationships, Litt explains. “As an independent designer, you have your sources that you go to, but you don’t really form the deep relationships [that you do as a kitchen designer].”
In her position with Aaron Kitchen & Bath Design Gallery, the showroom entity of parent company Aaron & Co., Litt gets the opportunity to establish close relationships with clients.
“What sets our company apart is the attention our customers get in the showroom, and the fact that we have a customer service department to handle any situation,” she offers.
The firm, led by president Barry Portnoy; v.p. and treasurer, Richard Laudino; and vice president and secretary, Frank Laudino, caters to building contractors, plumbers and homeowners. The company has been a supplier of kitchen and bath products for some 25 years, starting with one showroom location and growing into three locations in central New Jersey.
“We don’t do installation, because we’re from the wholesale end of it. But, we will supply everything and work with [clients throughout the design process],” she explains.
Since the firm does limited advertising, Litt sees referrals as key to spreading its message, and strong customer service plays a big part in that.
She explains: “If someone is referred to us by a contractor or a plumber, they are told to call to schedule an appointment. We like to spend [time with our customers], so if a person simply walks in, it becomes pot luck.”
At the appointment, the customer is asked to bring in rough measurements or blueprints, Litt notes. “We want to make it clear that we can’t help them if we don’t know where we are starting from,” she explains. “Once we sit down, we will convert things to scale, so that they can see how things relate to one another.”
She notes that the staff will narrow down the specific design theme the client wants, and will introduce products from the showroom based on that theme. “If that doesn’t work, we will pull out catalogues or finish boards,” she adds.
The firm will even go so far as to create a quotation in the computer for the customer, including pricing and itemizing, she adds.
A well-trained staff is critical to the overall process when dealing with customers, and Litt recognizes that the staff at Aaron Kitchen & Bath Design Gallery is “a key component to the success and growth of the showrooms.”
Litt notes that one of the most enjoyable aspects of her new position is the ability to establish relationships with customers, and build on those relationships.
“It is always a pleasure to renew a relationship with a homeowner whose last project was completed several years ago, or, to begin a relationship with a client’s children – especially when they come to you because their parents were so satisfied,” she enthuses.
LEARNING NEW SKILLS
In addition to working more closely with people, Litt also wanted to expand her skill base and her knowledge of design, not just on the surface, but right down to all of the nitty gritty details. She believes that her conversion from interior designer to kitchen and bath designer has taught her some new and unexpected skills that have helped her to grow as a designer.
“[Since I’ve joined the kitchen and bath industry,] I’ve definitely mastered many different plumbing skills – including some of the more technical aspects, such as plumbing codes. Now I know what to do, how to do it, why to do it, what the functions of the parts are, what the names of the parts are and what tool is needed [for any project]. I’ve definitely learned a lot, and have grown a lot,” she reports.
For Litt, the firm’s ability to not only tap into a client’s needs – but the needs of the community at large – has enabled it to run three strategic showroom locations, including one in Flemington, NJ, one in Freehold, NJ and the newly renovated New Brunswick, NJ showroom.
“Based on how the market is going, and seeing the economy and interest rates going back up, people are going to stay put,” she believes. “Conversely, New Brunswick was recently categorized as an enterprise zone – which means that if you open [a showroom] there, it’s a 3% sales tax as opposed to 6%.”
She adds: “Our corporate location used to be in New Brunswick, but our corporate offices moved to a separate office in Piscataway. This freed up space here [allowing us to better cater to our customers].”
The newly opened New Brunswick kitchen showroom features working displays, and will be hosting cooking demonstrations and other special events.The renovated bath showroom will include working displays, a play area for children, and a comfortable waiting area for use during appointments.
“The working displays feature showerheads, tub fillers, kitchen faucets and five working whirlpool and air tubs,” she describes.
Indeed, all of the showrooms carry several lines of faucets, fixtures, cabinetry and countertops for customers to choose from, she adds.
Litt concludes: “[Working in this industry] has been a very good fit for me, allowing me to utilize my design skills, while still dealing with customers on a one-on-one basis. It’s also given me more exposure to the computer and a deeper understanding of the kitchen and bath industry.”