Behind Closed Doors

What will design-crazed consumers do when there's nothing left to decorate? Well, there's always the inside of the kitchen cabinets…

Ten years ago, that statement might have been perceived as a joke. Now, however, stylish and effective cabinet interiors seem like the next logical progression in the quest for perfect kitchen design.

"As kitchen products and appliances become more attractive and design-savvy, it makes sense that consumers will want other aspects of their kitchen - including cabinet interiors - to follow suit," notes James Magruder, marketing and communications manager for In-Sink-Erator, in Racine, WI.

"We can thank HGTV and Target for that," adds Fob Jenkins, director of marketing for Rev-A-Shelf, in Louisville, KY. "For a lot of years, we made functional accessories. Now design is becoming a lot more apparent."

"I think people are more aware of what's out there," confirms Jonathan Betz, president of Custom Inserts, Honey Brook, PA, "how specific they can be with nailing down their needs, and getting cabinetry and accessories that can take care of those needs."

A category that's increased exponentially in the past few years, the kitchen storage market is refining its already well-designed offerings with a few new and dazzling tricks up its collective sleeve, according to the manufacturers surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News.

Sleek & Streamlined

It's no secret that kitchen style has been ridding itself of excess embellishments in the past year, with even antique looks taking on a more spare, clean-lined feel. "A more sleek, modern European aesthetic is gaining a following" in the U.S., believes Wolfgang Branner, v.p./marketing for Blum Inc., in Stanley, NC. He cites the trend towards frameless slab cabinet doors as well as his company's TANDEMBOX drawers, which feature metal sides.

Similarly, Walt Maxwell, national sales manager for Grass America, in Kernersville, NC, notes the return of touch latch technology in Europe. "[That's where] you press the door in and it would pop out," he elaborates. Popular during the 1980s, the touch latch went out of style around the time ornate Old World and European Country looks came into vogue, mandating traditional cabinet doors and elaborate decorative hardware. But as the outside of the cabinet becomes more simple and elegant again, more and more complex options are available for the interior.

"Organization is uppermost in today's kitchen design," declares Branner. "People increasingly take the time and trouble to incorporate usage and storage into their plans. People are also growing more aware of ergonomics and accessibility, and becoming more sensitive to design that incorporates these features."

Those looking for a more vintage vibe can get their storage needs met with new products such as Rev-A-Shelf's new lazy Susans that feature pewter or bronze grapes and leaves on the fence rail. Jenkins also sees an overall increase in available finishes for interior fittings, with brushed chrome and aluminum adding a new twist to the popular shiny-chrome-and-wood look of high-end interior storage.

Philip Martin, director of marketing for Häfele America Co., in Archdale, NC, adds that hard rock maple is still the wood of choice for storage fittings. "The interiors of a lot of cabinets are woodgrain, so the hard rock maple blends in very nicely. The consumer wants that warm wood look, but also wants a touch of chrome." A new, specialized melamine finish ensures that items in a pull-out won't slide when the mechanism is in motion, he adds.

Such innovations are vital for high-end cabinet fittings, manufacturers believe. As the upscale market grows ever more sophisticated and fine-tuned, the more basic elements of new millennium cabinet interior organization are filtering down to the builder market and home center shopper, so consumers at the high end expect a new level of innovation in both design and function. In the meantime, "[more] sophisticated storage systems are going mainstream," notes Branner.

"We have seen more focus from the OEM level, with [large, low to mid-level] cabinet manufacturers focusing more on storage solutions," adds Ryan Grevenstuk, product manager/kitchen & bath products with Grand Rapids, MIKnape & Vogt. "The more this product is shown at the big box stores and at the retail level, the more it will become mainstream. People are always looking for ways to differentiate themselves and upgrade their products, and the kitchen is a key area in the home where they look to do this."

But he adds that what's considered a sophisticated product currently won't go mainstream for a few more years. "The items that are now found at Target, home centers, etc. were the sophisticated items of yesterday." With today's instant multi-media communication technology and general faster pace of life, the process of mainstreaming is speeding up, he elaborates. "We've already found the more sophisticated storage items leaking into the mainstream for what we would consider ahead of schedule."

Innovative Function

Now that multiple technologies are available for the ultimate high-functioning cabinet, the new challenge is to combine them, believes Martin. He believes the hot thing on the market is "the integration [of] the full-extension aspect [and] soft-close features. Not only is it self-closing, it's soft-closing like your door slides."

Other refinements include full-extension pantry organization, which rotates, pulling the stored items right in front of homeowners, so they don't have to reach around to get items, making for more efficient storage. "Now you can put a pantry against the wall and it only has to stand out 6" or 8" off the edge of the wall," Martin elaborates. "And you can rotate it to get access to that blind side of the pantry organization."

The advent of the Great Room concept and the furniture look have changed the way consumers perceive their kitchen's footprint. And the double "row of boxes" also seems to be going by the wayside.

"We heavily promote kitchen designs where base cabinets are outfitted with drawers instead of with doors and shelves," says Branner. "Drawers allow the cabinet contents to come to the person rather than the person having to bend and reach into the cabinet." He cites his company's ORGA-LINE systems as a strong choice for a consumer who is increasingly savvy about functionality.

Maxwell points out that, "We spend a lot of time as cabinet makers with roll-out drawer systems. They maximize the use of the base cabinet, but in doing so, they now have base cabinets with drawers and an intricate system of roll-out trays. I think at some point someone's going to say, 'It's much more economical to just do drawer bases.'"

"We've been selling pull-outs for 25 years, [base cabinets] haven't gone away yet," counters Jenkins. "I think there will be room for both," believes Häfele's Martin. "Certainly, drawers are becoming more interesting." He cautions that the new, extremely heavy drawers must be supported by appropriate technology to ensure safety and continued functionality. "We have a drawer organizations system [with] rack-and-pinion hardware," he notes. "When you open up a big drawer, you always have to be aware of the racking, because [when there is] a lot of weight in it, one side [tends to] retract quicker than the other, and you'll have a racking effect."

New Dimensions

Innovative kitchen storage has long been an art in Europe, where smaller domiciles mean every inch counts. U.S. suburban kitchens are much larger, but "It is just as important to American consumers to make smart use of space, no matter what size the kitchen," says Branner.

That's because, no matter how much space people have, there's never enough, going with the old adage that things contract or expand to fill the amount of space available.

However, sometimes it takes thinking outside the box to come up with new ways to save space. To that end, kitchen dealers and designers faced with limited space may want to consider suspended seating, wherein chairs no longer clutter up the works for overscheduled consumers who have minimal time to clean, explains David Wadley, regional sales manager for Seating Innovations, in Orem, UT. Suspended seating is "never out in the aisle, will never tip over, nobody will gab a chair and move it to another room, it's always there," he elaborates.

But while this option can work for small spaces, that doesn't mean there isn't a wide variety of chair styles available in suspension mode to fit a wide array of design styles. In fact, "any chair that can come apart [remove the legs], we can use in our system," says Wadley. He adds that designers can also choose a style from the firm's catalog.

Of course, even when space isn't the problem, organization remains a priority in the kitchen.

"I think we're more collectors," says Maxwell, "with gadgets and specialty things. Some of these bigger kitchens allow for more clutter. We may not be looking to maximize the efficiency of the storage, but at least the efficiency of how it's organized."

Adds Grevenstuk: "Blind corner storage products, narrow cabinet or filler cabinet storage are some of the hottest selling items we feature now."

"We have a new pull-out [that's designed for] the big columns next to sinks, decorative onlays, twisted posts," adds Jenkins. "Consumers are excited about that because they don't like wasting that space. Not everyone has a giant kitchen in America." And even those who do like to see maximum efficiency in the organization and usage of space.

Functional storage is also available in a greater variety of larger sizes. For instance, Branner says his company recently added heavy duty runners in a 27" length, while Betz adds that his company's custom Plexiglas and polycarbonate drawer interiors are now frequently requested in a 32" width.

In general, the American cabinet market relies so heavily on customization, it sometimes makes interior fittings a challenge. Unlike homes in Europe, where cabinets tend to come in standard sizes, "most of our customers are custom or semi-custom, and a lot of their cabinets are built around our pull-outs," notes Jenkins.

Other Rooms

While the kitchen is the central organizational point for the home, kitchen organizational systems and interior fittings are increasingly finding their ways into other applications in other rooms of the home.

The home entertainment center and computer station may be part of a Great Room concept, but manufacturers surveyed say kitchen storage products are making more inroads with entertainment storage. For instance, Martin notes that Häfele's sliding door technology is increasingly being used to hide giant TV screens. Similarly, pull-out bins can be used to store kids' video games and accessories.

For computer station applications, consumers are still looking to the office furniture store for solutions. Jenkins points out that, for instance, computer printers come in many shapes and sizes, so developing a push-up or pull-down mechanism that would work for all of them, "that's a tough application," he notes.

The advent of outdoor kitchens has made backyard suspended seating a new market, Wadley adds, with weather-resistant aluminum or marine-finished wood chairs as the popular picks. Suspended seating is also growing in popularity for computer stations and game tables in Great Rooms, he adds.

"One of the big trends is marrying the function and the design," concludes Jenkins. "Everyone wants space utilization, and they want accessibility, but they want the design, as well. People are paying more attention to that."