While my three-week trip to Israel this summer with my wife and sons was incredible, I have to admit that the kitchen/bath industry is never far from my mind. I had to check out the countertops, the cabinets, and the kitchen and bath showrooms everywhere we went.
We arrived at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv where the ultramodern Terminal Three opened last November. This billion-dollar international terminal was efficient, comfortable and very attractive. A special treat was the discovery of well-fabricated DuPont Corian vanity tops in the public restrooms, featuring coved splashes and undermounted vanity bowls.
A fascinating stop was the splendid ancient Roman port city of Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast, originally built by King Herod more than 2,000 years ago. At the site there’s an impressive Crusader citadel built about 1250 A.D.
Immediately adjacent are the modern production facilities of CaesarStone, which is owned by Kibbutz Sdot-Yam, a communal settlement established in 1940 whose name means “Fields of the Sea.” CaesarStone, a pioneer in the manufacturing and marketing of quartz-based engineered stone products, produces the dominant countertop material for upper-end kitchen and bath remodeling in Israel.
A few days later, we visited Safed, a mountain town in Galilee considered one of the four holy cities of Judaism, and renowned as a center of Kabbalistic mysticism. In Safed we visited the Joseph Caro synagogue, founded by a famous scholar almost 500 years ago. I was amused to see an ultra-modern kitchenette and engineered stone countertop installed in a niche in the old synagogue stonework.
The installer had scribed the trim strips carefully to follow the irregularities of the ancient stone work. It was a striking contrast. The cabinetry had high-tech Italian door and drawer pulls, white melamine interiors, concealed European hinges and epoxy-coated, full-extension drawer slides.
I also had the chance to visit three kitchen/bath showrooms in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv. Because business has improved in the past year, all four establishments were quite busy. I considered myself lucky that two English-speaking managers were willing to meet with me to discuss the current state of kitchen and bath remodeling in Israel. I give my thanks to Hanan Fridel of Ziv Kitchens and David Miller of Mobalpa Kitchens, both in Jerusalem, for being so generous with their time.
Overall, Fridel and Miller confirmed my strongest impression gained from touring these showrooms: sleek, modern, European design influences prevail in Israel. Solid wood, raised-panel cabinet doors just aren’t seen, nor are face-frame cabinets. Veneered, flat-panel doors and drawer fronts covering frameless cabinet boxes are almost universal. Decorative hardware is contemporary. Large storage drawers are common, and upper cabinets often feature top-hinged, tilt-up doors rather than side-hinged ones. Drawer boxes are almost always made of metal or plastic, rather than wood. Innovative ideas using functional hardware, such as Blum’s Dynamic Space concept, are displayed prominently. Many kitchen displays show base cabinets perched on short metal legs instead recessed toe kicks.
Common appliances tend to be significantly smaller than in the U.S. For example, four-burner gas cooktops are often 60cm or just 24" wide, and five-burner units are often just 70cm or 27-1/2" wide. Most of the appliances are made in Italy.
Since Israel does not have natural gas service supplied by utility pipelines, gas appliances operate from propane tanks installed outside of houses and apartment buildings. The gas is produced locally as a refinery by-product.
Beyond that, both men provided even more insights on current kitchen/bath design trends in Israel. For instance, they report CaesarStone’s engineered stone is the number one countertop material in Israel, with a market share estimated as high as 95%.
I did see other countertop materials on display, including DuPont Corian and Samsung Staron, as well as stainless steel and granite. Solid surface materials are significantly more expensive than CaesarStone in Israel, and are perceived as a very exclusive product. Marketing of natural stone products is disorganized, while CaesarStone offers dealers free installation of showroom displays and quality guarantees.
In terms of other product trends, they reported the vast majority of the cabinets sold in Israel are made domestically, though almost all of the hardware comes from Europe. The industry is highly automated, relying on CNC equipment. Some European cabinets brands are sold in Israel, but their prices are not competitive because in recent years the Israeli shekel has been weak against the Euro. Plus, many of the European cabinet makers prefer particleboard, which Israeli consumers perceive as inferior. There’s a strong preference in Israel for plywood panels, which are imported by Israeli cabinet manufacturers from Scandinavia and the former Soviet Union.
Fridel reports the dominant design trends migrate to Israel from Italy and Germany, with some delay. For instance, if leading European cabinet firms show lots of glass or lacquered doors at the big show in Milan, then Israeli companies will display a similar look about two years later.
Another interesting note is that Israel has a very high rate of homeownership at nearly 80%. However, most Israelis live in what are called “apartments,” which are privately owned in a way similar to our condos. Separate, single-family homes are available, but are far less common than in the U.S. Fridel and Miller indicate Israeli homeowners take great pride in their kitchens, and love to modernize as their personal finances permit. They usually pay cash or use short-term financing for remodeling projects, rather than relying on home equity loans or other forms of long-term mortgages.
Specialized kitchen/bath showrooms still prevail at the upper end of the market in Israel, though big-box home centers such as Home Depot and Ikea are starting to emerge in the suburbs.
Both men agree the business climate at the turn of this century was very poor – a direct result of the wave of terrorism called the “second intifada” that swept the country, which included more than 160 suicide bombings. Business has improved in the past year or two, as the violence has receded. Miller is optimistic that good times are ahead, while Fridel is a bit more cynical, believing that business will be good only if the peace process goes forward.
In the end, my showroom tour in clearly opened my eyes to Israeli kitchen/bath design, product and business trends. I recommend a visit and a tour of a few showrooms. There’s much one can learn.