Welcome to the Dark Side

A strong remodeling market, along with the astounding collective wealth of baby boomers, continues to feed the demand for beautiful, spacious kitchens with all the bells and whistles. And, as an essential part of that kitchen, cabinetry remains a strong and growing category, providing stylish storage in a wide array of options, colors, wood species and design configurations, from furniture-look pieces with corbels and mouldings to sleek, contemporary wall cabinets that seem to blend seamlessly into the kitchen.

Neither are kitchen cabinets exclusively for the kitchen anymore. Rather, the trend toward open layouts and Great Room design has lead to the migration of kitchen cabinetry throughout the house. This not only provides manufacturers with new opportunities for the personalized storage that’s such a consumer desire these days, it also allows designers to focus on creating whole-home designs that provide visual continuity from room to room.

However, all this demand for cabinetry has a downside – diminishing old growth forests may eventually lead to serious wood shortages and quality concerns that will force manufacturers and designers to explore alternative wood species choices. Already, some companies are looking to Chinese and Russian Maple to offset climbing maple prices in the U.S., and globalization has increasingly come to play a role in the kitchen cabinet market, as the industry looks toward either importing raw materials or outsourcing cabinet components as a way to address shortages and control costs (see related story, Page 97).

Still, there’s no shortage of design options when it comes to kitchen cabinets, as manufacturers continue to offer a wide array of choices for every design taste.

Dual Design Trends

New and cutting-edge are always in demand in the design community, yet a gap still remains between designer trends and what consumers in many regions of the country are actually buying. For instance, while the floor of the recent Kitchen/Bath Industry Show was replete with sleek European styling and serene minimalism, many cabinet lines – particularly those at mid-level price points – are still going strong with glazes, as well as traditional and Old World styling, according to the manufacturers recently surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News.

Whichever design style one chooses, though, it’s likely to be a sleeker, more streamlined version of what it would have been a few years ago, designers agree. “There’s a pre-buzz [for 2005 and 2006] for more modern looks,” declares Sarah Reep, director of design, ASID, CKD, CMG, for KraftMaid Cabinetry, in Middlefield, OH. “It’s definitely more contemporary, mixing materials [with] modern, clean lines, [like] a slab door with a color or texture, maybe a sheen.” She recalls seeing a kitchen in Italy which combined high-gloss cabinetry with a rough rustic wood floor. “The mix of such two opposites made it so interesting,” she elaborates. Reep also believes 20th century retro looks are “on the upswing on the curve, but not mainstream yet.” Overall, she believes that “mixing histories and styles and categories will be more comfortable for people. There was a time when we were spending [a lot of effort] getting it authentically correct to the time period. Now I think there’s more freedom and movement and eclectic charm, putting contemporary [together] with an antique piece.”

But while these are hot design trends, she notes that when it comes to consumer desires, “Glazes are still [selling] through the roof, and we’re selling a lot of onlays, corbels, feet.”

“There’s the designers’ world and the consumers’ world,” says Steve Stark, CKD, v.p./marketing of Prestige Cabinets, in Independence, KS, who believes “one runs way ahead of the other one.”­­

Indeed, “there are still plenty of customers who want the ‘Old World’ look,” says Duke Piotter, v.p./sales and marketing for Medallion Cabinetry, Inc., in Waconia, MN. “That’s still a significant portion of our market,” confirms Tim Shaw, director of marketing for Quality Cabinets, in Duncanville, TX.

“We’re still selling carvings but we really feel that with this being more available to the masses, some of this will definitely decline in the high-end markets,” predicts Vince Achey, v.p./sales & marketing for Plain & Fancy Custom Cabinetry, in Schaefferstown, PA.

“We’ve divided kitchens into two worlds,” adds Stark. “There’s the one that’s loaded with the gobbledygook, and there’s the move to clean lines. There’s almost two camps, and not a lot between them.”

Some other designers believe, however, that there is a middle ground – the more spare, uncluttered “traditional minimalist” approach to antique looks. “[Today’s ornate styles are] more refined and elegant than in the past,” believes Sandra Luttchens, director of design and training at Omega Cabinetry, in Waterloo, IA. Ornate elements are also used more sparingly, with more of a focus. “The perimeter is simpler,” Luttchens explains, “and then they’re going all out for the island and really making that a statement, a piece of furniture.”

“All that plays into a trend towards just simplifying,” adds Kim Boos, marketing manager for KraftMaid Cabinetry, in Middlefield, OH. “Uncluttering your space, simplifying your look – and even if you use a more detailed door, it’s still more streamlined, less ornate.”­

“The Old World style will be around for some time, but I do feel people are beginning to tone down the look,” agrees Jeannine Laitres, CKD, sales & marketing administrator for Canyon Creek Cabinet Co., in Monroe, Washington. “A few decorative pieces are being used, instead of covering every surface available with a decorative moulding.”

“For me, an indicator was being at the Luxury show a year ago, and Enkeboll was creating a class on how to use extra onlays tastefully,” recalls Reep. “So if they’re feeling like, ‘this is out of control’,” the time for a more subtle approach surely has come.”

Reep also notes the evolution of furniture-look islands, which may be in a different material or finish than the perimeter line of cabinetry. Unique furniture styling is also extending to integral fronts: Laitres cites refrigerator enclosures that resemble a storage unit or an old-style icebox. “People are looking for something that is unique yet not overstated,” she says.

And Doug Chadwick, v.p./sales & marketing for Canyon Creek Cabinet Co., points out that “the use of stand-alone cabinetry – the ‘unfitted look’ – [is] moving down through the price/quality points.” Another trend that seems to be traversing all design styles and price points is the interest in darker, richer finishes on cabinets. Stark points out that this also tends to give a more opaque look to doors, a departure from the hand-rubbed finishes and prominent wood grain that’s been so popular in recent years.

“Some people still want to see the grain and the beauty of the wood,” adds Luttchens, pointing to Omega’s chestnut finish, which is more translucent and not quite as dark as some of the espresso and dark chocolate browns currently in vogue, “but still also has a contemporary, metropolitan appeal.”

But not everyone believes the industry is blithely moving to the dark side en masse. “This trend is being pushed in [the media] but we haven’t seen this in our actual sales,” counters Achey.­­­

Glaze Appeal

And as for glazing, the trend du jour of the past few years? Just like Old World carvings, it’s waning – or just hitting its stride, depending on which part of the market one focuses on. “Glazing is standard now in all lines, it’s no longer unique,” says Laitres. “I feel this option has peaked in the upper-end lines, but the big-box manufacturers will see an increase as it is becoming affordable for all.”

“Glazing from our perspective has really hit the mainstream,” says Shaw.

“Even though glazes may be somewhat subsiding in other markets, we continue to [see] strong orders,” adds Galbraith.

“We are still selling a tremendous amount of white variations with glazing in numerous shades,” echoes Achey. That classic of classics, plain white paint, is also holding its own, especially with 20th-century retro styles. “[White paint has] a combination of turn-of-the-century [style and] clean lines,” says Galbraith.

“Our color intro this year includes more white paint, several stains and only one new glaze,” reports Piotter. “The look we see is transitional or eclectic in that it is not a pure contemporary but it has clean lines, at times with a bit of an Asian flair.”

“I see more colors than white emerging,” Laitres adds. “Painted maple will be increasing as suppliers begin to offer the ‘color trend of the season.’”

“Wood tones are always going to be a favorite for Americans, but there is going to be more options and interest in colors,” thinks Reep. She cites a rich, but not loud, red tone for cabinets as an example.

Of course, where glaze calls for architectural details to hang on to, glossy colors indicate a smooth surface. “The contemporary market is moving to the slab door,” declares Frank Siekmann, chief executive officer for SieMatic Corp., in Bensalem, PA, “or a touch more than just a slab door – but not as much as, say, a raised panel.”

Achey adds that he believes the increase in slab doors will be concentrated more in the “sophisticated metro markets.”

As for the flat panel Shaker styles which have overwhelmingly dominated the industry in recent years? “Our market does not show a trend in Shaker doors styles decreasing,” says Laitres. “Up and coming door styles will be simple, variations of Shaker doors – different species for the center panel or a different finish on the center panel will emerge.”

Galbraith sees the Shaker door reinventing itself by going from stained to painted finishes. Luttchens, on the other hand, sees designers mixing flat panel and slab doors in the same kitchen. “They’re mixing it up a little bit,” she says. “Maybe the whole thing is a slab design and they’ll use three doors in a Shaker for a focal point, to add a little punch and variety to it.”

For his traditional market and affordable line of cabinetry, Shaw still sees a demand for raised panels (the better to show off glazes) as well as beaded trim inserts. Galbraith cites full-overlay door styles as well as mitered, more dressy doors, as popular choices. In terms of wood species, maple and cherry continue to dominate the market year after year. “Oak has not gained in popularity at all,” thinks Achey. “We have seen quarter-sawn oak gaining a little more in popularity, but not tremendous.” But Laitres believes oak will eventually return, because it takes darker finishes effectively. Alder also takes stains well, and mimics cherry in appearance. Stark cautions, however, that alder is a very soft wood. “People have to be careful,” he notes. “If you have children, it’s not something I would recommend.” Shaw cites birch as a popular choice for entry-level cabinetry. “Birch looks like maple, but is more affordable,” he says. As rustic looks seem to be on the upswing, hickory “is picking up in all markets,” notes Galbraith.

Accents and Exteriors

In line with the cornucopia of choices available for other aspects of cabinetry, styles for accent doors have also become even more innovative and wider-ranging, with wood and metal combinations on the increase, believes Laitres. “I also see many suppliers turning to decorative plastics to add variations to the standard glass,” she adds. “The steel/metal door niche is just that, a specialty niche for a certain type of customer,” says Piotter. “What we sell the most is standard glass [and] mullion doors.”

For adventure picks, Achey sees flip-up doors gaining in sales, along with aluminum and glass styles. “I think the use of sliding doors will also gain momentum in the near future, with better hardware applications and ease of use,” he adds.

Boos cites KraftMaid’s mullion doors, which mix wood and leaded glass together. “This is the next step in the personalization and customization of the kitchen,” she says.

“The ribbed glass and frosted glass are staples [in contemporary cabinetry],” notes Stark. “There are maybe three kinds of glass that work in the stark, clean-lined world.”

The Runaway Cabinet

As open floor plans make the kitchen just one part of a much larger whole, kitchen cabinets have spread throughout the house. K/BIS was replete with cabinetry featuring interior storage specifically for home office files, various closet storage needs, and other task-specific functions outside the realm of standard kitchen cabinetry.

In fact, “A large part of our business is in custom entertainment centers, custom home offices, laundry rooms, custom storage applications, and furniture-like pieces,” says Chadwick. “Our customers are not satisfied with the design, size, and application constraints of ‘stock’ product. This has translated into more opportunity for us in each home.”

“The majority of what’s produced here is predominately kitchen cabinetry,” counters Achey, though he adds, “We do have some of our dealers who have been very successful in designing cabinetry throughout the home, especially in upscale houses where the homeowners have very specialized storage needs.”

Manufacturers express caution in the area of home entertainment centers, however, because of the advent of plasma screen TVs. “I hear people saying, ‘I’m not going to invest in an entertainment center that’s supposed to house this big behemoth thing when we know that prices are going to come down, and ultimately we’re going to have this thing that’s only four inches wide that we can just put on the wall,’” says Stark. “Technology is changing the face of what we do.”

“Because [flat screen TVs] are typically so contemporary, if you have a traditional setting, that TV sticks out like a sore thumb,” adds Luttchens. “There’s a disconnect in style. So our challenge now is how to incorporate that contemporary item in a traditional setting.”

“I don’t think the larger enclosed units are going to go away really fast, but we’re scrambling around trying to find the best way to present a flat screen,” adds Galbraith. In the kitchen itself, however, the customary “row of boxes” is increasingly taking twists and turns, or disintegrating entirely.­

“There is more open space being designed into the kitchens today,” says Achey. “And yes, we are seeing more open shelving vs. wall cabinetry.” He adds that more efficient base line cabinets are providing storage for items that were traditionally housed in upper cabinetry. “It’s ergonomically better storage design for ease of use,” he elaborates. “It is smarter to have everything in lower cabinets, especially if it’s deeper drawer storage with additional pull-outs installed above to increase capacities and functionality.”

The size of the house often determines how much open space is possible. In a large home, “we can leave space open and still have enough storage in the kitchen,” says Siekmann. “We definitely see our cabinets going into laundry rooms, bathrooms, family rooms.”

“Kitchen planning is changing but I doubt most people have the space to get rid of all their wall cabinets to create that clean, modern look,” says Piotter. “I see wall cabinets disappearing mostly in new construction where larger windows are being used to let in the natural light.”

Overall, cabinet trends dovetail those in all other kitchen product categories in one aspect – personal choice, the personalized kitchen, is a consumer’s primary desire. “There are so many choices that you aren’t likely to see one or two trends that dominate the market like you did in the past,” notes Piotter.

“We now have 170 or so stain color glaze combinations,” adds Stark. “We may only see a handful of these colors sold in volume, [but consumers want to feel like], ‘I’m going to buy the popular thing, but I want to sort through [many choices] to make that decision.”

“The consumer is definitely educated and hunting for what they want,” concludes Reep. “How to do it, how to upgrade, how to get the look. Consumers are more aware of that, and more aware that they can have a great looking home.”