Among the themes or details that seemed almost universal, the use of limestone or look-alike porcelain, using multiple sizes of tiles in a "brick walk" type of pattern, dominated the flooring selections. Across the board, continued strong effort was apparent in bringing the outdoors in, with larger and more plentiful windows, and use of natural materials, colors and textures. Each winning project had paid particular attention to lighting, with increased use of decorative pendants, particularly hand-blown glass. There also appeared to be growing use of the synthetic stone or quartz surface materials. Continued use of furniture looks in cabinetry was apparent in every style of kitchen, as was the desire to have some open, glass or otherwise display cabinetry. Probably due in part to their generous size and the lack of walls in the open plans, larger kitchens seemed to include growing use of multiple islands, and the result is an interesting impact on the function of the space - sort of each island as a work station for a particular purpose.
From the West, no surprise; California seemed to show a freedom to combine a greater variety of dissimilar elements, such as Carrera marble with copper relief accent tiles and a faux finish copper hood, as well as an appreciation for unique materials, proven or not. There is a sense of sophistication and "simple but elegant" in some, and, yes, a Tuscan weighty sense in others. The California kitchens also presented a willingness to give up a little function in order to make a stronger design statement. The focal point in these kitchens was often the outdoors. We did not see as strong an Asian or soft contemporary influence in the kitchens as we expected, and Penny's comment was that it is more apparent in furniture, artwork and clothing, showing up in kitchens through the use of exotic woods, finishes and colors.
In the East, spaces continued to give a sense of history and tradition, not always formal, but "like it's always been there." Often the focal point was the hood or hearth. Decorative details included candles and heirloom candlesticks, lighting, columns and ornamentation that bordered on formal in their maintaining of convention. In this case, we saw wood floors along with or in addition to the stone tiles, as well as tiles in traditional patterns. The cabinetry was in shades of white or creamy glazes with light finishes on wood, in combination with dark traditional finishes, and use of wainscoting or bead board and ceiling treatments detailed to strengthen the style.
The Midwest entries seemed to say "sensible and beautiful," and - although designers will want to point out the exceptions - conservative. If strong colors were used, they were in paint and decorative details that would be less costly to change, with the main components being more neutral. The attitude was casual and comfortable, sort of "come for pot luck supper and bring a covered dish." True to this thought, the focal point was often the island or the socializing space. These projects demonstrated an uncompromising value for maximizing the function and efficiency of a space. Words such as practical and functional came to mind, but what dominated were phrases like safe, warm and cozy, cottage-like, and lake-living as we reviewed these kitchens.
The southern entries demonstrated gracious living and entertaining - think "Gone with the Wind." Whether it's true or not, the sense was one of everyone sitting down together for evening meals, even dressing for dinner. In keeping with this thought, the focal point was often the table or an island designed to look the part. The colors were more intense, darker woods mixed with multi-step glazes and the use of built-up molding stacks, more formal in many cases. The wall colors are also more intense and the finishes more complex.
As I read through these comments, I am reminded that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and there are many styles and details we have not mentioned here. But, I hope these observations can be useful as food for thought.
Keep in mind that the opportunity to judge design competitions is a wonderful chance to discuss and debate design concepts and trends with fellow professionals and to learn from them. Whether you agree or would debate these observations, I hope they will help you to confirm the design styles and concepts you are using as per your region, or to cross the lines and borrow from those of other regions. And, if invited to judge a design contest, do it!