Into the Closet

Entertainment centers. 'Libraries. 'Home offices. '

It's no secret that other parts of the house that rely heavily on cabinetry and intricate space planning provide a natural expansion to a kitchen and bath dealer's business. ' So why not closets?

"[Kitchen and bath designers are] already in the home and they know how to [plan and] install, it's just a matter of learning a different type of organization," believes Steve Carson, director of the wholesale division of Plus Closets, in Elmhurst, IL.

Not to mention, "there's a huge demand for closets," according to Bill Burke, president of Pro-Closets.Com, in Millington, NJ. "Their clients are already coming into their showrooms, and interested in working on their houses. It's a great add-on product."

"When people look at homes, they look at three things: kitchens, bathrooms and storage," declares Kathryn LaBarbera, senior v.p., Closet Factory, in Los Angeles, CA. "If a house doesn't have enough storage, they won't buy it." She notes that people use their closets at least several times a day, and are increasingly willing to spend the money to have this space be as organized and beautiful as the rest of the home.

Levels of Luxury
Today's closets are often an extension of the master bedroom and bath, with an open floor plan and the same attention to high-end details. Closet systems that feature solid wood fixtures, stylish hardware, islands with stone tops and other luxurious touches are more and more the norm in high-end homes.

And, as with other parts of the house, consumers have become much more educated in what's possible in closet design. John Sofio, president of Built Inc., in Los Angeles, CA, believes they take their cues from upscale department stores. "When you're purchasing your clothes at Barney's, [you see] how they've displayed the clothing, how organized it feels," he explains, adding that he often tells his clients to "go back to the store, see how it's laid out, and then come back and we'll organize your space like that."

Easy access to clothes on display, and systems that protect expensive designer clothing, are priorities for a high-end closet.
Mid-level clients, however, are mostly just concerned with not having their clothes be squished together and wrinkled. When getting into the closet business, Doug Henderson, co-owner of Poliform Atlanta, in Atlanta GA, notes that customers tend to come in two varieties, and a designer/dealer needs "to understand the client they're going after.

Is it a client who has limited space, so the person wants to maximize every square inch of their closet?" That type of client, he notes, would do well with a standard closet system.

The other client, "who isn't necessarily trying to maximize every square inch, wants something to help get organized and stay organized ' and it's about the aesthetics," Henderson continues. "[These consumers] want it to be beautiful. It's probably a larger walk-in closet or dressing room, so you want to go to a [high-end] closet product [that is] about style as much as it is about function."

The third option is the custom-built closet, which Gioi Tran, principal of the San Francisco, CA-based Applegate Tran Interiors, believes is the more efficient choice for his clientele. "We work with a lot of local shops," says Tran, "[because] we do a lot of customization. Every space is unique. I can't go to a closet company [with that much customization]." Rather than take the time to modify a standard system, Tran will design what's appropriate for the space, then go to a custom wood working shop to get exactly what he needs.

Jim Wallen, CKD, owner of Acorn Design Studio, in Oakland, CA, also has his closet projects custom built. 'Sofio uses California Closets systems for smaller projects, but prefers built-in closet storage that surrounds the bedroom space, eliminating wasted space such as the little hallway in the entrance of a walk-in closet.

"It's also eliminating the need for a lot of furniture," he explains. "In many of the spaces I do, I'll do built-in closets around the room. It's basically built-in furniture. You're taking the square footage of the hallway [leading into the walk-in closet] and putting that into the bedroom." This method saves space, makes the closet more accessible, and gives the bedroom a clean, minimalist look.

Modes of operation
For the kitchen and bath dealer who does want to establish a relationship with a closet manufacturer, there are many companies to choose from ' and all seem to have different target markets, business approaches and services available to designers.

Many closet companies work primarily with consumers directly and do all of their own space planning and designing. "Custom builders will use us," says LaBarbera, "[but] we don't typically market to them." The company will work with a designer on a client's project. Sometimes the company will work with the homeowner to come up with a detailed design. "Sometimes [the designer] will say, 'go work with [the homeowner on planning], don't say anything about price, run the design through me and I'll sell the design,' " LaBarbera explains. Other times, designers hand in measurements and general instructions and Closet Factory does the design.'''

"Typically, ClosetMaid managers, reps and dealers work directly with the builder," notes Mark Remmers, marketing manager, building division, for ClosetMaid, in Ocala, FL. The company also has a retrofit dealer division, which works directly with consumers or designers.

Plus Closets is one company that has been trying to market to kitchen and bath dealers, but found many were too busy to get into the closet business. "So we put together a program where they send us the dimensions of the closet, and an inventory of what's going to live in that closet, and we do the design work for them," says Carson. "The results have been pretty phenomenal. We've gone from dealers who do their first 'curiosity closet' just to see what it's like, and now they're sending in whole houses. The average closet job pulling out of here is retailing $4-5K." He adds that, after a few jobs, designers often come in with some planning already done as they develop their own approach to closets.

Closet Software
Many closet manufacturers have proprietary software programs ' most of which, it seems, are not compatible with CAD programs.
"ClosetMaid has design software available to our dealer base," explains Remmers. "We also have a professional design service available to consumers on our Web site as well as a design program if you want to do it yourself."

Henderson explains that Poliform has specific software "that unfortunately, doesn't interface with CAD. In order to submit our purchase orders to the factory, we need to have it entered in the factory system." He says that when he works with an architect or designer, that person will generally plan a closet system on CAD and "then we'll manually translate [their CAD] into the other system and generate all of the appropriate files for contracting."

Pro Closets.Com features an online design tool. This also doesn't sync with CAD systems, but "it's fairly intuitive," insists Burke, who adds that many of the company's closets are sold directly to homeowners who do their own design with the online software. "You literally drag and click the walls, you change the colors, hardware, everything online, you'll see the price every time you make a change," Burke elaborates. "You can save it in your account, or purchase it, and it ships out the next business day."'

Storage and delivery is also an issue when choosing a closet manufacturer to deal with. Carson points out that most kitchen and bath dealers prefer to minimize inventory, "so you have to have a [closet] vendor who doesn't require you to carry a big inventory of materials. We work with our dealers one closet at a time, so they can try it out, and once they see the profits they can generate, they become more enthusiastic."

Closets from Scratch
Like kitchen design, closet design presents an intricate space-planning puzzle. "There are a lot of rules," notes Carson. "There are a lot of design principles that are important." He suggests having a closet vendor help with the initial process on a couple of jobs.

And, just like a kitchen, a closet starts with the designer asking the homeowner better questions.

"Take the consumer's needs into consideration," advises Remmers. "Closets need to be designed for the best usage for the homeowner, not just utilization of space." Whether the closet is for a male or female, how tall they are, whether they're right- or left-handed, how many shoes they have, whether they have long dresses that need a long hang space, whether they fold their pants over or hang them from the cuff ' all of these distinctions make a difference in closet planning.

LaBarbera adds another list of questions for the client: "Do you want to eliminate the dresser in your bedroom and put all of those clothes in here? Will this be a dressing area? Do you want to put just seasonal clothes in here and swap out with your guest closet? How do you want to store your laundry? How much goes to dry cleaning vs. laundry, and how often do you do your laundry?" She notes it's important to figure which aspect of the closet is the most important to the homeowner. More hanging space? More room for shoes? Perhaps the centralization of all items so that the closet becomes a complete dressing room that houses everything from socks to jewelry?

For clients who have the space, "we generally recommend that they leave room for growth [in their closet plan]," says Henderson. He also suggests clients purge their clothing inventory before transferring items to their new closet.

"I haven't met anybody who had a closet that had room for growth!" laughs Burke, who adds that people who have big closets usually have bigger wardrobes.
Carson says most closet design is based on existing inventory, but adds, "We do provide for modifications. For instance, children get [a] low hang [design], but we'll put in a closet that can be adjusted as they grow."

Price point is another issue to consider. A closet can cost a few hundred dollars to five figures depending on the materials used.'''

"On the built-ins within the bedroom, we will spend the money on really nice wood cabinet [doors]," says Sofio. "But the interiors can be a veneer or a melamine. When you're inside [a walk-in] closet, we use California Closets, and it looks amazing."

Typically, closet systems are furniture-grade high-density melamine, and are available in white, off-whites and various wood looks that can be coordinated with the master bath and bedroom. Shelves in closet systems are typically attached using cam locks.

Carson explains that his company's closets are available in "economy, moderate and spectacular," with the latter including such niceties as glass doors, lighting and extra deep storage.

Larger (at least 10'x10') walk-in closets nearly always mandate an island, which typically houses drawers for jewelry, underwear and the like. "The island will have drawers on both sides, or we can put laundry baskets on one side and drawers on the other, or shoe cubbies," says Carson. "It's [also] something you can put your suitcase on when you're packing."

"I do shoe racks on the wall," adds Sofio. "Sometimes I'll do them two deep, so they can have 40-50 pairs of shoes. For women, I do little cubby spaces," so shoes can stay in shoeboxes if the client prefers. He also adds a larger space below for boots.

Burke also cites hampers and basket units as common island components. "Typically [the islands have mostly] drawers because that frees up the wall space for more hanging," he notes. The top is typically matching melamine, though "customers can also choose not to get a countertop from us. Some of them will go very high end with a nice Corian or granite top." For the all-encompassing master suite, Wallen also recommends such add-ons as glass doors to keep clothes from getting dusty.'''

Especially for limited spaces, those interviewed recommend the pull-down bar, so that one set of hanging clothes can be near the ceiling, but pulled down when necessary. Sofio favors Hafele mechanisms for this purpose. "You can have the pole swing all the way up [to the ceiling], creating extra hanging clothing space," he explains "Then it electronically lowers."

Similarly, Tran favors corner units where a coat rack is on a spiral, as well as hydraulic pull-downs of coat racks "so you can hang things at a higher level. You have more storage at eye level and you take advantage of the vertical [space]," he explains. "All of the coats are on a rack that you can pull down when you need them. Those are the details that make a difference."

Home Flow
Much the same way as the former kitchen, living room and dining room areas have expanded into an open-plan great room, the master suite has opened up to include master bedroom, bathroom, closet, exercise room and sometimes laundry room. With an increasing focus on loft-style configurations, clients often want a closet to have through-lines that connect it with the rest of the master suite.

Henderson says that better ventilation allows for combining of baths and closets without worry about the effects of humidity. "They're making a whole master suite, [with] a common scheme of materials and textures and lighting as you go from bedroom to bathroom to closet," he says.

In his high-end market, "we even find people who are going a step further, where they want their entire house to flow with common materials," he adds. The same flooring throughout a house is one way of accomplishing this; or, "they're treating cabinetry as an architectural item instead of a piece of furniture, and they're running that same wood species or lacquer color throughout the house."

Picking up the stone from the bathroom vanity for the closet island is another way of establishing a through-line. Hardware is another possibility, adds Burke, who often uses brushed nickel hardware. "They might try to match our melamine colors to their vanity color," he adds.

As for design style, no one is adding Enkeboll carvings to the closet ' yet. Henderson notes that most closets' streamlined looks can fit in with today's more spare and uncluttered design, of any variety. And though some of Poliform's designs dovetail the sleek, European minimalist looks of its sister kitchen cabinet line, Varenna, "Poliform really is on the soft side of contemporary," insists Henderson.

"We can make it be very severe if that's what a client wants, but the majority of our clients actually live in very traditional houses, and they just want a clean, beautiful look. They're starting to learn and appreciate what Europeans have known for a long time ' you can live in a 300-400-year-old house and still have some clean, modern things inside of it, and it all mixes together and artwork pops, and antiques look even better." KBDN