The View From Abroad

The View From Abroad

Across the globe and throughout the kitchen and bath, design trends in both the overseas and American markets are mirroring each other more and more each year, according to suppliers.

"You'll shop for your toilet just like you shop for your home theater system!" An unusual proclamation, perhaps, by Newbold Warden, marketing communications director for TOTO USA of Morrow, GA, but one that neatly sums up the latest kitchen and bath product trends in overseas markets, and their industry-wide impact in the U.S.

Warden believes that, when it comes to imported products, and the ever-increasing demand by consumers for personalization, right down to the often-ignored commode, "It's all about features and what they offer the consumer. Manufacturing, particularly in Japan, is driven by R&D these days."

While American and European markets have historically been separated by form and function, the line between the two is blurring, according to manufacturers interviewed recently by Kitchen & Bath Design News.

"The differences are shrinking," claims Jon Spector, director of U.S. operations for bath fittings manufacturer Dornbracht USA, Inc., in Duluth, GA. "Our clientele is becoming increasingly knowledgeable about the functional elements of a bathroom. Consumers demand more information and seek value in their investments. As a result, they are becoming more aware of the developments in Europe. American customers are seeking the same custom choices for their bath. We can no longer just provide faucets. We need to offer an entire range of lavatory, shower and bath products and accessories to meet their desire for a 'total look.'"

Conservation is also key in Europe and Japan and, to a growing extent, in the U.S. "Water and energy efficiency is something European appliance manufacturers have been perfecting for years," notes David Carr, project manager of cooking, BSH Home Appliances, in Broadview, IL.

Adds Jean-Sebastien Roy, marketing analyst for bath fixtures manufacturer MAAX Inc., in Ste. Marie, Quebec, CAN, "Our products use the most important natural resource on the planet, water, and our policies must reflect current public opinion regarding such important ecological questions as global warming and the 'desert-ification' of certain regions. For many years now, Europe has been recycling waste water. This philosophy is not yet as strongly anchored [in North America], but we believe that day is fast coming."

Several manufacturers note that this attention to resources is more easily achieved abroad. "Japan is a very homogeneous society," explains Warden. "When they're asked to help out with water conservation in a certain region, for instance, they do it. There isn't a governing body over such things, and the government doesn't have to pass laws to force people to comply."

Adds Tim Schroeder, president of Duravit USA, Inc., in Duluth, GA, "The European orientation toward conservation is also based on cost. In Europe, you have a meter for water going into your home and another for sewage going out. So that makes a difference."

Schroeder believes the 1.6 gallon standard is better for the both the environment and the industry. "Over here, there are people lobbying to get rid of the 1.6 gallon flush as inefficient. It's not. But folks want to bump the level up to a 2.3 gallons. In some states, they even want to set their own different standards and levels, and wouldn't that just be madness for our industry?"

As the U.S. market trends toward the fully-integrated built-in kitchen so popular overseas, the most conspicuous appliance notion making inroads is the emergence of the washer and dryer as kitchen appliances.

"It just makes good sense to put them there," claims Joe Yoder, advertising manager for ASKO Inc., in Richardson, TX. "It's growing more acceptable as the units become more attractive, and people discover they can put washers and dryers under standard sized cabinets."

Yoder notes that European appliances are typically quieter because of higher quality gears, motors and bearings. "ASKO's units aren't integrated, but with our current models, you can put a panel on, and you can't even tell what's in there. If you spend a lot of time in the kitchen, it's more efficient."

Perhaps the greatest innovations to be found in imported appliance lines are among dishwashers, where, again, features and circuitry are the hot topics. Several manufacturers state they are now able to offer a third wash level (which often functions as a cutlery tray) and larger capacity tanks, made possible because of advancements in motor technology.

"About three years ago, we totally redesigned our dishwasher," says ASKO's Yoder. "We've been able to install smaller motors that use a lot less horsepower without sacrificing efficiency. So now we can make the tank taller without changing the size of the hole. Everybody wants a dishwasher to hold more, but the last thing you want to do is tell homeowners they need to get new countertops and so forth."

Conservation factors into dishwasher design, as well. "In 1991, we introduced units which use half the amount of water and operate eight times more quietly," notes BSH's Carr. "They were an instant success, especially in California during the water shortage."

Popular features for dishwashers also include hidden controls along the top edge of the door; start-delay features which enable consumers to begin their wash cycle late in the evening, when some states have lower electricity rates; and, most importantly, the ability to fully integrate into the cabinetry.

All those interviewed acknowledge the necessity of offering the customer the widest possible variety of options. But bells and whistles aren't enough these days, according to Amy Philips, manager of the architects & designers resource group at Miele Appliances, Inc., in Somerset, NJ. "It's important to us that our products last a long time, so that they're not considered disposable, as they tend to be seen as here. Fortunately, this is a growing trend in the U.S. market, as well."

Yoder agrees, stating, "Quality and durability [are] key for us, which is one reason we use a stainless steel tank instead of plastic. Plastic is fine, it works great with water. But stainless lasts longer. People give us a bad time about our literature being so extensive, but if I'm charging $200-$300 more for a unit, I have to justify that. I want them to look behind the door."

For the rest of the kitchen, the professional stainless steel look an American trend gaining a foothold in Europe is still the popular choice for cooktops and ovens, many times offset by extensive use of wood and glass in the cabinetry to effect a non-institutional feel. "European kitchens will not accommodate many large U.S. sizes," says Jennifer Capasso, senior marketing services manager for Gaggenau, in Norwood, MA. "But stainless is beginning to show interest in the higher price points. The latest styling has a more rounded look, following 
foreign car design trends, such as the Audi A6."

Sinks, faucets, fittings
"Stainless, stainless, stainless!" emphasizes Charles L. Burhans, president of Blanco America, Inc., in Cinnaminson, NJ, who sees it for everything and the kitchen sink. "In Europe we're seeing a lot of integrated, one-piece stainless modules. And, of course, they have the deeper bowl because the overall dimensions are smaller there. Here, the trend is more toward stainless, one-piece, double-bowl undermount sinks [applied] to a Corian or granite countertop. We like a stainless faucet. People are really going for stylish, high-end, full-featured stainless or composite sinks here, with a brushed or satin finish."

The European influence is more keenly felt here in the design and function of bath fittings, and manufactureres note a growing trend toward minimalism.

"In the world of clothing, Americans have historically turned to Europe to learn the latest fashion trends," says Dornbracht USA's Spector. "This sensitivity to European design carries over to the relatively short history of the high-end designer fittings. The current movement in product design is toward a blend of traditional elements within a contemporary shape. Meeting the necessities of functionality, the popular product of today combines this sense of history with the clean lines of minimalist design."

Spector notes an increase in the use of single-hole lavatory fittings, noting that, while the standard widespread is still the most popular fitting selected in the U.S., the single-hole lav is gaining favor among the design community.

"We also see a growing interest in the wall-mount lav set, which opens up many design possibilities. The growing number of above-the-counter, basin-type sinks that are available today supports this trend. The single-unit, dual-handle lavatory, also known as the 'bridge' faucet, is another style that has grown in popularity," adds Spector.

"The anti-scald laws in the U.S. have reduced the number of showers using separate hot and cold wall valves," Spector continues. "As a result, there's a strong growth in the use of thermostatic valves with multiple appliances, such as body sprays, personal handshowers on slide bars, and showerheads."

Considering finishes, Spector sees an overall decline in brass and gold, replaced by platinum and chrome, with soft matte finishes replacing polished surfaces.

Across the board, foreign cabinet manufacturers agree that the unfitted, mix-and-match style kitchen is on fire in the U.S., once again spotlighting the need to offer an almost unlimited range of options to the consumer.

Says Lothar Birkenfeld, CKD, CBD, president of Poggenpohl U.S. Inc. in Wayne, NJ, "I haven't seen a kitchen done in only one wood, lacquer or finish in some time. Both retail and project work are running along the same lines, which is a mix of materials consisting mostly of veneers, stainless steel and glass. There are always solid woods, but the veneers create such a better picture on the door itself, and offer better matching. In the contemporary field which is experiencing tremendous growth after being out of favor for some time we're seeing a lot of stainless steel and fine glass focal points and accents."

Tom Krotzer, national sales manager for Sokee, in Monroe, WA also sees an upswing in the mix-and-match look. "We specialize in the upper end," says Krotzer. "We're using a lot of different exotic woods, finishes and colors. I am finding, especially on the East Coast, that people are looking for something different. They are mixing different textures and colors together to create a very dramatic effect. It is contemporary, but not the ultra contemporary of the past."

According to Dalia Tamari, owner of Alno Network USA, in Boston, MA, stainless "is being used extensively as an accent. Light beech, birch and cherry are dominating the market, but in combination with stainless steel countertops and appliances." Commenting on the sometimes difficult proposition of marrying wood cabinetry to a stainless kitchen, Tamari says, "We do that by including a few drawers that are stainless, or we'll do a stainless steel island."

Tamari also cites the use of color mixes in the American kitchen as a growing trend. "We use a lot of bold colors here. In Europe, we see more old-looking cabinets which are distressed, or where it looks like termites just left the box. Here, we mix several colors. We like a shade of Shaker blue, and also greens and yellows, including perhaps an island or hutch of a different color from the rest of the kitchen. We've also done several kitchens that combined European and American cabinets in the same house. It's really a wide open market, style-wise."

The U.S. market still seems particularly resistant to a few specific European notions. Most often cited is use of the metric system in design and construction, although Tamari claims "this is much less of a problem than before."

Poggenpohl's Birkenfeld notes that U.S. is particularly resistant to "the laminated, or Formica kitchen, which does extremely well in Europe. In the 1960s and '70s, this was a very big trend here, using laminates with wooded trim," he says. "But slowly, the trim got bigger while the laminates got smaller."

Bath fixtures
If there's one area that sets the U.S. market from manufacturer to consumer apart from its European counterpart, it is the realm of personal hygiene. In one of the most hygienically minded countries in the world, people are hesitant to talk about what are euphemistically referred to here as 'sanitary ceramics.'

"It's kind of odd," laughs Duravit's Schroeder. "Just look at what's written up in the press! People carrying around personal disinfectant bottles, or sprays for phones and tabletops at restaurants. The function of hygiene is greater here than anywhere else in the world, so you'd think it would be marketed more heavily. But whenever you talk about the bathroom [in the U.S.], it's definitely taboo to discuss personal cleanliness and bodily functions. People feel funny about it."

However, that's not a problem for TOTO, says Warden, who adds that many of the toilets are made out of anti-fungal plastics.

Warden continues, "The [bath] market is growing steadily here. We have some really advanced circuitry for the toilet and bidet in Japan." He cites such available features as hydraulic hinges "like those on our Soft Close lids," warm-water nozzles, deodorizing fan systems, remote-controlled, heated seats and infra-red flushing sensors.

Technological advancements are apparent on the other side of the bathroom, as well, says MAAX's Sebastien. "The present trend is toward the development of electronic components and massage systems. The impact of this in North America is evident, as more and more companies are offering electronic system controls, as well as electronically controlled bath and shower options."

Stylistically, says Duravit's Schroeder, "It's a return to the basics, back to minimalism: real simple designs like Philippe Starck, or even Michael Graves. I think you could say that's starting to affect trends here in the U.S. Clean lines with natural colors and materials are hot right now, and we're seeing a lot of woods, stones, glass and stainless steel. And, of course, ceramics."

For the bathtub, Sebastien points out that the priority for North American manufacturers is functionality, while in Europe, design takes precedence. "Europeans place a higher importance on the aesthetics of a product, preferring refined and elegant lines. That's why European manufacturers have traditionally developed products that are generally considered more stylish. However, just as in fashion design, the North American bathroom fixture market is increasingly taking its inspiration from the old continent."

Another European trend that's garnering increased attention in the U.S. is barrier-free design. Citing demographic studies, Sebastien believes that, "Baby boomers have attained an age where they are increasingly not as mobile, and will be looking for products adapted to their needs."

Adds Schroeder, "Europeans are light years ahead of us in dealing with the physically challenged, offering a wider range of styles in barrier-free lines."

For European manufacturers, the furniture-style market is really expanding, and one reason is flexibility in sizing. "For instance," says Schroeder, "some American makers I know offer four sizes in vanities and cabinets. Because the Europeans are so much more used to dealing creatively with space, they offer far more extensive lines. We offer nine sizes in our vanities. It's all about giving the customer choices. Also, American designs still have a predominantly institutional look about them."

In conclusion, Schroeder echoes a thought expressed by several manufacturers regarding a primary difference in kitchen and bath ideology between the U.S. and overseas markets: "They have a lot more fun with design in Europe. This is impacting U.S. trends, as we discover a playfulness in form following function. The 'Culture in the Bath' here is discovering that you can have a functional bathroom that is really different from what you'd expect, and that's good for the consumer." KBDN