Cabinet Meeting

Cabinet Meeting

When it comes to kitchen cabinetry, consumers want a personalized and eclectic look, favoring glazed finishes, ornamental moldings and maple.

Twenty years ago, the "keeping up with the Joneses" mentality dictated the kitchen cabinet market: Manufacturers introduced the newest, hottest thing, and consumers went out and bought it as soon as they could conceivably afford it.

These days, it's the opposite, especially when it comes to kitchen cabinets. "The shift more and more is towards individuality," believes Jim Bishop Jr., president of Jim Bishop Cabinets, Inc., in Montgomery, AL. "It used to be a product-driven market, now it's a market-driven product. Even companies that traditionally could be considered middle-to-lower end are responding to individualized tastes."

Still, some overall design trends emerge: Glaze finishes are hot, as is maple and highly ornamental mouldings, according to manufacturers surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News. In addition, production and distribution trends are impacting the market, as are the recent wave of cabinet company mergers and acquisitions.

Glazed finishes
No matter what wood species or design style they choose, one thing is likely in 1999: customers want glazed finishes on their kitchen cabinetry. White and chocolate tones lead the pack, manufacturers agree, though many are introducing variations on the theme: For instance, Beth Dibert, brand manager for Diamond and Kemper, Master Brand Cabinets, in Jasper, IN, mentions color combinations such as chocolate glaze over yellow.

"We introduced taupe glaze with physical distressing; frost, a glaze on a neutral off-white background with white glaze and physical distressing; buttercream, which is a soft yellow stain, and platinum lustre [a semi-opaque stain with subtle metallic properties in the finish], which looks dynamite with stainless steel," notes Janice Pattee, CKD, CMG, director of design services for KraftMaid Cabinetry, Inc., in Middlefield, OH.

Dan Fuehring, national sales manager for the Kreamer, PA-based Wood-Mode, Inc., agrees that glazes are the finish du jour, citing the popularity of "hand-wiped heirloom effects, a lot of wood tones with black and brown glazes more of an antique approach."

Bishop adds that glazes are gaining popularity for oak cabinetry: "It takes that grainy, strong, stark look, and softens it."

Similarly, glaze has a different effect on hickory, which has a dramatic grain, explains Dibert. "It really highlights the darker tones and variations you get. It appeals to consumers who want that authentic farmhouse look."

According to Bishop, the ultra-homey, worn look is particularly attractive to Generation X homeowners, who have no memories of the Depression (which tend to make consumers desire shiny, new-looking decor) and want comfortable home surroundings to offset their stressful lives. "We have an oak product we do with our traditional pickled finish, and rub a brown glaze over it, and [apply] a low 15 sheen finish, and it looks absolutely dead," he elaborates. "It looks like it's rotting you could see this in somebody's barn, or beach house. And it's picking up in sales."

All this demand for glaze makes it no longer just a high-end item, with manufacturing techniques changing accordingly. "More companies than ever are getting into glazed finishes and multi-step, custom finishes, even on a fairly high-volume scale in some cases," says Bishop. "We're using the 'champagne taste, beer budget' analogy. A customer looks at a high-end set of cabinets in a magazine and says, 'I would love to be able to create that look in my home.' They go out and price the high end, [but find] that's not attainable. Now they can come to a middle-end company like us. You're not going to get perfect little beads and perfectly matched wood color, and the painstaking buffer steps you're going to get in the higher end. [But] we ask the customer, 'Are these compromises acceptable to you to attain the look you want?' Typically, they're going to [choose this over something] that's more blah, middle-of-the-road, dull."

For the high and lower end of the market, other finishes are gaining in popularity. Tom Krotzer, national sales manger for Sokee, in Monroe, WA, says high-gloss finishes are hot for his company. "We're seeing quite a trend coming back toward a contemporary look, though it's not necessarily going to overtake traditional. We see it in the woods, stainless steel and colors, with painted lacquers as an accent. We're seeing yellows, blues, greens and most definitely black."

On the more economical end of the scale, "We're having great success with a new laminate color, silk, the exact match to Kohler's Biscuit. It's an antique white, not quite as yellow as almond," says Laurie Galbraith, design and training manager for HomeCrest Cabinetry, in Goshen, IN. 

"We also introduced a new style, Nantucket, a thermofoil finish available in a white and off-white," adds Mark Nowotarski, Aristokraft brand manager, in Jasper, IN. "That warmer white color is becoming more and more popular. It's nice because it blends in with the popular neutral tones that are going on." 

"For years we thought white was going to die," concludes Galbraight. "But now you're seeing a more antique color. At our price point, trends tend to trickle down from the top."

Wood species, detailing the trends in wood species are simple to define: "Maple is still out there, big-time," says KraftMaid's Pattee. "Generally, it's close-grained woods [that are popular]: cherry, maple, birch. With the newer finishes, [those kinds of woods] provide that really soft look in a kitchen."

Cherry, particularly, is an up-and-comer, believes Wood Mode's Fuehring, combining maple's fine grain with a more reddish tone. Norman Pollack, national sales manger with Riviera Cabinets in Red Wing, MN, also cites alderwood. "We're having a lot of success with that. It used to be called the 'poor man's cherry,' but the demand has increased" to the point where the price is equal or greater than cherry. 

Dibert notes hickory, with its dramatic grain, as a love-it-or-hate-it pick that works best for old-time, homey looks. "We're using different woods," says Sokee's Krotzer. "Tamamoqu, tachidamo, which are kind of burly, a lot more like a bird's-eye maple. We use a high-gloss finish on them. We're also using spruce, Japanese cedar and cherry bark, the actual bark on the drawer heads, with a spruce frame around it."

For more traditional applications, it's moulding, moulding and more moulding, which serves to personalize a customer's cabinet choice. Says Dibert, "We're seeing a lot of stacked moulding treatments on cabinets, also pilasters used to set cabinets off, to make them look like a piece of furniture."

Several manufacturers mentioned Enkeboll architectural wood carvings as particularly attractive mouldings. "The demand has pushed us to accommodate our dealers as far as making those [kinds of] products available," says Fuehring, who also cites "more ornate mouldings, built-up mouldings, larger crowns, and appliqués."

"We started offering a custom Enkeboll program, where you can buy their products to go with our products, right with your order," explains Bishop. "I thought they'd sell once in a while, but they're putting these appliqués on valances and sink fronts. Once again, you're taking a kitchen to a middle-range family and saying, 'Give me an extra $150 in your overall budget, and I can make your $4,000 kitchen look like a $9,000 kitchen simply by making a focal point of the sink area.'"

For those going for a more streamlined, contemporary look, it's important to consider a cabinet's compatibility with the seemingly permanent trend of stainless steel appliances. "We've got stainless steel inserts, rather than putting in glass," says Krotzer. "Steel with gold and silver etching, with a wood frame around it. We do perforated stainless steel between two pieces of glass. Interspersing stainless steel doors with wood doors gives a really nice effect." 

He adds that the new trend is toward mixing stainless with natural materials. "People like the look of stainless, but sometimes it can be so cold. But when you mix it with wood, it warms it up."

Shaker cabinetry also remains an option for those looking for a clean, streamlined look. "It's still prevalent," says Dibert. "Shaker and unfitted [cabinet styling] tend to go together."

"It's out there, but I'm wondering for how much longer," counters Fuehring.

"Shaker has a niche, but I think it's just that," adds Aristokraft's Nowotarski. "It seems to be stable in terms of its demand; we're doing okay with it. I think that's what's occurring overall in the whole cabinet industry; it's become much more of a niche category, serving different tastes and needs out there."

The biggest need this year seems to be for variety, often within the cabinets of a given kitchen. "You're seeing a lot more open cabinets, and cabinets with glass inside," says Dibert, while Pollack sees specialty cabinets featuring drawers and open areas, and Pattee notes a combination of finishes the hutch in a kitchen a different finish than the cabinets, for instance. HomeCrest's Galbraigth also mentions a trend toward "mixing wood species or colors, darker cherry with lighter cherry, contrasting trim."

"I think you have to consider the price range of the cabinetry," cautions Riviera's Pollack. "In 
our cabinetry you're not going to find a lot of ornate, fancy things. It's moderately priced. Equally, you're not going to find a lot of sleek, stainless steel." But even in a "real world" market, "people are trying to load the cabinets up with as many options and features [as possible], and trying to copycat the custom guys."

"I think what we're seeing is, detail, detail, detail," declares Pattee. "Whether it be in the ornamentation in the kitchen, ornaments, onlays, mouldings, the detail in the door style, the interest of glazing all of that provides detail in the kitchen. The other side of the story is streamlining, the Japanese influence or, the new modern. Is there a middle ground? Probably, but I think we're seeing from one end of the spectrum to the other detail and simplicity," she concludes. KBDN

Cabinet Production and Distribution Trends Encourage the 'Urge to Merge'

In the future, all cabinets will be manufactured by a few giant conglomerates which comprise the entire market.

Well, maybe not quite, but a spate of recent mergers and acquisitions in the marketplace are changing its scope, as well as distribution and manufacturing capability.

"It's an interesting time," believes Dick Titus, executive v.p, for the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association. "The mergers that you're seeing now are a continuation of a process that began many years ago, that's driven by economic and business reasons," he notes. The objective, he adds, is "to achieve growth and economies of scale, [and] grow different types of lines that achieve different business objectives. Acquisitions and consolidations are the quick way to do it."

"There's always a reason for why one company buys out another and I think you have to look at it individually," says Norman Pollack, national sales manger for Riviera Cabinets, in Red Wing, MN. For instance, he cites a company that bought another company because it "wanted to get into home centers [but] didn't want to put its own name in home centers and ruin the distributor business they'd worked so hard to set up."

In another case, acquiring a new door company provided an existing door manufacturer a much larger distribution instantly. "The bigger companies have the marketing behind them to get what they need," Pollack notes.

Some companies merge to acquire a line of products, such as frameless cabinets, that's already been marketed successfully and has credibility in the marketplace, adds Titus. Others merge to acquire a particular geographic presence, or instantly increase their dealer distribution network.
"A lot of the dealers are looking for new lines or new names that give them something to market that's different from someone a few miles away," he explains.

A strong economy and a huge remodeling market support all this activity: "It demonstrates how dynamic the market is," believes Beth Dibert, brand manager for Diamond and Kemper, Master Brand Cabinets,in Jasper, IN.

Another factor impacting the kitchen cabinet industry right now is the recent trend towards highly computerized, automated cabinet manufacturing, such as CNC link machines.

"Manufacturers' capacity for production is so great today, they're looking at every avenue they can for business so they can keep their factories busy," thinks Pollack. "The automated equipment enables them to make more product and in most cases to reduce their labor force so they can control their costs better and ultimately make more money. So the investment in the equipment [pays for itself] fairly quickly."

But Dan Fuehring, national sales manager of Kreamer, PA-based Wood Mode, Inc., cautions, "Stock cabinets are produced in a certain way, and custom cabinetry is produced in a certain way, and it's very difficult to blend the two. Automation lends itself to stock manufacturing. However, there's also the opportunity for electronic manufacture management at the high-end custom level. It's not so much automation as it is managing the component flow more efficiently" with bar codes and other methods to ensure the right components are at the right place at the right time in the manufacturing process.

"That's all adding to productivity and efficiency," notes Titus. Lower unit costs "can bring the net costs to consumers down, which brings great pressure on the competition. There's a great deal of competition, it's hard to have price increases. So the industry has been very resourceful in increasing productivity and efficiency. That's where the industry is achieving a large measure of the growth right now," Titus adds.

Jim Bishop Jr., president of Jim Bishop Cabinets, Inc., in Montgomery, AL, notes that the new trend towards individualized finishes is affecting manufacturing trends in a different way. "It used to be that, to be a middle-of-the-road cabinet, you had to be high production, high volume, typically selling to a stocking distributor who might in turn sell to dealers," he explains. "[But] as the market has become more fragmented, even the larger companies are starting to bring down batch sizes."
The ultimate goal is market share and market penetration, manufacturers say. Notes Dibert, "It's about addressing each area of the market from the home centers to the distributors to the builders, with a unique product offering. We're seeing that with all manufacturers: the need to address all [segments] of the market with different products."

Has the merger and acquisition boom peaked? "I don't think it's over," says Fuehring. "There is a consolidation effort or movement afoot and who knows that the next one will be?"
Daina Darzin