European Inspirations

High-tech gadgetry and highly functional designs are among the latest inspirations from Europe's recent domotechnica.

by Mary Kurtz, CKD

These were just a few of the trends on display at the recent domotechnica event in Cologne, Germany, which spotlighted a wide range of products and design ideas from Europe, as well as from around the world.

Cabinets and countertops are appearing in a wide array of materials and colors on the European front, heralding hot trends to watch for in the U.S., while appliances that can be programmed to cook meals when no one is home are also up-and-comers. In addition, technology that allows kitchen activity to be monitored via computer, allowing home owners to activate their kitchen appliances from a remote location, was evident.

European kitchen designers' ability to marry practicality with beauty was apparent at domotechnica's LivingKitchen "world of experience" exhibit. The LivingKitchen hall was divided into eight kitchen "worlds," each designed to showcase different trends appealing to various lifestyles and demographics.

The four kitchens featured in "The Great Outdoors" focused on the outdoors and ecological living, a significant trend in Europe. Incorporating ecological aspects and a closeness to nature, these vignettes showcased how the kitchen can be used not only as the focal point of family life, but also as a link between the indoors and outdoors. Featured in the four kitchens were a host of natural materials, and colors and designs borrowed from nature blues, beiges, greens as well as marble textures, glass and subtle lighting to reflect nature's influence.

The Mediterranean style of the "Tuscany and Technology" section incorporated six kitchens that combined high-tech function with a warm ambience and cracked, natural stone flooring. 

The "Country and Lifestyle" section of nine kitchens featured the most traditional settings. Elegant comfort was the focus, with wood and white finished cabinets featuring cross designs over glass doors mixed with antique and cane furniture and baskets. Checked and flowered wallpaper and checkered floors helped to personalize the spaces, with traditional wood tables finishing out some of the rooms.

To attract the cosmopolitan individual, the "Cross and Culture" segment featured four kitchens stripped down to the bare essentials, using Asian minimalism and the principles of Feng Shui also a slow-but-growing trend in the U.S. In keeping with the demands of the purist, clean lines and lacquered surfaces in basic colors of black, white and red were prominent. Stainless appliances enhanced the simplicity of the designs.

The eight kitchens featured in "Bold and Easy" were designed to appeal to the younger generation of first-time buyers. The kitchens featured strong colors and mixed materials in bold, artsy designs. The updated, fresh use of color included shades such as dark blue and purple shown on the cabinets which were often laminate with white cabinet pulls adding contrast. Oven doors sported artistic designs in colors matching the ventilation hoods above. The overall look was clean and modern.

"Loft and Casual" combined traditional materials such as wood with newer materials, including laminates, plastic and stainless steel. The open structure of loft-like settings, which can be found in such urban centers as New York, Tokyo and Berlin, encourages more daring combinations throughout the space. Red laminate and black cabinets featured stainless drawer and door pulls, complementing the stainless appliances throughout. More traditional wood countertops enhanced the eclectic feel of the space.

The "Form and Function" display featured 10 larger kitchens that focused on function. Clear lines and practical materials projected a streamlined approach, while large cabinets offered significant storage space, with hidden storage compartments making the rooms even more functional. Cabinets also featured open areas for easy access, as well as baskets for convenient portability. Softer color combinations prevailed, with white and pale to medium wood shades dominating. 

The final kitchen collection of the LivingKitchen, "Elite and Emotional" was comprised of eight understated kitchens that featured basic colors such as white, black and gray richly and classically woven in combination with stainless steel, aluminum and glass. 

Cabinet systems
Pale colored laminate and light wood cabinets were highly evident, and several companies also displayed a "puffed" or "pillowed" laminate door and drawer head. Traditional wood door styles were prevalent in the English country and Tuscany kitchens, where square raised-panel doors and small latticed flat-panel doors were featured. Hardware was either integrated into the drawer, or was featured in the design as a large stainless steel pull.

When it came to storage, very wide and deep drawers were the norm, with many customization options on display. One company's drawer bottoms resembled a pegboard, with adjustable quarter-round wooden pegs and wooden dividers to allow for plate, cup and dish storage. Another company had stainless steel inserts, while still another offered a combination of both. Other manufacturers' drawer bottoms were rubberized perfect for the freestanding adjustable plate and cup holders. Occasion-ally, a bank of drawers would be different than the others to add intereststainless steel or aluminum, frosted plexiglass or industrial-looking glass fronts.

For the most part, wall cabinets were not very tall and usually hinged from the top or folded horizontally and again hinged from the top. There were also many roll-up and slide-up doors. 

U.S. designers might also find some interesting lighting ideas from their counterparts overseas, who often used halogen lights under the wall cabinets, not hidden with a light rail, but used instead as a feature itself always with a frosted glass cover. Some were positioned on a 45-degree angle on the back wall.

Open shelves abounded, and there was some interesting use of the space between base and wall cabinets. One company featured a midway system that had integrated sockets, knife blocks, lighted shelves and sliding doors and cubbyholes. Another had a fold-down electric slicer, which is a particularly popular item in European kitchens. It was clear that storage is a top priority overseas, just as it is in the U.S.

European countertop trends mirrored the U.S. trend of featuring tops at several different heights and in several different materials all within the same kitchen. The material used for the countertop usually fit the task granite, solid surface or stainless steel around the cooktop and sink; laminate, wood and butcher block in other areas. The most common edge treatment on granite and solid surface was the no-drip edge. 

Another interesting cabinet that called for a special countertop treatment was the convex-curved base cabinet. Usually displayed in the corner, in some designs this cabinet could be found on a 24-inch rotating base in the middle of a straight run. These convex cabinets, which are ideal for liquor storage, were always topped with a butcher block or solid surface cutting board about an inch higher than the adjacent countertop.

As for cabinet trim and moulding, these items are still not very popular in European kitchens. Vertical sliding doors work better when there is no trim to get in the way, and kitchen furniture is often moved with the family when changing residence. Base cabinets were also shown without the detachable toekick panel, which makes for a more industrial, serious-cook look.

Many of the kitchens in the LivingKitchen exhibit featured very large apron-fronted sinks with drainboards much like the old-fashioned porcelain and cast iron ones we often see replaced in remodeling jobs in the U.S. Striking Italian and German sinks were made of fireclay and solid surface composites. Some had high backs for wall-mounted faucets, while others had a deck mounting. However, all of the sinks were one to two inches higher than the adjacent countertop. One sink had a large bowl that was stepped at the bottom so that the user could wash up using less water, since water conservation is a major concern overseas. However, with this becoming increasingly a concern in certain parts of the U.S., this trend may soon be making its way to the U.S.

Europeans are very environmentally conscious, highly aware of water and energy consumption issues. The number of technologically advanced appliances that take these factors into consideration, all while fitting into the smaller space of the European style kitchen, was impressive and something American designers can expect to see more of as energy efficiency becomes increasingly important in the U.S.

Among the stand-out appliances exhibited were a trash compactor that fit under the sink; a flat screen television that was also a computer and central household command center, mounted in the middle of a granite countertop; built-in steam ovens, and built-in espresso coffeemakers. Most of the appliances that could be seen the oven, cooktop and hood were stainless steel or aluminum, an up-and-coming material because of its ability to hide fingerprints.

New technology 
While cooking with gas has been the accepted norm, new technology promises new options. A completely reworked generation of induction hobs combines the advantages of gas with the convenience of glass ceramic hobs, to offer an alternative to cooking with gas, reports domotechnica. Due to the small amounts of radiated heat, the units can be fitted above drawers without the need for an additional protective base. The new hobs can also be installed above ovens. The functions are indicated on a display, and the hot plates are controlled by sensor buttons, with up to nine settings featured. Sensors are up and coming for all types of electrical appliances, and are increasingly replacing switches.

Innovations in oven cleaning systems were also noted, with new developments based on a silicon-coated surface with almost total non-stick properties. A pyrolitic cleaning process, also operated via sensors, burns all residues in the oven to ash, which can then be easily removed with a cloth.

Stainless steel or stainless steel and glass ventilation hoods from several Italian companies combined stunning aesthetics and sleek, airy designs with plenty of functional extras. Some could be run by remote control, and one extractor even recycled water through horizontal glass panels, continuously cleaning the air.

The dishwashers and the refrigerators/freezers on display were almost all built-in, with dishwashers set at all different heights some even opening to the height of the countertop. In some designs, a free-standing refrigerator in retro-style and intense color such as red was used as a striking focal point.

Among the refrigerators shown was the ART 599 from Whirlpool Europe. The company was the recipient at the show of the European Energy+ Award on behalf of the 220 liter refrigerator, which boasts energy consumption of only 0.48 kWh/24 h, in energy class A and is HFC free. The refrigerator has been recognized for outstanding energy reduction of up to 40 percent as compared to average appliances. 

In making the refrigerator more functional, the Elica Group from Marche designed DoorWay, a stainless steel refrigerator door that is equipped with a flat screen connected to an internal "thin client" computer. An infrared keyboard that is easy to use and handily operable at a distance makes managing a shopping list, writing down recipes and connecting to the Internet amazingly simple. The system allows on-screen interaction, connecting automatically to an Application Server Provider, getting from the refrigerator door the same functions as a personal computer. It can even be used to watch television or as a video telephone. The future for this product includes a touch screen monitor, which can be operated by finger touch.

The newest dishwashers on display also had some unique features, such as a setting for water hardness. The quantity of water in the rinsing phases can also be increased, as can the fan time in the drying phase.

Just like in the U.S., kitchen appliances were also evident in areas other than the kitchen, including dens and master bedroom suites. In keeping with this trend, a Lilliputian-sized kitchen was among the show's offerings. Resembling a big wardrobe with overall dimensions of about 5' W x 6' D x 2' H, the unit is suited for a small city apartment or master suite. When the doors are opened, a full kitchen from Siemens is revealed, including a refrigerator/freezer, a small dishwasher, a two-burner cooktop, a microwave/convection oven, a small sink and faucet, a recycling unit and some storage.

Mary Kurtz, CKD, is the owner of Mary Kurtz Kitchens, an independent kitchen design firm. She is currently living and working in Europe after designing kitchens in the Washington, D.C. area for the last 10 years. Mary can be reached at