Creating a Dialogue on Appliances

As kitchen designers, we're called upon to personalize the spaces we develop for clients, and to create spaces that support their lifestyles and needs.

Sometimes this means a non-traditional placement or application of products, such as appliances. These non-traditional ideas have influenced not only the design of the spaces we create, but also the evolution of the products we specify.

While this column will focus on appliances, our role in the process is similar for most products. In response to demands for improved efficiency and access - and the wide diversity in height, ability and number of cooks in today's kitchens - we're asking not, "How has this appliance always been used?," but "How would we wish to use this appliance?"

By working with clients to answer this question, kitchen designers have an opportunity - and a responsibility - to talk with the appliance manufacturer.

Unique installation of appliances may challenge the manufacturer's specifications, and so it necessitates consultation. This usually means pressing beyond customer service to engineers involved in product design and testing.

Allow me to illustrate: In the mid-'80s, I wanted to place a single wall oven under a counter. A common practice now, it was not widely done then, and the specs called for a minimum installation height that would not allow it to be done - though it seemed perfectly logical to me that if the oven worked at one height, it would work at another.

However, after talking with customer service, I spoke with an engineer who explained that testing required for UL approval in terms of heat build-up had not been done at the undercounter height, so it could not be endorsed by the supplier. Obviously, these tests have since been done, and most of today's ovens can be installed under a counter. In fact, it's done regularly.

I like to think that my - and other kitchen designers' - conversations with product designers helped bring the current situation about. Today, we commonly see double ovens placed next to each other, or sometimes under a raised counter, instead of stacked in a tall cabinet.

My point is that next time, if it's not called for in the installation instructions, a little research may be in order.

Another simple example has to do with controls for ventilation systems. Controls located on the hood are out of reach for shorter or seated cooks. Moving the control to a switch in an apron panel just below counter height improves access for those people. However, this installation voids the warranty on many systems.

Yet another example is the elevated dishwasher. While this has been accomplished in creatively designed spaces for years, its large-scale acceptance is only fairly recent. A few years ago, a space I designed included an elevated dishwasher. Checking with the customer service people, I was eventually put in touch with an engineer involved with the dishwasher in question. As he understood it, the installation I desired would compromise venting and safety.

Through conversation, we easily established how the dishwasher could safely be installed at the height I wished, maintaining or improving safety and ventilation. If we'd not had that conversation, a "lose-lose-lose" situation might have occurred for the manufacturer, my client and myself. Instead, that dishwasher installation is a success - and at least one product engineer and one kitchen designer have a better understanding of the value of communication.

Since then, by the way, there have been changes in that dishwasher that eliminate the risk. In addition, at least one stock cabinet line includes an elevated dishwasher cabinet. So, it seems fair to assume that these product changes were influenced by kitchen designers, making communication between manufacturers and kitchen designers key to taking product application and placement to the next level.

Taking responsibility
Several things are clear from these examples. The first is that we must take responsibility as designers to consult with manufacturers when we design "outside the box."

This will eliminate problems with specifications, and help bridge the gap between kitchen designers who understand clients and engineers who understand manufacturing demands and parameters. Request-ing written confirmation of the results of these conversations insures active involvement and understanding from both the designer and the manufacturer.

The second point is that, as designers, we have an opportunity to influence product specifications. Over time, the norm in design of space and product is impacted by what we design - more proof of the value of communication.

For example, consider the non-existent right-hinged microwave. I understand there are cost and supply issues that stand in the way of offering this flexibility. In addition, I'm told, not enough people care - so we continue to design around this limitation.

On the other hand, look at washing machines. For some time, we've been asking for horizontal axis/ front controls from American manufacturers, and hearing the consistent response that it was not likely to happen any time in the near future due to obvious tooling and technology costs. However, now, in a period of about six months, it's possible to buy one from all but one of the major manufacturers.

We asked for flexibility and access, and now we have undercounter drawers for refrigeration and single- or double-drawer dishwashers. While these changes were brought on by more than just the design community, we should recognize the opportunity we have to contribute, and sometimes influence. Perhaps one day, if enough designers and consumers speak up, microwaves will become available hinged on either side.

Whether or not this change occurs, both designers and manufacturers would do well to recognize the value of communication in the product/design evolution process. This is true for appliances, as noted here, and for kitchen and bath products in general.

As we know, kitchen and bath designers are not the only creative talents in this industry. Product designers, for one, are also stretching the envelope - with everything from single-drawer dishwashers to speed cooking.