Kitchen Cabinets Spotlight Clean Lines, Enhanced Storage

With an upswing in open design, kitchens are increasingly more connected to the rest of the home. That means today’s cabinetry must provide not only functional storage space, but also a unified look that complements these open areas.

As the economy continues to show improvements, consumers are increasingly looking to upgrade and personalize their kitchens with cabinetry that has both aesthetic appeal and the ability to provide increased convenience and accessibility – all while maximizing space.

From a style standpoint, painted finishes in whites and, increasingly, grays are in high demand; high-contrast looks and texture are also hot, while simple, clean lines remain popular, according to manufacturers recently surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News.

“Homeowners interested in remodeling want to do away with their formal dining rooms to create more of an open-concept kitchen. The walls are coming down between the kitchen and dining room and/or family room, and cabinets are being used as furniture pieces to bridge the gap between rooms,” says Cindy Draper, marketing manager for Monroe, WA-based Canyon Creek Cabinet Company.

“With the open design, it’s important that we remember that cabinetry isn’t just for the kitchen,” says Robin DeWolf, CKD, director of training for Huntwood Industries in Liberty Lake, WA. “We want to incorporate the surrounding areas that are open to the kitchen.”

Roger Hazard, design consultant for Custom Cupboards in Wichita, KS agrees. “A lot of people are taking their kitchens a little bit more seriously, like they do the rest of the interiors of their home. In other words, they don’t want it to look like that space where all you do is cook. They want it to tie in more with their furniture.”

Simple Style

In the kitchen, the trend toward simple, clean lines continues to be strong, and that trend is evident in cabinet choices. “Styling is clean and simple. The word ‘transitional’ is the design buzzword,” says Angela Wellborn O’Neill, director of marketing and advertising for Wellborn Cabinet in Ashland, AL.

Karen Wistrom, ASID, v.p. of marketing for Dura Supreme in Howard Lake, MN says the shift from traditional styling to transitional is a continuing trend. “In general, the overall look and design of the kitchen has become more refined. Customers are looking for sleek, simple lines,” she says.

“There’s a pent-up demand for fresh, clean modern lines – transitional design – modern with a classic take,” Draper says.

While Scott Korsten, marketing director for Showplace Wood Products in Harrisburg, SD, agrees that there is a continuing general trend toward simpler styles, he adds that this seems to be somewhat dictated by geography. “Midwesterners continue to favor more traditional styling as a whole; however that general statement is tempered by the desire for more contemporary styling by younger homeowners regardless of where they live.”

With a strong trend toward transitional styling, it comes as no surprise that door styles remain simple, with occasional understated touches to spice things up.

“Shaker has been the king for quite a while,” says DeWolf. “Shaker has so many different forms and flavors,” she adds, and says those with wider rails and styles and a bit of decorative detail are doing well. Slab doors are also being brought back into play, she notes, combined with the use of sleek decorative hardware.

Hazard says that there’s a reason door styles are simpler. “When you stick with the Shaker or the flat-panel door style, it doesn’t define a specific look in the house,” he says. “More and more people are appointing their home with much more personal and eclectic fashion. They are expressing their own lifestyle and personality. They don’t want to be locked into a specific look.”

Draper agrees that Shaker and variations on the Shaker door style continue to be popular. “A lack of ornamentation and decoration in the cabinets keeps the focus on the simplicity and sophistication of the design,” she says.

O’Neill, on the other hand, sees something different. “While Shaker styling was the trend for the last five years,” she says, “it appears that consumers still want simple, transitional, but not the Shaker door.” Wellborn Cabinet has launched several new doors, including the Henlow and Messina styles, to answer this need.

Shades of White & Gray

Painted finishes are making up a large percentage of the market, manufacturers say, and while whites are still most popular, the big buzz is gray. Manufacturers note that they are seeing more and more requests for various shades of the slightly softer tone.

“The overall favoring of maple as a species is somewhat pushed by the steady growth in demand for painted cabinetry. Like many other brands, we’re seeing movement into more gray tones, both in stains and paints,” says Korsten. Showplace will be introducing three shades of what he calls “greige,” colors that are similar to both beige and gray, to the firm’s line.

“Whites are still very strong, and we are doing custom whites all the time, so there’s not enough shades of white to have in our line,” says Jeff Ptacek, CKD, product manager for Starmark Cabinetry in Sioux Falls, SD. He also sees the gray tones emerging, and notes that StarMark has introduced some of these tones into the company’s lines.

Wistrom says the turn toward grays in both paint and stain prompted Dura Supreme to introduce a whole palette of gray paints six months ago. Whereas there is often an “adoption phase” when new products are introduced, to get the product to market, show customers and have them embrace it, this color palette had almost immediate adoption, she notes. “We launched it, and the market immediately embraced it, and we could see those colors flowing across the production floor.”

DeWolf says the trend toward gray has been coming for a while, and when used judiciously can add great contrast, calming down the whites and freshening up the browns. But, she cautions, “There are as many grays as there are whites. To get the right gray color to complement the tone is really important. There’s nothing worse than a near miss.” Huntwood has added four new gray tones to its line recently, two stains and two paints.

Hazard adds that people have long used white because anything will go with white cabinets. “People are finding out that anything will go with gray as well,” he says. “Gray is here to stay.”

Texture & Contrast

While simplicity may be the hot trend, simple doesn’t have to mean bland, and designers are using texture and contrasting color combinations to spice things up, according to manufacturers.

Wistrom says she has seen painted finishes being combined with darker stains within the same kitchen, for instance a white perimeter with an island accented in a dark espresso stain. “It’s transitional styling, but this offers a high contrast look where we’re blending two very contrasting finishes together,” she says. These looks have been softened a bit with gray tones, she adds, making the look a little more timeless than the very stark contrasting looks that have been popular previously.

Additionally, she says, she is seeing an emerging trend toward woods with texture being thrown back into the mix, a look popular in European markets. “It’s using grainy woods with these driftwood, washed out, gray colors and mixing them with very sleek transitional or contemporary designs.”

Draper says that there is a desire to see wood characteristics in design. “Distressing has become popular in all style categories, with ‘time-worn’ techniques to give the appearance of well-kept antiques,” she says.

DeWolf says that whites and grays are being blended with dark browns and emphasized with a stark color for interest. “Mainly because of the economy right now, people are being a little bit safe in their color selections, and then, as always with design, they’re using pieces that can be added to complement and contrast color,” she says. Dark, deep tones are also being used on wood to minimize some of the variations in color and grain, she adds.

Mael Hernandez, president of Custom Cupboards, says that the company’s new product, Facets, was inspired by the trend toward personalization. “It really allows the homeowner to personalize the cabinets from a design standpoint to really put their mark on them,” he says, adding that the product will digitally print textures and patterns onto wood for a totally unique look and feel.

“Your house is very personal. Your kitchen should fit in with that,” he adds.

Cost Considerations

Value has always been important, and in tight economic times, it becomes even more so. That doesn’t mean, however, that designers and their clients are willing to sacrifice style for price.

“The economy has impacted the kitchen price point,” says O’Neill. “Consumers continue to want design options; however, the kitchen purse budget has tightened.”

At the same time, as the market starts to turn around, consumers are looking for value, but don’t want to sacrifice quality. “If they are going to make a long-term investment in their home, in their kitchen, they’re being careful about that trade-off between price and quality,” says Wistrom.

“Customers still want everything on special somehow,” says Ptacek. “If we have a door on special, they will go for that and they will actually put the upgraded finishes on a less expensive door, so they are focusing more on color than they are on the style of the door.”

Mark Cross, v.p. sales and marketing, for the Corsi Group, a holding company for Greenfield Cabinetry and Corsi Cabinets in Indianapolis, IN adds, “What we see on the pricing side of it is that everybody wants that Lexus but only wants to pay for a Toyota.” If they can save several thousand dollars and still get what they’re looking for, then they will, he adds.

Shifting Categories

Manufacturers have seen a large shift in what it means to be a stock, semi-custom or custom manufacturer. The lines have been blurred, making the differences hard to determine, at least on the surface.

“Stock and semi custom are pushing the limits, and there really is getting to be a big blur between the different manufacturers as to what they are and what they are not,” says Ptacek. While StarMark has long been considered a semi-custom manufacturer, he says that with everything the company has been doing over the last year or two, “you really cannot say we’re not full custom.” With stock pushing into semi-custom, and semi pushing into full, he says the full custom lines are hurting the most, simply because they have more competition.

Cross agrees that the boundaries have become fuzzy. “Everybody has either gravitated up, or gravitated down. I think there’s a huge blur between what is stock and what is semi-custom now,” he says. The big difference comes in quality, he adds. “The reality is that there’s a touch and feel that you can’t get with stock manufacturing quality, compared to a custom quality.”

O’Neill adds that companies like Wellborn, which is considered semi-custom, now offer products that five years ago were only found at custom companies. At the same time, she says, some custom companies aren’t making product detail offered by semi-custom companies that have many brands. Stock companies that offer a couple of modifications will now market as semi-custom, too. “This categorization has really become a blur,” she says. The offering of more products at the semi-custom level has prompted custom companies to react by launching more new products, styling, finish techniques and other unique details not found in semi-custom, she adds.

Wistrom says Dura Supreme has made changes in both its semi-custom and custom lines, including adding more custom-like capabilities into the semi-custom product line. Dimensional modifications are now a no-charge option in both lines. On the custom side of things, they’ve introduced special touches, like mitered finished ends and dovetailed sanded premium drawer boxes. “There’s a lot of dovetailed maple drawer boxes out there, but if they’re completely sanded and finished after being handcrafted, you pull that drawer out and it’s a remarkable difference between a semi-custom and a custom,” she says.

DeWolf adds, “What custom really means is that the cabinet is being built specifically for that customer.” She says that Huntwood is a custom manufacturer building with a semi-custom approach, where the firm can build off base options but add custom touches at the customer’s request.

Custom pieces are being used more sparingly, as well. “A lot more people are using a custom focal point rather than a full custom kitchen,” says DeWolf. “Adding that custom piece makes the kitchen a lot more attractive to a broader consumer base.”

Hernandez says that Custom Cupboards has not been impacted by the blurring of lines like other manufacturers may have been. “From the beginning, we have really focused on what we call making custom within reach. We focus on flexibility without the huge price tag,” he says. Things that they have done from the beginning, such as not charging for width, height and depth reductions, or more choice in wood species and finishes, are now being offered by competitors, he adds.

Maximizing Space

There is some disagreement as to whether kitchens are getting smaller overall, but manufacturers agree that using space wisely is key. Internal storage solutions and accessories are important to having a well-organized, efficient kitchen space.

Cross says that, with remodels – which make up most of his company’s business – the space they have to work with is often smaller than in years past. “I’m seeing a maximization of space, meaning upwards,” he says, noting that people will put in floor-to-ceiling cabinetry to get the most storage space they can.

“We’re seeing a lot of increased depths, we’re seeing a lot of increased heights, and I think that’s driven by the majority of our business being remodel,” he adds.

Korsten notes that Showplace also does well in the remodel sector, where many jobs involve remodeling within a similar footprint. However, he says, orders seem to be getting larger, with more cabinets per order. “Demand for storage and convenience items like roll-trays, pantries and trash bins are seen as necessary today as opposed to a few years ago when they were considered almost luxury items,” he points out.

O’Neill agrees: “It is a must that every cabinet inch of space is maximized.” Wellborn has launched many new accessories, and has a brand called Distinctive Storage Solutions, which provides cabinets and storage for the whole home, complete with the storage accessory detail needed to maximize the space, she says.

Draper adds, “There’s been a lot of talk about the downsizing of the kitchen, but we haven’t really seen it. Maybe it’s coming but it hasn’t hit us yet.” Canyon Creek has, however, seen requests for more efficient storage options inside the cabinets, she says, with pull-outs including drawer storage inserts and recycle bins to help maintain a clutter-free kitchen.

Storage that lights up when a cabinet or drawer is opened also seems to be gaining ground, making cabinet contents not just easier to reach, but easier to see.

The bottom line, manufacturers agree, is that with an aging population, and more kitchens being remodeled in the existing footprint, the trend toward providing accessible storage that maximizes convenience and storage is definitely here to stay.