When it comes to kitchen and bath design, beauty is only skin deep.
Style, of course — great looking materials, appliances and fixtures in magazine-worthy traditional or contemporary expression — are the ultimate goals, in remodeling as well as new construction.
But increasingly, it’s about more than meets the eye — what’s inside, what works greener, smarter and more efficiently, what is techno-savvy, safe and cost effective — that really sells.
“Over the last five years, design has been elevated,” says Michelle Lamb, editorial director of The Trend Curve, a trade newsletter that forecasts trends in color, pattern and design for manufacturers, interior designers and retailers. “Good design is an expectation, so we can go below the surface. There’s an option to a lot of things that we weren’t looking to in the past.”
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That was especially evident at the annual Kitchen and Bath Show held in Las Vegas in May. The desire for better, more accessible storage, for example, has made pullout shelves a near standard. Water-saving features in showers, faucets and toilets are increasingly integral to manufacturers’ product lines. Recycled materials further a growing eco-consciousness.
At the high end, there’s the smart Kohler toilet-bidet combo that plays music and warms the feet, among other features controlled with an interactive LED touch screen. A Jason International air bath with MicroSilk technology touts skin rejuvenation, lifting of mood, stimulating the immune system, killing bacteria and promoting healing. Warmly Yours’ decorative solution to heating is an infrared wall-hung panel called Lava Designs. One black glass model is dotted with Swarovski crystals in a star pattern.
The upscale line Kallista rolled out an edition of stainless-steel sink systems, a signature of Chicago-based kitchen designer Mick De Giulio. A deluxe model features a teak cutting board, colander holder and flatwood tray for rinsing cutlery, all of which are designed to glide across the surface.
Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet wowed grill aficionados with a hybrid fire grill that combines wood, charcoal and gas in a single barbecue.
And you’ll be seeing more French door refrigerators and energy-efficient induction cooktops, according to the National Kitchen and Bath Association. Also, look for more lift-up cabinet doors, some touch-activated, and amazing organizational systems built into kitchen cabinet drawers, with slots, dividers and pegs to tame everything from big pots and pans to gadgets, as well as multilayered slideouts such as cutting boards over double rows of cutlery.
There are hands-free sensing faucets or those that respond to touch that are prevalent in many commercial bathrooms. Bidets are catching on — with the seal of approval from environmentalists who cite paper-saving features. Although the all-in-one models are pricey, there now are seats that can be retrofitted for hundreds of dollars instead of thousands.
Rectangular zero-clearance shower channel drains are gaining traction. They get an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) seal of approval (wheelchair accessibility), but also an aesthetic thumbs-up when there’s a choice of graphic designs in the grid plus water-activated LED lights, as with QuARTz by ACO (www.quartzbyaco.com).
If there seems to be a bit more creativity, if not more thought, devoted to what consumers may love love love so much they won’t want to live without it -— even if it’s a splurge -- there are good reasons.A recession-related factor is that manufacturers for the last few years have pulled back on the number of new products. “With fewer introductions, more attention can be paid to details,” says Lamb.
Which is why a company like Enkeboll, very well known in the industry for its exquisite carved wood trims and moldings, staged a display that was more like those in European shows — a whole room with an exterior facade --showing designers and architects new ways to use its products. New metallic-finished moldings dressed furniture, sink aprons and were incorporated into elaborate mirror frames.
Rethinking also has prompted cabinetry manufacturers to move beyond kitchen applications to most every room in the house. Closets are happy beneficiaries; companies like Wellborn have several grades of cabinet components that create the expensive look of customized closets.
There has been a profound change in the marketplace, part of which has gotten impetus from Gen Yers, aka millennials or echo boomers (those born between 1977 and 1993), which owes to social networking and online research. Shopping involves comparing prices, consumer reviews and design blogs, then visiting brick-and-mortar stores, where pictures are snapped and sent to significant others, and even bar codes are checked out for spot cost comparisons.
“It’s the democratization of information,” says Lamb. “Accessibility is a great equalizer.”
What others think also counts. “Anybody can have an opinion,” says Lamb. “My daughter won’t buy an eyeliner without finding out all about it (online).”
But baby boomers are also are driving the shift. Those caring for parents in multigenerational homes are starting to think about aging in place for themselves as well. So issues that have to do with what’s easier on the back, the eyes (a combination of recessed, pendant and under-cabinet lighting with dimmers works best), safer and easier to grasp, more convenient to access without bending -- all are becoming integrated into smart kitchen and bath design -- with special attention to not evoke imagery that is institutional.
Moen, for example, introduced a grab bar that is stylishly integrated into a bath soap holder, towel bar or toilet tissue holder.
A recent comprehensive study called GenShift 2011 by Harris Interactive on behalf of Masco Cabinetry (KraftMaid, Merillat, Quality Cabinets and Denova) identified changes in lifestyle, typical kitchen layout and the function of the space that directly affects aesthetics, as well as storage as it relates to different generational segments. Slightly more than 1,000 adult homeowners age 18 to 65 were surveyed online, and the results were merged with Nielsen-Spectra data compiled from 2005 to the present.
Among the surprising findings: Given a choice between a wine refrigerator or a place for dog food and accouterments, Fido wins out over the Pinot Grigio.
Slide-out trash and recycling bins seem to be more popular than trash compactors, which were prevalent in custom kitchen design in the 1970s and 1980s.
What hasn’t changed is that the kitchen remains the heart of the home, and it has expanded well beyond cooking and entertainment to include the ubiquitous vehicle for Internet connections. So charging stations for every “i”-appliance is de rigueur. And who wouldn’t want a master bath-spa —- a place to unwind and restore?
Style choices never have been greater, from traditional cabinetry with appropriate decorative flourishes to minimalistic zen, with a range of woods in a variety of light to dark, painted and glazed finishes, punctuated with an extensive choice of hardware.
That said, a “keep-it-simple” design philosophy, which according to the GenShift 2011 survey suggests “cleaner lines, less countertop clutter and easy-to-clean surfaces” clearly appeals across generations, from young singles to parents with small children to adult children with live-in parents.
Karen Strauss, president of the Masco Cabinetry Group based in Ann Arbor, Mich., encouraged a group of design professionals at the Kitchen and Bath Show to be innovative, but added this dose of reality: “No one cares about your products; they only care how your products will improve their lives.”