After a 48-year career in the kitchen and bath industry, retirement – or semi-retirement – is just around the corner for me. As I worked through the process of organizing all of my published works being donated to a new Design Library at Virginia Tech, I realized how so many of today’s trends are grounded in the rich history of our business. The project also led me to formulate several predictions for the future of our design profession.
I hope a review of the past and a look at what’s next will be of value as you plan your 2019 business approach. Let’s start with what’s next.
Simple and colorful kitchens
I believe the design aesthetic will continue to be globally driven, and I predict we will tire of all of the complexity of design today and return to a very simple, classic, international, modern sense of style, softened by treasures from the past. Additionally, we will be challenged to include color in our solutions – moving away from taupe and gray.
Our approach to space management will focus on overcoming the current lifestyle shortcomings of open-plan kitchens, including the noise distractions and clean-up difficulties common to open rooms. The next generation of successful designers will be comfortable taking more risks with their proposals, leading to designs that create life-enhancing rooms.
A New Appliance Category
The kitchen will evolve into a protective, supportive, innovative wellness center for the family. A maturing American client base will demand it – and they will pay for such innovations.
Here’s what I think is ahead:
- Home-based virtual access to health care professionals.
- A new wellness appliance – Artificial Intelligence will be used to create a center that identifies the user’s biometrics and then safely delivers medicines, provides testing and monitors activities.
- Surfaces that detect changes in users’ physical capabilities and can notify caregivers of any danger.
- Growing our own fresh food – indoors – to provide abundant food within arm’s reach, dramatically increasing our approach to healthy living. This will be possible as hydroponic and aquaponic gardening systems become better understood and more available.
- Clean everything: air, surfaces and appliances.
- Systems planned for zero waste and an entire industry offering efficient/recycled/salvaged materials and products.
This new expansion of the kitchen’s role in the family’s health management will challenge all of us. Kitchen and bathroom planning and materials/equipment specifications have gotten steadily more complicated over the past 18 years. Today’s successful designers are masters at collaborating with specialists in the appliances/lighting/plumbing/surfaces/technology categories. We will be further challenged with the emergence of the wellness center. To understand the difference between gimmicks and authentic, life-protecting offerings, we will partner with new healthy living specialists.
The “high touch” demands of kitchen and bath planning will require us to focus our creative energy on the people part of every design we imagine as a possible solution to the spaces we’re entrusted with. A personalized space will be the most valued component of the new plan.
Let me share with you my process for adding design personalization in projects I’m invited to contribute to.
- Create the program/client interview. Study the whole house.
- Design the functional space.
- Step back – consider creating shapes, not strips of connected cabinets that fill up the walls. Ponder how to add the family’s “quirks” to the space plan: to make it easy for them to live the life they’ve chosen, not the life I dream of them embracing in the new space.
- Do any needed design adjustments.
- Evaluate the details. Cost? Value? Any compromises to the organic purpose of the space: to cook/gather/clean or to bathe/refresh/organize? Consider offering options to the clients.
- Step back – try one more time to make the room even more special.
- Return to the traditional planning, estimating and detailing of the solution.
New Connecting and Cooking
High tech will continue to be part of everything we do. Today, the whole home is connected, but tethered. Tomorrow, self-generating power will be an alternative to being “on the grid,” and total structure connectivity will replace charging points or internet connections.
We may see a new approach to appliances emerge. I think we’ll be offered two different systems from our luxury appliance manufacturer partners: One will be feature-rich appliances that think for the cook; the second will promote long-lasting, simple appliances that let the cook be the cook.
Why two paths? Our clients’ capabilities are somewhat age and experience driven:
- For those searching for simplicity, the learning curve required to take full advantage of many appliance features may be too steep for our more mature clients whom we will continue to serve for the next 10+ years.
- Repair cost concerns will develop as the current generation of sophisticated pre-programmed products age.
- The current growing grocery delivery industry, as well as the “Blue Apron” approach to pre-measured dinners shipped in a box will be favored by younger clients who strive to simplify life.
I look forward to sharing the future with all of you!
But now, let’s turn our attention to how the past has influenced us today.
Inspiration from the 1970s
The open-room kitchen concept popular today grew out of a simple idea in the ’70s: adding an opening in the wall between the kitchen and adjacent dining room or casual family room. First planned to facilitate passing serving dishes to the table or shortening the trip from table to sink after dinner was over, the cook found he or she loved being able to be part of pre-dinner conversations. Risk-taking designers started taking down the entire wall. Because a three-sided, U-shaped arrangement was considered the most efficient plan, layouts kept the shape after eliminating one row of wall cabinets. The concept of a peninsula cabinet separating the kitchen from another living area was born.
Design Highlights from the ’70s
- The Look: Kitchens were seen as functional workspaces, so ease of maintenance was a priority. Cabinet door styles established a “mood” for the room. Modern wood veneer or laminate wood-grained, back-beveled, flat-panel doors with no visible hardware offered one choice. Other families asked for “Mediterranean” style: darkly finished cherry or oak fancy wood doors with elaborate hardware. Framed construction with lip doors was typical for wood American-made cabinets.
- The Details: Dropped fluorescent ceilings or a big center dropped fluorescent lighted box was the norm.
- Surfaces: While the rest of the country specified laminate tops with 4″ backsplashes, California’s best kitchens had tile countertops with full tile backsplashes. Wide, dark grout was considered stylish.
- Armstrong Solarium solid vinyl flooring in big geometric patterns was new and so much more durable than “cushioned” linoleum. Big, bold wallpaper finished off the soffits above the cabinets.
- Appliances/Fixtures: The best kitchens included a double stainless steel sink and a built-in dishwasher. Side-by-side refrigerators were offered for the first time. Amana introduced the microwave oven in 1967, and 40,000 were sold in 1970. Designers had a hard time building these big, boxy microwaves into the cabinetry. Downdraft cooktops and ranges were very popular and appliances were colorful: Coppertone, Avocado Green and Harvest Gold.
- Layout Preferences: Designers started opening up walls between the kitchen and adjacent dining spaces with casual “family rooms” being planned in new home designs. The space was still planned for one cook: the wife!
- Business Models: Most firms had male salespeople learning to be designers. They came from backgrounds in construction, appliance sales or cabinet making. A few “luxury” cabinet companies offered functional cabinet interior storage accessories, and showrooms featured displays of these “better” cabinets.
Inspiration from the 1980s
Today our industry is an international community of professionals and manufacturers. The transition to a more global industry began in the ’80s. Previously, American and European kitchens espoused a decidedly different sense of style. Cabinet construction methods were different. No-nonsense laminate cabinet fronts were the standard in Europe on frameless boxes built in an assembly line facility. Each EU manufacturer retained professional industry or fashion designers to create a “look” expressing the cabinet brand. U.S. kitchens only featured American appliances, which were much bigger than those used around the world.
Global design took root when European cabinet companies exhibited at KBIS in the mid-1980s. Wow! We’d never seen such “cutting edge” contemporary design before! Sophisticated designers and forward-thinking U.S. cabinet company engineers began to travel to Europe to attend
Design Highlights from the ‘80s
- The Look: Clients became more interested in a stylish looking kitchen. A more casual, country style featuring lighter stained oak replaced Mediterranean-style cabinets. Inspired by European cabinetry, a new, modified U.S. contemporary look was introduced: almond laminate cabinetry with a horizontal strip of stained oak serving as the finger grip hardware. This finger pull ergonomic design transitioned into the J- or C-shaped aluminum pull we’re familiar with today. Later in the ’80s, high-gloss laminate finishes were offered by upscale cabinet companies. American cabinet companies invested in new equipment to produce frameless cabinetry with full-overlay doors featuring German-engineered hardware.
- The Details: Fluorescent ceilings were replaced with rows of can light or track systems. Under-cabinet “Flo” fluorescent lights were featured in better kitchens.
- Surfaces: Corian become the countertop of choice. This extremely durable and easily machined “solid surface” material revolutionized the countertop business. A much wider variety of laminate colors and patterns become available as well. While vinyl flooring continued to be popular, the first patterned offerings were replaced with reproductions of natural materials: brick, wood and stone.
- Appliances/Fixtures: Appliance categories improved in basic operation and several new and innovative cooking appliances were launched to satisfy the “gourmet cook.” Manufacturers specialized in one type of appliance, with few offering “suites.” Kitchen sink design expanded with offerings featuring different sized compartments. Ken Rohl, the founder of Rohl Company, introduced a European faucet with a pull-out spout in 1983 that would become the standard for luxury.
- Layout Preferences: Kitchens continued to be opened up to adjacent spaces. Designs with free-floating center islands began to take the place of enclosed U-shaped arrangements. The kitchen table was replaced with seating at the back of an island or peninsula cabinet section.
- Business Models: The specialty of kitchen and bath design within the general construction industry spread across the country. Dealers (so named because they were aligned with certain cabinet brands) and their designers were clamoring for training from their manufacturer partners and the NKBA organization. Women joined the sales/design teams and multi-branch retailers entered the kitchen business.
Inspiration from the 1990s
Today we view the kitchen as the heart of the home, and we challenge ourselves to create spaces where everyone can gather together to cook – and share their chosen life. This idea about a well-planned kitchen’s impact on the client’s quality of life began in the ’90s. Early TV cooking/lifestyle shows inspired us all.
Julia Child became a TV cooking show star by teaching serious cooks how to cook. Martha Stewart, who began her TV career in 1995, transformed the kitchen from a place to cook to a place to live. Ina Garten continued to expand the idea that everyone could enjoy cooking when she went on the air in 2002 with her “Barefoot Contessa” show.
Family members began viewing cooking as a hobby rather than a chore. Soon, everyone was becoming a cook, or at least a cook’s helper, and everyone wanted to be in the kitchen – it was “party central.”
Additionally, the beauty of new countertop and backsplash materials launched an entire new design category. These new surfaces moved the worktop beyond being just a landing spot, to a product able to help define the personality of the kitchen. This change launched the shift from cabinet styling dictating the aesthetic to the room being designed as a totally integrated and organic space.
Today, good designers select all materials – often at the same time – considering each equally important as they create unified-yet-eclectic combinations of shapes and forms for great personalized kitchens.
Design Highlights from the ’90s
- The Look: As the kitchen became part of an open gathering area called the “Great Room,” clients wanted cabinets to look more like furniture than storage boxes. Cabinets were fashioned after historical furniture pieces and constructed with inset joinery. Only the best cabinet companies could produce highly detailed rooms awash with Old World elegance. Very complex glazed finishes in soft colors and strong accents were popular as well as highly detailed decorative hardware. At the same time, a modern, minimalistic contemporary style showcasing gloss or matte polyester or acrylic finishes was gaining traction. “Over-the-top,” hard-to-produce exotic veneer roomscapes were requested. Great innovations were also occurring in the casework construction, with full-overlay cabinetry become much more available.
- The Details: Other than a decorative light over the table or island, lighting remained a functional element, with halogen under-cabinet lighting replacing fluorescent systems.
- Surfaces: Stone was everywhere: counters, floors, walls. Stone tiles or “subway” glazed tiles were used for backsplashes. Solid surface continued to gain favor in Europe while, in the U.S., the new countertop of choice was dramatically patterned granite with signature waves of movement. Floors were wood or wood look-alikes.
- Appliances/Fixtures: Appliance companies began expanding into multiple categories. The integrated look of built-in appliances gained in popularity as European companies entered the U.S. market. Designers wanted appliances to disappear into the cabinets. Black glass and stainless steel were the hot finishes, while fully outfitted second sinks became the norm in these huge kitchens.
- Layout Preferences: Living rooms were disappearing so that the kitchen gathering space could dramatically expand. New-construction designs included high ceilings in these kitchen spaces. Designers also began to connect indoor kitchens with outdoor living spaces. Because of the expansive array of new point-of-use appliances, the trusted triangle layout guideline expanded into plans being evaluated after identifying multiple pathways through these multi-tasking spaces.
- Business Models: Company marketing managers started to forge alliances with other sources to collaborate on displays or photography sets to ensure a unified “look” was created. No longer did the cabinets alone define the style: All elements of the space contributed to the room’s personality. While shelter magazine editors continued to influence consumer style preferences, talented kitchen designers began to gain recognition as the style leaders within their communities.
Inspiration from 2000 to the present
Talented kitchen designers have increasingly become respected members of the design community. These specialists led to kitchens becoming an integral part of large, open spaces within the home – or expertly concealed working centers hidden behind functional door hardware systems. Our current ability to personalize spaces so effectively is grounded in the work of manufacturers who re-imagined their products from single-purpose items to multi-tasking centers. Today, sinks grow or shrink in size and serve as both a water vessel and countertop work surface. LED lights change in Kelvin temperature with a touch. Appliances offer refrigerators that have a switchable drawer: freezer to refrigerator. Ovens combine a variety of cooking methods, all pre-programmed for ease of use. This idea from the early 2000s that the space plan and the equipment in it must be flexible to suit the family’s lifestyle is the foundation of good design today.
Design Highlights from 2000-2018
- The Look: While stylized room settings continued to be popular, the concept of “transitional” styling emerged. New spaces had a simplified, traditional aesthetic. White paint has been the finish of choice for all of these past 18 years! A new twist on the old fashioned farmhouse kitchen appeared: The elegance of Scandinavian design paired with the cottage look resulted in rooms washed in white that mixed woodworking details with mid-century modern chairs and accents. A new style was born: modern farmhouse. Contemporary style grew in popularity with clients asking for the simplicity of kitchens created by Europeans. Contemporary products became available from both imported and domestic sources. The harsh minimalistic definition of contemporary was replaced with rooms that start out simple, but become complex as layers of textures are crafted from artisan-curated materials. Cabinets are no longer a stand-alone element of the space. Earth tones have given way to the warmer neutrality of gray and taupe. Metals are mixed into these rooms, with a little glitz and glamour added with a bit of sparkling gold, brass or polished nickel.
- The Details: LED functional lighting systems are combined with show-stopping oversized fixtures, becoming a major design element of the space.
- Surfaces: Highly figured granites have been replaced by more subtle quartz materials joined with a resurgence of interest in the simplicity of white solid surface materials and large porcelain slabs. Durably treated wood counters as well as burnished metal surfaces add beauty to many of today’s kitchen designs. While wood and ceramic tile are often requested flooring, pure luxury vinyl tiles are returning – a new version of the ’70s top products!
- Appliances/Fixtures: Most brands now offer complete suites of coordinated appliances. An amazing array of point-of-use, special-purpose and combination cooking appliances are being included in kitchen designs. New finishes are available, with stainless steel still a favorite. Technical upgrades have transformed appliances into voice-activated and remotely controlled components of the smart house phenomenon. The fit between the cabinetry and the appliances is much more sophisticated, with flush installation the preferred look.
- Layout preferences: While huge open kitchens continue to dominate, there are whispers of new approaches to these large spaces that focus on managing the living/cooking/dining/cleaning activities that take place in these spaces in a better way.
- Business Models: Much has been written about how we are connected to the world via the internet – how IOT (the Internet of Things), voice-activated command stations (Alexa) and AI (Artificial Intelligence) are changing the way we do business. Stay tuned!
A lot has happened over the past 48 years. It’s been a joy to be part of it, and I look forward to reading what other emerging design leaders have to say in the future as I retire. Well, maybe not quite yet…I will be presenting a program, “Reflections on a Career in Kitchen & Bath Design,” at the NKBA Portland, OR Chapter next year, and I hope to see some of you there! ▪