Looking at What’s Hot and What’s Next

by Autumn McGarr

It might be the understatement of the year to say that 2020 has defied all predictions. It started out as most others do, with that annual burst of post-holiday energy highlighted by a successful Design & Construction Week. Attendees returned home with new ideas to feature, new products to specify and, quite possibly, a new virus that was silently lapping at our shores. Designers started sharing in social media posts and phone calls that they fell sick afterward with what felt like the worst flu of their lives. Were they – could they have been – among the first victims of what has now been identified as the COVID-19 pandemic?

In an abundance of caution, the organizers behind DCW’s component events, the National Association of Home Builders for the International Builders’ Show and the National Kitchen & Bath Association for the Kitchen & Bath Industry Show, made the painfully difficult – but clearly necessary – decision to host their 2021 shows virtually. Coverings and CEDIA had to do the same in 2020. The European design shows mostly went dark for the year, and with a second COVID wave washing over their continent as this edition goes to press, 2021 shows are also facing the possibility of postponements. 

It’s not hyperbolic to say that this pandemic has been a game changer for the industry. Throughout the year – as noted in the June/July edition of Trend Spotting – designers, manufacturers, retailers and contractors have all had to adjust how they did business to keep themselves and their clients safe and comply with rapidly-evolving local mandates. It’s been a challenging year, to say the least!

At the same time, it has turned into a busy one after an understandably slow start. Some of it has been DIY-oriented, but professionals also started seeing upticks in business after the initial pandemic pause. To explore all of the year’s trends and share some predictions for 2021, I reached out to six industry pros. They are:

  • National Kitchen & Bathroom Association CEO Bill Darcy
  • Kate Bailey, senior director of the consumer/builder category for Ferguson Bath, Kitchen & Lighting Gallery
  • Amber Shay, national design director at Scottsdale-based builder Meritage Homes
  • Washington, DC-area kitchen and bath designer Amber Bullock
  • Milwaukee-area design-build firm owner Susie Feia
  • Oakland, CA-based kitchen and bath designer Nadja Pentic

Business Trends

“March and April were two of the most difficult months our manufacturers, distributors and retailers have had in a decade,” reports Darcy. “For many, manufacturing came to a sudden halt. Thousands of showrooms, retailers and design firms were forced to temporarily close and jobsites were empty. Even now with lockdown restrictions lifted and production resuming, the lingering effects are still hindering business for many. We know there are projects in the pipeline, but with lead times being extended – especially for flooring, kitchen appliances and cabinetry – it becomes a timing issue.”

Challenges remain with backorders, limited product availability, finding skilled labor and concerns about job site safety, but it’s not all bleak. “The good news is business is on the upswing and new leads are coming in at a vigorous pace,” Darcy says. “Designers are reporting a significant improvement in project statuses quarter-over-quarter,” he adds, and projections – down 6.1 percent from 2019 – have been revised upward by $9 billion to $139.1 billion from June estimates.

The NKBA executive attributes that to pent-up demand, aging home stock and pandemic-cancelled travel, dinners out, parties and summer camp dollars being redirected to home improvement projects. “Interest in full-scale kitchen and bath remodeling should extend into next year and beyond,” he predicts.

The pandemic has spurred demand for extra pantry and freezer space.
Photo: NKBA Member Sarah Robertson, AKBD, Studio Dearborn/ Adam Kane Macchia Photography

Macro Trends

So what’s been hot for 2020 and will likely continue to trend in the new year? “Design solutions we see continuing into 2021 are targeted storage in the kitchen and bath making the most of every inch; larger kitchen islands to double, or even triple, for prep, dining and work, and designating landing areas for deliveries and unloading groceries,” Darcy says.

Wellness design will keep trending, he adds. “Home hygiene will continue to be a priority in 2021. Demand for air purifiers, touchless faucets and anything antimicrobial, from door handles to countertops and appliances, remains.” Commercial trends, including durable, low-maintenance materials, are on the rise, as is a focus on outdoor living spaces for easier social distancing,” Darcy comments.

Meritage Homes’ Shay notes that indoor air quality gained strong interest among buyers this year. Bullock sees the same interest in air and water filtration and antimicrobial finishes in her DC-area design business, too. Pentic is seeing steam trend in the shower and kitchen appliances.

“In 2020, touchless everything was the rage,” recalls Ferguson’s Bailey. “Customers were looking to quickly upgrade to touchless faucets, handle-free ovens, knock-open dishwashers and refrigerators you can open with an elbow or foot to decrease the number of surface touches and potentially reduce germ transmission. In 2021, the streamlined, touchless and integrated kitchen will continue to surge in popularity,” she predicts. She also sees naturally antimicrobial finishes like copper trending.

An aging population is accelerating requests
for accessible spaces.
Photo: AElise Designs LLC/Amber Bullock AKBD, CLIPP – Designer/Jerry Bullock Photography

Technology has also played a strong role in wellness, with smartly connected kitchens and laundry rooms trending. “Within the next few years, connected appliances will be a feature that consumers expect,” Bailey says. She sees smart-home technology overall as being especially helpful for aging in place. “Aging adults quickly recognize the benefits of advanced functions like voice controls for smart lighting and self-servicing appliances to increase safety and independence. Therefore, they are a population adopting home tech with eagerness,” Bailey says. Bullock agrees, but sees tech being used more for lighting control, entertainment and security than for appliances among her older clientele.

Layout Trends

“The size of kitchen islands is more important than ever as people eat more at home, work more at home and study more at home,” home building executive Shay observes, pointing to pandemic-related multi-tasking as a reason why. Oakland-based Pentic agrees; people want one big space where they can gather, she says. Larger pantries are also trending as a result of pandemic-related stocking-up concerns. Pentic is seeing lift-up cabinet doors and kitchens without uppers, too.

Feia is also seeing islands trending larger – “as large as possible,” she declares – and credits the pandemic with making the challenges of cramped, poorly-designed kitchens painfully obvious. “Clients’ top priority for a remodel is to create a functional, comfortable space where the whole family could gather and facilitate multiple activities. I predict this trend to continue as clients are eagerly anticipating the days when they can host large groups of friends and family post-COVID.”

Bullock sees a possible pullback in open-concept plans because of noise considerations in this new multi-tasking environment. She’s also seeing clients opt for dedicated coffee or beverage spaces, and built-in pet features are becoming a regular request, she says.

“As we approach 2021, the mudroom, sometimes overlooked, is now getting more attention due to the pandemic,” Ferguson’s Bailey adds. “Since this is a transition space from the outside in and you don’t want germs entering your home, it makes sense to think about the functionality of this space. To minimize the spread of germs, homeowners are creating inviting spaces, complete with a washer, dryer and utility sink, where they can carefully and safely transition from the outside world to the privacy of their homes.” [See September/October 2020 Trend Spotting for more on laundry/flex room trends.]

Bidet toilet demand spiked with pandemic-
driven toilet paper shortages.
Photo: TOTO, available at Ferguson Bath,
Kitchen & Lighting Gallery

Shay spotlights the evolving powder room as a sanitation station, rather than just a pretty place: “It is best placed near the everyday entry so the occupants can wash up/disinfect immediately upon entering the home. Did you know the powder room, as we know it, stemmed from the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic?” she points out.

In primary baths, Bullock and Pentic are both seeing tubs frequently give way to larger walk-in showers. For Bullock, it’s about accessibility. For Pentic, it’s often about water conservation codes, though clients with larger bathrooms will sometimes request both a freestanding soaking tub plus shower, she observes. “Floating vanities are everywhere!” and wall-mounted toilets, too, she declares. Feia is seeing doorless showers trend for their accessibility and low maintenance.

Materials and Finishes

“For countertops, quartz still reigns supreme,” Pentic shares, “but porcelain is coming in a close second. Clients are asking for ease of use, durability and beauty,” she says. In addition to the antimicrobial finishes Bailey noted above, Pentic sees black fixtures trending strongly. “I think black kitchens will be extremely popular; last year only my very forward clients asked for black, but I see it more and more. I think colors will also still be strong, especially blues and greens,” the California designer adds.

Black is trending as a kitchen color.
Photo: Knocknock Kitchen and Bath Design /
Nadja Pentic – Designer / Andrew Gallucci – Photographer

Appliances are getting color pops, including custom hues that some brands offer, though Meritage executive Shay says stainless is still the most popular. Feia’s clients are embracing the customizable options, she reports, including those offering changeable handles and accents. Bullock also sees color pops being popular in tile treatments and deep blue and green jewel tone cabinets. Charcoal, black, white and wood combinations in cabinetry are trending in her Mid-Atlantic area. Feia is seeing warm wood stains trending in her Midwest market. She’s also seeing a trend toward unfitted cabinets.

Shay, Feia and Bullock are all noting luxury vinyl tile and planks trend in their markets, they say. “My clients love the easy maintenance,” Feia comments. Large-format porcelain tile is also trending, Bullock, Shay and Pentic report, including for floors and backsplashes continuing the countertops up the wall in unified style. 

Last Words

The consensus among all of the interviewees is that wellness will continue to trend into 2021, especially with second or third waves of the pandemic keeping clients home. This will impact processes across the board, as well as trade show operations and client requests.

On that front, NKBA’s Darcy predicts, “We see a trend toward implementing design systems that people need to live safely, but also deliver comfort and style.” Comfort, safety and style are worthy
of toasting this New Year’s Eve into 2021. ▪

Jamie Gold, CKD, CAPS, MCCWC is an author, wellness design consultant and NKBA Chapter Presenter. Her third book, Wellness by Design (Simon & Schuster), published September 1, 2020.  Learn more about her Wellness Market presentations, books and consulting services at jamiegold.net.

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