Kitchens weren’t always the hub of the home. In houses built before World War II, they tended to be utilitarian and relegated to the back. Bathrooms weren’t temples of sybaritic pleasure, either.
With the rise of the post-war middle class and the modern American suburb, homes grew larger, appliances became more convenience-focused and stylish private spaces for parents started to emerge. In the decades since then, kitchens and bathrooms have evolved from functional to fabulous showcases for good living.
This is where we find ourselves today. Budgets have grown so that six-figure kitchens are becoming more common, especially in high-cost markets, and master bathrooms often approach or exceed that level.
At the same time, a related trend has arrived: Products and features that were once restricted to luxury projects by cost and availability are “democratizing” into more mainstream kitchens and baths. Let’s look at each with four industry pros spanning the country:
- Russ Diamond, president of Santa Monica-based high-end appliance and plumbing retailer Snyder Diamond;
- Cheryl Clendenon, design blogger, luxury designer and owner of In Detail Interiors and 1514 Home in Pensacola, FL;
- Long Island, NY luxury firm Kitchen Designs by Ken Kelly’s senior designer Mario Mulea;
- Margi Vagell, senior v.p. and general merchandising manager of home décor with retail giant Lowe’s.
The luxury client
“The bulk of the luxury consumer for high-end kitchen and bath products still skews older – 50s, 60s and 70s,” observes Diamond, but he is noting the emergence of the next generations: “We are starting to see a younger demographic of 30s and 40s looking to upgrade to better design, quality and luxury with the influence of their trade professional or parents.”
Kitchen and bath pros have much to do with this, he says. “We are increasingly educating younger designers about luxury brands in this space.” What they’re all – designer and client alike – looking for, he shares, is product quality, function, design – and service. This means: “Quality of buying experience (knowledgeable sales staff, well organized and curated showroom selection), trust and reliability of showroom reseller and timely delivery of products with prompt response to unforeseen issues that arise after the sale.” As anyone who has ever spent 45 minutes on hold or been transferred four times on a call trying to get answers to a question knows, top-notch service is a differentiator!
Mulea confirms this: “A knowledgeable appliance dealer is paramount in making sure needs and expectations are met.” In his 35 years of designing upscale kitchens and baths, he’s observed that the mature luxury client has already experienced high-end brands at home. It’s his role to stay ahead and help them see new possibilities, he says. “While their former kitchen served the purpose, and with college tuition a thing of the past, these luxury clients and their kitchens have a new focus.” That can include taking advantage of diverse specialty neighborhood grocery options and new healthy cooking techniques.
His younger clients are interested in app-based innovations and technological conveniences for balancing family and work needs.
Clendenon, whose projects extend coast to coast and far beyond her Florida Gulf Coast community, says clients today are more design savvy and value conscious. “No one likes to feel like you are ‘getting into their pocket,’ so establishing value is of utmost importance. It speaks to the second-most important thing dealing with a luxury clientele: trust.” Consumers are getting design ideas from social media, magazines and TV, she notes, but want to work with an experienced professional to bring those ideas to life.
“The internet and social apps have changed the face of design, both good and bad,” Mulea reports. “While clients are armed with many choices from the pages they have saved, it is ultimately the designer’s job to reign in all these ideas into a cohesive design.”
When it comes to the products themselves, Diamond reports, “Technology has not been a significant driver for purchase in the luxury segment for kitchen appliances or bathroom fixtures. Manufacturers are still trying to figure how to apply usable applications with software to enhance their respective hardware.” He believes that monitoring service and performance, and the ability to upgrade software, are where the greatest value is now.
The luxury retail executive does see future potential as tech brands younger consumers grow up with – like LG and Samsung for example – introduce kitchen technology to the next generation: “Cameras in refrigerators and ovens, iPad connectivity, smart home and Nest integrations, TV and social media and internet access on appliance fronts acting as a media hub are all recent developments and might prove to be differentiators in the years to come.”
Not quite yet, though. These bells and whistles are less in demand for the luxury buyer at the moment. “I do not get a lot of requests for this,” Clendenon says, “but sometimes I have seen clients surprised when an appliance is not integrated. So maybe people now expect it?” She compares the evolution of connected appliances to high-speed internet replacing dial-up. “We expect fast now, and consumers are the same with appliances.”
Mulea is starting to see demand in his New York metro market. “In my experience, smart home or app-controlled appliances are just starting to take hold. Clients are becoming more confident and reliant on the technology. Pre-programmed cooking modes and QR codes, even on the smallest countertop appliance, are easing clients into a life of techno-cooking.”
Smart home technology is making its way into luxury bathrooms, too (see related Consumer Buying Trends, Page 12). Diamond says, “Custom smart mirrors with built-in lighting, entertainment/TV and internet connected for weather and news, built-in power outlets, cool storage (for meds and makeup) and USB connections to charge smart phones are becoming more standard.”
One of the trends you’ve probably noticed as you visited KBIS and other trade shows is the emergence of new upscale brands. “The luxury offering for kitchen appliances is becoming increasingly crowded,” Diamond observes. “The Asian brands – LG, Samsung [and] Haier – have been the most aggressive by either acquiring legacy brands (Samsung-Dacor, Haier-GE, Monogram & Fisher Paykel) or segmenting their offering as LG has done with its new Signature collection.” This presents them a great opportunity to capture market share among affluent younger consumers who grew up with their technology products. These brands aren’t new to them, whereas some legacy kitchen and bath brands may be.
Newer luxury brands have also made their way into the bathroom, Diamond observes. These include Fantini, Gessi and Lefroy Brooks, to name a few.
Another trend finds more premium brands moving into the mass market. For example, while you might think Whirlpool when it comes to Lowe’s, you can now also find the manufacturer’s upscale Jenn-Air and KitchenAid brands available there, too. “Pioneering brands such as Grohe, Kohler and American Standard, once regarded as luxury, are now considered mainstream,” Diamond says. That’s not a knock; quality and good design still drive most bath categories.
In addition to brands expanding, more features commonly associated with premium brands are becoming widely available on more mainstream offerings. “Many appliance manufacturers look at super-premium kitchen brands to determine features that home chefs are looking for in their products,” Lowe’s Vagell says. “Over the past 18 to 24 months, we’ve seen the following features introduced to consumer products, including steam, sous vide and algorithmic cooking to help roast or bake food to perfection.” Induction is also growing in popularity, she says, as are connected appliances.
Democratization has come to other categories at Lowe’s, too, Vagell indicates:
With advancements in laminate cabinetry, customers can now get the look of painted cabinetry in stock assortments and price points. Previously, only thermofoil or wood-tone kitchen cabinets were available in stock.
Power-assist opening cabinets like trash/recycling cabinets and toekick drawers were previously reserved for luxury customers due to the high cost for electric and motors. Advancements in mechanical non-powered cabinets have brought these features to the mainstream.
Security in-drawer safes were custom fit for luxury cabinets, but are now available with biometrics restricting access. These are battery-operated and easy to use.
Farmhouse sinks were once considered a luxury item as they required truly custom cabinets to be designed to hold them. Now stock and special-order cabinets are sized to fit most popular models, allowing consumers to have access to the farmhouse style.
In the bathroom, you can now find bidet-style toilet seats and shower systems with multiple heads and functions.
“Customers see the value in mass-premium products, which can cost thousands less than the more expensive luxury brands,” Vagell says.
What are luxury clients spending on their projects? In her local Florida panhandle market, Clendenon places kitchens at “$100,000, including some minor construction.
“That figure was about $75,000 a few years ago,” she recalls. “Stuff is more expensive for sure – and only going up.”
This is certainly true in Mulea’s high-priced New York metro market. “The average kitchen budget can go as far into six digits as the client will allow,” he reports. All of the new must-haves – like electronic motorization, built-in cabinet lighting and organizers, specialized beverage dispensers, steam and speed appliances and exotic finishes – are contributing to the cost increases, but so are perceptions. “A decade ago, embracing a six-digit kitchen renovation was a much harder sell and clients were not sure of the value it would add to their home. Today, a renovated kitchen is at the top of a home buyer’s wish list,” he notes.
Master bathrooms have also grown in cost. “We have seen budgets increase five- to 10-fold, to sometimes $150 to 200K,” Diamond says of his affluent Southern California market. “A luxury home also separates the ‘his’ and ‘hers,’ so the master bath is times two for many luxury homes,” he adds.
Clendenon’s local bathroom projects are ranging from $75,000 to $100,000 she reports. Smart toilets, steam showers and premium tile are popular luxury items boosting costs, she notes. Mulea is seeing bathroom and kitchen projects approaching the same cost range, with finishes and fixture choices driving the bath budget increases.
While classic brands and new competitors, performance features and premium finishes are all commanding design dollars, perhaps the ultimate luxury is the client’s quality of life. In this respect, at every price point, expectations have clearly risen, along with an increasing awareness of what’s possible and how their homes can enhance their comfort, well-being and convenience. “I think that the luxury market is only different in that their spendable income is greater; the way you handle the sale and design for them really is not much different at all,” Clendenon concludes. Couldn’t agree more! ▪