Splurge. It’s a word that was rarely uttered and all but written out of the kitchen design world’s vocabulary during the Great Recession. But now it’s beginning to make its way back into the conversation again. Thanks to an improved economy and growing consumer confidence, many designers indicate that clients have become more willing to indulge in products and materials that may be a bit more expensive.
“It has been a very slow change,” says Sarah Robertson, owner/designer, Studio Dearborn, in Mamaroneck, NY. “For me, I’ve really only started seeing it in the last couple of years. It may be a function of how my client base has changed, but I think people are finally getting comfortable about splurging without guilt. That opens up options tremendously and allows us to get more creative. We can look for more unique vendors and custom options. That’s when it gets fun to design.”
Alex Hall, CKD/owner, Creative Nook, in Paoli, PA, also notes that clients in his market have been slow to splurge, or to express much creativity, which ultimately affects those indulgences. “Creativity has been stifled since the recession,” he says. “It put restraints on a designer’s ability to be creative and to show unique treatments. In my market, people want white Shaker cabinets. They seem to be afraid to show any individualism or expression of their taste. However, one client we’re working with now is stepping outside the box. They are doing medium cherry cabinets with a white glaze, complemented with some painted cabinets in a putty color called Lambswool. It’s refreshing to be doing something different.”
For Kelly Emerson, designer, Aidan Design, in Silver Spring, MD, economic downturns aren’t the only events that can hinder a client’s willingness to specify more expensive products and materials. “I feel that we slow down every time there is a presidential election, so it’s more than just a recession for us,” she says. “Fortunately, when the recession hit, we had a lot of active jobs in the pipeline. And now things have been picking up and we are seeing people invest in the heart of their homes, in their kitchens.”
A willingness to loosen the purse strings of a budget can ultimately enhance the design process, designers agree.
“It takes a project to a whole new level,” claims Nancy Gracia, owner of Bare Root Design Studio, in Newtown, PA. “It opens up options for design and for new product introductions. It just isn’t as restricting.”
Renee Iglesias, project manager, Redstone Kitchens, in Dallas, TX, agrees: “When something like a kitchen range that is highly visible is more high-end or premium, it contributes to the overall design, rather than disappearing into the background.”
Robertson notes that splurging can offer psychological benefits as well. “Renovating a kitchen is very taxing emotionally, and it can be more stressful than people might expect,” she says. “Splurging on something that is important [to them] can be a nice way to offset that stress.”
Gail O’Rourke, owner/principal designer, White Wood Kitchens, in Sandwich, MA, also sees the psychology behind a splurge. “Splurges are typically based on emotion, rather than function or design,” she states. “They are about how someone feels about something. Usually it is also something that both parties can agree on.
“We love to design when clients want to try something different, or include a ‘wow’ feature in their kitchens,” O’Rourke continues.
While cabinetry is often already one of the most expensive elements in a kitchen, regardless of whether or not it is a ‘splurge,’ designers find that some clients are willing to increase their budget even further to obtain a desired cabinet look and/or function.
Emerson sees clients spending extra money on cabinet details such as inserts to create depth and texture that is one of a kind. “They can be a way for people to differentiate themselves from everyone else,” she says. “We’ve had a fair number of requests for custom metal grill inserts with scallops or chevron patterns, or even leather inserts. Currently, we’re working on a project with a client who loves the 1920s and 1930s and wants to pay homage to the time period. A great way to do that is with an insert.”
For Gracia and Robertson, as well as Iglesias, the decision to splurge on cabinets has already been made when clients choose to work with them since their offerings tend to be more premium priced.
“Clients are already splurging based on our cabinetry offering,” says Iglesias.
However, they are looking for, and are willing to pay for, beautiful and functional storage via roll-out shelves, drawer inserts, corner organizers and pull-out bins, especially those with a finished design that adds to the kitchen.
“People are looking for something they can’t get at the box stores,” she says, noting that corner accessories for neatly organizing pots and pans and wooden drawer peg systems featured in her showroom often pique interest. “They want storage that is tailored and customized to their cabinetry in size and finish so it looks like their kitchen.
“Clients have been willing to splurge on many different types of high-end cabinet accessories, as long as they improve the overall functionality of the kitchen,” Iglesias continues. “Organization and efficiency play an integral part in the flow of the kitchen, so even with a limited budget, investing in storage solutions for cookware, dishes and pantry items is a smart decision. Even the most beautiful and expensive kitchens don’t serve a purpose without a good working footprint and storage capabilities.”
Gracia’s clients also typically invest in above-average kitchens. “Automatically they come to me with higher expectations,” she says. “Many of them are empty nesters who have waited. They don’t want to cut corners. They are looking to make statements and to explore different options they may not have had the opportunity to include 20 years ago when they redid their kitchen.”
That philosophy spills over into cabinetry discussions. “People are spending money on cabinets,” she says. “I would say it’s a general, overall splurge where they want custom features, materials and finishes…the whole enchilada. Storage accessories and internal accessories are almost a given. Clients expect them to be part of the equation.”
Robertson agrees. “Cabinetry and storage is something I focus on,” she says, acknowledging that her cabinets are pricier because of the level of built-in customization. “It’s what a lot of clients reach out to me for.”
In particular, extras such as lining waste can pullouts with stainless adds to the cost, but it also enhances durability. So does the metal strip she includes at the pullout’s top edge, which provides extra protection in a place that can easily get bumped and chip if it were simply painted. “Stainless is also easy to clean,” she adds.
Custom-designed paper towel holders accompany most waste can pullouts. Often they are completely concealed and hidden above, but Robertson sometimes makes them open and accessible, depending on the client’s preference.
Another custom specialty is tray pullouts for large cutting boards and baking sheets that are installed in drawers rather than behind doors. “It makes them more accessible,” she says.
Along the same lines, Robertson often includes adjustable diagonal dividers for pots, pans and lids. “Almost every client is requesting them now,” she says. “They are great because you don’t have to stack pans, which can be difficult when they’re all the same size. I put them in my own kitchen, which I recently remodeled, and I really, really like them.”
While Robertson’s clients often splurge on cabinet features related to function, aesthetics can be a draw as well. “I sometimes like to mix in some character wood,” she explains. “In my kitchen, the oil pullout has a faux multi-drawer look. The front is also walnut, so instead of being a boring pullout, it looks like something special.”
Also in the realm of cabinetry-related splurges is hardware, as well as countertops, the latter of which is frequently high-end quartz or quartzite.
“Quartz that resembles marble is popular because of the natural stone’s propensity to stain and scratch,” says Hall.
For O’Rourke, a move to quartzite is often due to its unique, one-of-a-kind look. “Quartzite can be a little wild,” she says. “I think that’s why people are attracted to it.”
O’Rourke attributes her clients’ increased interest in hardware, especially brass and glass, to the popularity of a sleek, clean design style. “The trend right now is so minimalist,” she says. “It’s white on white on white, so people are looking for one place to make a splash. Because the palettes are very neutral and quiet, people are willing to spend a little more on hardware to have it be the showcase.”
Emerson has noticed a trend toward customization as a way for people to find just the right style and finish. “We’ve found that people are trying to introduce different finishes,” she says in reference to black, rose gold, copper and brass. “These finishes aren’t necessarily widely available. Also, each manufacturer has a different production process and the colors may not be just right, so a lot of people are going to manufacturers who can do custom work. With hardware, you can find pieces that are $5 or $10 a piece, or sometimes $15 or $20. But we have clients who are splurging and spending $30 to $50. Maybe they have an antique metal hood with a unique finish and they want the hardware and plumbing fixtures to match.
“However, there is also an eclecticism that we’re doing now where you don’t necessarily have to have a chrome faucet with matching chrome hardware, or a stainless faucet and hardware to match stainless appliances,” she continues. “People are trying to be eclectic.”
Ergonomics factor into the custom equation for Emerson’s clients as well. “When someone does something custom, it not only can be beautiful, but it can also provide the flexibility to customize for touch and feel,” she says. “Maybe someone wants something that is flat or more rounded. There is a consideration for what is most comfortable for everyday use. Custom hardware gives people the ability to think about details such as opening and closing cabinetry and how it feels.”
Gracia has also noticed a trend toward splurges on knobs, pulls and handles. “Hardware has really made a comeback,” she says. “In the last couple of kitchens I’ve designed, clients have spent into the thousands [of dollars] without batting an eye.”
Traditional styles are popular, as is an unlacquered brass finish. Gracia also incorporated antique silver hardware into a recent remodel. “It’s beautiful and it patinas just like unlacquered brass,” she says. “People are looking for new hardware that will patina over time. They want finishes that don’t necessarily appear to be new or will stay new.
“When a specific design calls for hardware to take center stage, it really puts the icing on the cake,” Gracia continues. “It’s a nice added detail.”
Like cabinetry, appliances are also a big-ticket item that people are often willing to upgrade.
For Iglesias, a typical splurge is for high-end ranges and appliances with specialized functions. “We do see clients drop more of their budget on ranges,” she says. “They are looking for design that will offer a beautiful, sleek look as well as all the new technology with powerful burners and precise oven temperatures. We’ve also seen clients spend a little more on innovative steam and speed convection ovens as well as vacuum drawers that pair with the steam oven for high-end sous vide cooking.”
O’Rourke finds that her customers like to splurge on items they’ve never had. Often that means appliances. “Maybe it’s a microwave drawer, a double oven or that special $15,000 colored range,” she says. “For my clients, splurges seem to be less about cabinetry and more about appliances, as well as countertops.”
When Hall’s clients splurge, it’s often on featured appliances. “They will want to make a 48″ professional range a focal point, like a piece of artwork in the kitchen,” he says. “Then they build off of that with a nice backsplash that makes the range the statement.”
For example, he recently completed a kitchen with a professional-style range accented with a stamped tin backsplash in a home that was built in 1905. “These clients wanted to keep the kitchen ‘pure’ with the home,” he says. “Using the tin accomplished that goal, and it was unique and fun.”
O’Rourke’s clients will also gravitate to tile as their splurge. “We’ve had clients seek out local artists,” she says. “The neutral palette that is popular now provides an opportunity to look for something special that will pop against it.”
Emerson and other designers at Aidan encourage clients to consider tile as their splurge as well as a unique way to make a statement. “It’s the jewelry of the kitchen,” she says, noting that oftentimes they extend the tile behind the range or cooktop all the way to the ceiling, which brings the eye up and makes the ceiling seem taller. “Tile also provides a great value as a splurge. Depending on the coverage area, the total cost difference of a more expensive tile may not be that great, especially when compared to a splurge with a countertop. So even in the simplest of projects, we encourage our clients to never skimp on tile.”
Some popular tile choices of Emerson’s clients include handmade ceramics and marble mosaics. “Handmade tile has a higher price point than something that is machine made, but it is typically more undulated with subtle textures and is available with a myriad of glazes,” she adds. “That character is what we love about a handmade tile. We also love specifying marble mosaics, which are a great way to create a lot of interest and depth.” ▪