To paraphrase Charles Dickens, it was the best of shows, it was the worst of shows. That’s not a knock on the many dedicated executives and volunteers with the National Kitchen & Bath Association. They did a heroic job of trying to migrate a massive trade show from a decades-long, proven in-person experience to an unknown – and largely unknowable – virtual Kitchen & Bath Industry Show experience in just a few short months.
By all accounts, the many educational sessions were well done and valuable. This part of the KBIS experience was easier to adapt, as the pandemic had turned so many industry watchers into webinar attendees in the year that preceded the event.
The larger, more intensive trade show floor side was much harder to migrate onto a virtual platform to begin with, and technology challenges quickly rendered it unusable on both the KBIS and International Builders’ Show sides with their shared technology. The immediate trend among industry watchers was heartbreak for the many professionals who’d worked so hard to bring the shows together against all odds.
That being said, it made KBIS and IBS trend spotting much more challenging in 2021 than in previous years, but here goes.
The pandemic that turned the expo from another massive trade show experience into a virtual shadow of its former self also impacted many of the trends showcased during the online event. Manufacturers understood that consumers were gaining a new appreciation of the links between their homes and their health with this unprecedented challenge.
It seemed like there were fewer new releases this year (which could have very well been skewed by the technical breakdown), but it wouldn’t be surprising either when companies around the world were coping with a pandemic impacting their communities, families, employees and workplaces, supply chains, distribution channels and likely gloomy sales forecasts in 2020 when these products would have been readied for market.
As it turns out, remodeling and housing rebounded during the pandemic recession as shining economic segments, largely because people were suddenly forced to spend so many extra hours in their homes, terrified of getting sick, and forced to work there, exercise there and make spaces for their children to home school.
That led to KBIS and IBS products focused on monitoring and improving indoor air quality from Broan and Panasonic, among others; products supporting working (and schooling) from home, including Häfele’s reintroduced offerings that expand storage into desk space; products that reduce germ spread, like those with Microban built in, and an increase in hands-free faucets; enhancing outdoor living spaces, which became much more prized and precious during the pandemic, and a general focus on making healthy living easier. It’s not that these types of releases hadn’t trended before the pandemic, but their importance leaped above all at this difficult time.
One of the dominant segments of the COVID-inspired trend was products with wellness-enhancing technology built in. Again, this is not a new trend, but it’s one that took on added importance and appeal with a life-threatening disease tearing through our lives. In addition to those noted above, there was also a new entrant in the kitchen ventilation smart home category from Dacor, new faucets from Moen that let you time hand-washing to the CDC’s recommended 20 seconds, and from Kohler with temperature memory; Häfele’s adjustable desk that lets you program preset heights for multiple users, ideal for a couple sharing a work from home space or multiple kids studying in shifts, and Robern’s digital lockbox perfect for storing grandma’s medicines (and sending reminders to take them), while she’s staying in the family house until it’s safe to return to her nursing home.
Also related to the pandemic, in that everyone’s home is being challenged to do so much more in the same amount of space, are appliances designed to multi-task, especially with regard to healthy cooking. This trend included combi-steam ovens that add air fry from Dacor and add sous vide from Fisher & Paykel; an LG range with air fry, sous vide and convection, and convertible fridge-freezer appliances from Signature Kitchen Suite and Samsung.
The pandemic trend showing up at KBIS extends to an increase in multi-generational living products. This, too, was a pre-COVID trend that increased with seniors leaving unsafe congregate living facilities last year. Some may return to their assisted living or nursing home dwellings. Others are finding permanent refuge with their adult children, especially those facing childcare challenges, in adapted guest suites, accessory dwelling units (long nicknamed granny flats) and other converted spaces.
This trend ties into a small-space living trend as well, and is showing up in compact appliances and fixtures like LG’s slim WashTower, Fisher & Paykel’s 24″ refrigerators and Miele’s expanded 18″ dishwasher offerings; Häfele’s extending tabletop that lets someone sit while they’re working in the kitchen, and accessibility products like pull-downs built into Wellborn’s wall cabinets and new base cabinet pullouts from Hardware Resources and others.
This year at home gave those with their own private outdoor spaces a wellness advantage, and KBIS delivered fun new products to enhance them, like Dometic’s MoBar series, Brown Jordan’s colorful powder-coated outdoor kitchen line and Dekton’s Craftizen wall cladding – great for trending indoor-outdoor bathroom suites.
Those who don’t have their own patios, decks, yards or even balconies are not out of luck when it comes to nature inspirations, though. The wellness benefits of nature were displayed at the show in the form of new Shaw sinks, trending blues and greens in appliances from True Residential, and new cabinetry from Room & Board, Wellborn and other lines.
Additional finish trends on display beyond blues and greens were variations on bronze tones from light to deep, gold to brown tints; mixed metal accents; low-maintenance surfacing (like Wilsonart’s new Wet Wall shower cladding and Cosentino’s Dekton Optimma), and traditional details like knurling and backplates on faucets and hardware.
The hottest finish trend of all was customization. BlueStar exemplified this with the ability to put just about any designer’s or customer’s image on its appliances, but Samsung also offered it in interchangeable panels for its Bespoke refrigerator series and Victoria + Albert debuted a tub line with tremendous color customizability. This is not a new trend with 2021 KBIS, but a continuing and growing one from past years.
The most notable trend of all from the 2021 Kitchen & Bath Industry Show and International Builders’ Show was not about products or innovation at all. It was the transformative force of disruption, in this case driven not by new technologies or business models, but by one of the most ancient, longstanding disrupters of all: disease.
The most impacted industry in our midst was not the building products or services sectors, which impressively adapted and overcame their pandemic-related challenges rather quickly and quite effectively. No, the most impacted distinction goes to the meetings and conventions industry, which faced challenges that forced its players to rethink their very existence. Like the railroads and newspapers in prior centuries, this industry will need to dramatically redefine itself for new realities to remain viable for shows like ours. ▪
Jamie Gold, CKD, CAPS, MCCWC is an author, wellness design consultant and industry speaker. Her third book, Wellness by Design (Simon & Schuster), published September 2020. You can learn more about her Wellness Market presentations, books and consulting services at jamiegold.net.