i+D: State of the Kitchen and Bath Industry

Published in i+D, November/December 2017

It should come as no surprise that kitchens and bathrooms are among the most popular big-ticket items in home remodeling. Many in the design industry believe that the kitchen and bath market is currently healthy and growing, likely in correlation with the housing market and economy in general.

In fact, Interior Design’s 2017 Universe Study of the Interior Design Profession shows 73 percent of North American designers specifying kitchen and bath fixtures and faucets and more than 60 percent specifying kitchen appliances and cabinets/systems. Further, since the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) launched its Remodeling Market Index (RMI) survey back in 2001, kitchens and baths have consistently nabbed the top two positions on the list of most common project types.

"As home values increase, people have more confidence in investing in their homes—and the kitchen and bath remain the areas that garner the best return on this investment," says Mark Wolinsky, president of Montreal-based bath-fixture manufacturer WETSTYLE.

"There’s a reason the kitchen is called the heart of the home," says Kerrie Kelly, principal of Sacramento, California-based firm Kerrie Kelly Design Lab. "It’s where you and your family gather to cook, eat, socialize, and just catch up over a quick snack or cup of coffee. And, in many homes, the kitchen has evolved into an all-purpose room." Meanwhile, she suggests, "The bathroom has become a personal oasis—a haven for wellness, health, beauty, and general rejuvenation."

Modern Design for Today’s Home Chef
While it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the open-plan kitchen trend began, it’s still immensely popular as people continue to entertain at home and socialize while cooking. As an added plus, open kitchens also give the illusion of a larger space. The debate rages on, however, about whether this is a passing fad or a characteristic that is here to stay. For Kelly, "The open kitchen is alive and kicking, thanks to the way we live today." And, so long as this trend remains, designers and manufacturers alike will continue to respond by enabling homeowners to tuck away appliances, use interior organizers to stash utensil and pantry clutter, and cover built-ins to make the space blend in with the rest of the home.

Whether an enclosed or open kitchen, the dominating aesthetic has been transitional, according to a 2017 trend report from the National Kitchen & Bath Association (NKBA). But now, contemporary style is taking over second place from traditional, it states. Homeowners are seeking clean lines and simple door styles, as well as built-ins that contribute to the sleeker look. The most popular color scheme for cabinetry, the report reveals, consists of grays and whites, with blue and black emerging. Two-tone kitchens—as well as mixing material palettes—also are on the rise.

Manufacturing advancements abound in this space. In surface materials, for example, advances have enabled quartz to better simulate natural stone while outperforming granite, so it’s only logical that designers and remodelers surveyed for the trend report specified it more than any other material for kitchen countertops. Although quartz is already a proven high-performance, low-maintenance material, manufacturers continue to find ways of enhancing it. A recent innovation, for example, is Silestone N-BOOST by Cosentino. Essentially, Cosentino modified the material’s surface on a molecular level, improving its water resistance and liquid repellence for even easier cleaning.

While some designers are creating a seamless appearance by using the same countertop material for the backsplash, others are opting for tile backsplashes to add pattern, texture, character, color—or all of the above. According to DeeDee Gundberg, director of product development and design at ANN SACKS Tile & Stone, cement, encaustic, and handcrafted ceramic tiles are hot, and all of these actually reflect a larger trend: "The craft movement has had a substantial impact on design in general, and has found its way into the tile business," says Gundberg. "Anything that is handmade or handcrafted is desirable, along with authentic production methods." As such, among the latest products released by ANN SACKS is a new encaustic series designed by Kelly Wearstler.

Let’s not forget that the kitchen is for cooking, too. Describing his clients, Toronto-based U31 Inc. Principal Kelly Cray notes, "Older generations enjoy cooking at home, as do millennials. Gen-X is split in terms of dining in or out. And, the culture of ‘celebrity TV chefs’ also has motivated society to cook more, so kitchens are accommodating this."

"Food is a mega-trend that touches most people," adds Daniel Schwab, vice president of sales at kitchen sink and accessories manufacturer Franke Group. "The chef today wants a kitchen that ‘works’ and where the parts fit together. There’s also a trend of the kitchen being the center of the house and a place to entertain guests." For that reason, the Swiss company introduced the Chef Center suite of intelligent food-prep and cooking accessories, some of which are multipurpose and fit precisely onto the Franke sink. These components include a roller mat that drains dishes but doubles as a trivet; a removable cutting board perfectly sized to rest above the sink securely; a drop-in antimicrobial compost bin with cover that also can be used as a beverage ice bucket; an over-the-sink colander; and a multilevel sink grid. Schwab reveals that more functional accessories are in the works.

Kitchens Are Getting Smarter
When it comes to kitchen appliances, connectivity and different forms of technology are slowly but surely on the uptick. In the last five or so years, products with compelling new features have been popping up, such as refrigerators with interior cameras to help with grocery-shopping lists and ovens one can start preheating remotely using a smartphone. Kelly says, "Accessing shared schedules, video chatting with friends while cooking, downloading recipes, checking news and weather, [activating] touchless faucets…All this smart technology makes the idea of the Jetsons’ lifestyle not too far out of reach."

From a manufacturer’s standpoint, there can be a fine line between adding smart features that are actually useful and ones that are impractical or gimmicky. Dave VanderWaal, vice president of marketing at LG Electronics, explains: "Today’s consumers are looking for more efficient and effective products that cater to their busy lifestyles. Instead of including flashy technologies, LG SIGNATURE seeks to provide meaningful innovation that has true value for customers." These innovations include Wi-Fi-enabled refrigerators, allowing users to monitor and control temperature and energy usage; InstaView, which affords users glimpses inside their fridges by knocking to avoid opening the door and changing the internal temperature; and SmartThinQ, a feature that controls the LG SIGNATURE kitchen line via smartphone app or voice-activated assistants, such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home. What’s more, as LG’s expertise lies in electronics and gadgets, the company had the foresight to build SmartThinQ on an open platform to keep up with ever- (and quickly) evolving technology.

The Bath as Sanctuary
Tech isn’t limited to kitchens, either. In the bathroom, technology is being implemented as "speakers in bathing areas, showers with light and aromatherapy, TVs behind mirrors to watch the morning news while you brush your teeth or shave, and toilets with heated bidet seats to save space," says Neil Jonsohn, the other creative principal of U31.

His counterpart, Cray, elaborates. "The spa- or hotel-like bath space is trending and will likely continue. With our daily lives getting busier and busier, our society is recognizing that some indulgence can promote wellness. So, we’re always creating ways to escape and relax." While such features as steam showers with programmable settings and soaking or air-bath tubs can achieve this spa-like feel, so too can a carefully curated material and color palette. Lighter-toned woods that evoke the serene Scandinavian look, for instance, are on the rise. The NKBA report notes that light neutrals that tend to have a calming effect—including white, off-white, and gray—are popular in the bath, with blue starting to emerge. And, just as in the kitchen space, the simpler lines of transitional and contemporary styles have overtaken traditional in this room.

One of the common strategies designers are using to create this minimalism is specifying surface materials in much larger sizes and as rectified units, which helps eliminate a lot of the visible joint and grout lines. Valentin Tijera, vice president of global product and R&D at Cosentino, concurs: "This gives the space a cohesive look: one aesthetic, one material." In addition to its Silestone products, Cosentino has been promoting its large-format, ultra-compact, thin, strong, and highly cleanable Dekton product line for all bathroom surfaces, from floors to walls to shower stalls and tub surrounds. The newest Dekton collection to hit the market is the on-trend Industrial Series, which mimics materials that reference the urban environment (think weathered concrete and metals).

Perhaps indicative of aging populations, another important factor in bathroom design today is safety. Kelly, who also is a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist (CAPS), suggests, "It makes sense to incorporate universal design features into any bathroom remodel." These include non-slip flooring, handheld showerheads, rocker switches, scald-free shower and tub valves, and many other elements that actually contribute to the modern aesthetic. "These days, wall-hung sinks, barrier-free showers, and shower seats are all stylish universal design options," she adds.

"The market is continuing to adjust based on the needs of an aging baby boomer generation," says WETSTYLE’s Wolinsky. "It is certainly top of mind for us as we design future collections and enhance our older lines." In fact, WETSTYLE already boasts no-threshold shower bases and handsome, minimalist shower seats that are freestanding or foldable wall-hung. And, four years ago, the manufacturer launched a revolutionary material for its tubs and shower bases called WETMAR BiO that is inherently slip resistant whether matte or high-gloss in finish. The durable material also is environmentally friendly, composed of 50-percent natural stone and 50-percent bio-based vegetable (soy and corn, to be exact) resin.

What Comes Next?
Design professionals and industry manufacturers have slightly differing views on what’s on the horizon for kitchen and bath design. Some believe there will be more implementation of technology as more options and products become available, just as has occurred in the home automation and security sector. Following DXV by American Standard’s launch of the first-ever 3D-printed faucets a few years back, some are predicting additive manufacturing will be the next big thing.

With wellness and biophilic design principles influencing what is happening in other parts of the home and even commercial projects, some speculate that a connection to the outdoors might play into these spaces. Kelly states, "Introducing kitchen and bath spaces that integrate the outdoor living components not only adds value to a home, but to our wellbeing." She suggests there could be more kitchens spilling out onto patio spaces for grilling, lounging, and further entertaining. "And, I have never had anyone deny the luxury of an alfresco shower off the master bath whenever possible," she says.

If designers and leading manufacturers seem to agree about one thing, it’s that travel—whether to see international influences and hospitality trends or learn what’s new on a trade show floor—is critical to keeping kitchen and bath designs fresh. "We keep our designs interesting by traveling the world, connecting with vendors in our industry, and attending trade shows," says Kelly. "Understanding the products available, while monitoring the pulse of our clients’ needs, helps us continue being problem solvers, while creating what our clients envision."