‘The Americans are putting us to shame’

KBB designers in the UK are battling the stigma of unprofessionalism that results from a lack of formal qualifications. Designer Toby Griffin says it’s time to put that right



One of the many arts of speech-making is repetition. Consider Churchill’s most famous speech, “…we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and streets…” The repetition of “we shall fight…” is extraordinarily powerful and memorable.

In 2001, the then Prime Minister Tony Blair also made a speech in this style, spelling out his party’s priorities for its proposed second term in office. The second paragraph of the text reads as follows: “Our top priority was, is, and always will be, education, education, education. To overcome decades of neglect and make Britain a learning society, developing the talents and raising the ambitions of all our young people.”

Irrespective of your opinion of Tony Blair, and whether this was achieved or not, the speech certainly made people listen.

Education, education, education. Not to put too fine a point on it, our industry’s record on education and training is one of consistent disregard, and – as exemplified by the recent ending of the KBB NTG – this seems to be getting worse.

One could suggest that the nature of the industry does not lend itself well to formal training and qualifications. A good designer blends skills in fashion, design, interpersonal relationships, spatial awareness, product knowledge, prioritisation, understanding of installation, architecture, CAD and flair. To cover all of these bases is extremely difficult. I take my hat off to the team that developed the Bucks New University Foundation Degree in Kitchen Design for their ambition, but this qualification, of course, leaves bathroom and bedroom design out in the cold, and unfortunately feels a little academic and élitist.

Toby Griffin

The American way

It is impossible not to look jealously across the pond to America, where the National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA) has an established system of training and accreditation, with its members encouraged to develop themselves through a pathway of professional levels, starting from Associate Kitchen and Bath Designer, to the highest level of Certified Master Kitchen and Bath Designer.

A brief look at the requirements for each level shows that it’s not for the faint-hearted. The highest level of Certified Master includes the following requirements:

  • Functional demands – a minimum of seven years’ experience and 100 hours of course work
  • Engage with the industry – proof of leadership or awards,
  • Promote professionalism – proof of promotion includes TV interviews, blog posts, webinars or articles
  • Cultivate new talent – having mentored an up-and-coming new designer.

I don’t know about you, but I like the bar being set high here and so the acquisition of each of the levels is truly aspirational. The NKBA has a membership of around 14,000 companies, and the link between training and professionalism is intrinsic. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Americans are putting us to shame.

Perceived professionalism

It’s interesting to see how consistently, and sometimes even aggressively, architects look to distance themselves from kitchen and bathroom designers in this country. Bearing in mind we are doing to similar jobs, but on a different scale, you would think that there should be greater symbiosis, indeed cooperation and mutual respect, but this is generally not the case.

The reason for this, I believe, is the perceived difference in professionalism, which comes from education and qualification. An architect has seven years of study before they are qualified, and yet a room designer has none. This says it all. The other profession that we often cross over with is interior design, and this too has an established and recognised training and qualification pathway.

I have previously helped with the design and assessment of students studying interior design at Newcastle College. It really surprises me how, as an industry, we don’t do more to engage and influence the syllabuses of interior-design courses towards a greater emphasis on room design, and showing a clear career that can be established during and after their studies. An open goal.

For me, the huge number of design awards ceremonies shows an industry that is crying out for recognition and respect. But this is a shortcut. To make a comparison to a meal in a restaurant, we’ve gone straight for the dessert, without first eating the entrée or main courses. The parable of the house built on sand, would also be applicable.

The lack of a pathway of formal training leading to qualifications exudes unprofessionalism and succeeds in ensuring a big space for the cowboys in our industry who can continue and even grow with their hard-sell approaches and shady practices.

So, as the bedrock of a respectable and professional industry, we come back to Tony Blair’s speech and education, education, education. His willingness to state and repeat a vision in this speech was vital. Unfortunately, where training and development are concerned, I can feel history repeating itself.

Apparently, another secret to speech-making is to make a speech on a full bladder, as this is said to create tension in the body, increasing the urgency in the speaker’s voice, which gets people’s attention. It made me think that, with respect to training and professionalism in our industry, maybe it’s time that we stopped relieving ourselves and created some urgency too.

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