You’ve gotta have space…

How space is utilised in any kitchen is vital to its function but, given increasing restrictions, do consumers understand what’s available and how far can the trend go? In conjunction with Hettich, we gather together a panel of experts to discuss the final frontier…

Q: What knowledge or expectations do consumers have of the best utilisation of space before they talk to the retailer?

Lawrence Hamilton: In many cases, customers come into the showroom and only look at the finishes on the doors. They don’t think about what’s inside, so you have to lead them and show them what they can have and how it can all function internally as well as externally.

Simon Collyns: Most consumers come in with a wish list of requirements, appliances and what they’ve seen elsewhere and it’s down to the retailer to squeeze all that into what is often a very small space.

Rob Mascari: When we first meet the consumer, we try to demonstrate what we can do for them as a service. We explain that we design their space for them and give them a brief to take away and when they come back they’ve usually got everything you can imagine on their list for that tiny space and a budget to match. So we have to bring it back to realistic basics and see how the space works for them and ultimately make it multifunctional.

Phillip O’Malley: The level of knowledge people start with varies so much. The change I think has happened in the past 10 years is the way people want to use their space. When I was planning kitchens a long time ago, we were almost replacing what they had, where they had it. Now most kitchens over a certain level are ‘projects’ that require some building work, so people are starting with a blank canvas.

Scott Slater: We’re seeing a big shift towards made-to-measure furniture – and that’s different from bespoke – for those who have a sensible budget and know what they want. An end customer is on a journey and deciding they want a new kitchen is the first stop and the designer joins the journey further on – and it’s different for each individual. For some, it’s far down the line, as they know the colour they want, which handles they want and which appliances they want. But for others, they meet the designer with a very open mind and want the guidance.

Q: When it comes to space-saving options, is it easy to persuade customers that you can have the same amount of storage in fewer cabinets if you use the right solutions?

PO: I think that’s the key. People walking round a showroom naturally open up the cupboards and drawers and often there’s nothing in them. They’re looking for inspiration, so there needs to be some storage solution examples in there and they need help to understand it’s not just for pans!

SC: I am often surprised how many retailers don’t put things in the cupboards and drawers.

PO: You have to show the consumers what is actually possible. I think some retailers are concerned about overloading things before they get a sense of what each consumer’s budget is.

RM: In our showroom, we’ve got two different types of larder cabinet and if you open them up they’re stacked with fully-stocked drawers. When people see them they go ‘wow’ because they can see for themselves just how much stuff you can get in there.

LH: You can almost split it into two groups – and that divide is often by age – but one is inexperienced in the kitchen and one is into baking and cooking. Their needs, and therefore knowledge, are very different. The first lot just think a shelf is a shelf and we need to advise them where to start. The other knows exactly what they need to find storage for, whether that’s ingredients, utensils or appliances they use all the time. To them, you have to explain the ease and facilitation of their established lifestyle and interests.

RM: The thing that sells it every time is the bottom drawer, that’s the only one we need to demonstrate. You can show so easily the difference between crouching down, peering in and fishing around at the back with having everything easily seen and accessible.

PO: At one time, larder units were seen as very expensive compared with standard cabinets, but they’ve always been a big selling point for consumers. But now, of course, the pull-out drawer option instead of a larder actually often has a better use of space.

Q: How does this increasing made-to-measure approach translate to the scale of manufacturing of Symphony?

SC: Well, I have a manufacturing director who would love everything to be the same size, shape and colour. Seriously though, it’s all about being clever and using the most modern techniques to develop as many variations and combinations as possible, even in mass production. Compared with even 10 years ago, the range we offer now is huge.

A core part of our customer base is house builders and therefore a lot of the kitchens we do are for small spaces in apartments. We do have a compact kitchen display in our showroom and it’s one of the most popular things visitors gravitate to and they can see how much you can get into small space.

Q: If design is a balance of form and function, does a small space limit creativity and flair?

RM: An old cliché is that great big room must be the easiest to design, but that’s not true at all. A smaller space is going to put some limit on flair, but it doesn’t stop it. It’s about making a space that’s going to work for the customer and their lifestyle, not just cramming as much stuff in as possible. You have to appreciate and embrace that it’s a small space and fit lifestyle around it.

So it’s a different challenge, not an easier or harder challenge.

LH: I think it does limit the design features you can have on the outside, but internally you can still have that function in the smaller space. In some cases, if a customer has a very small plan, you have to explain the limitations, but equally describe the solutions. If you drew the footprint of a caravan on the floor and said ‘we need to get a kitchen, toilet, bed and table in there’, you’d struggle to start, but the solutions are there and it works really well.

PO: The Japanese have had space issues for a very long time and they’re very good at maximising what they have. Hettich has done lots of research in those kinds of markets and have developed really revolutionary products. All the demographics say we’re going to be living in smaller dwellings, so clearly there is a need for this industry to focus on this area.

We’re already taking huge leaps, if you look at the sophistication of products people were getting in their kitchen 20 years ago compared with now – it’s a massive difference. Hettich has more systems, heights and depths available than ever before – and there’s always more in development.

Q: Small kitchens don’t necessarily mean small rooms. The trend for open plan sometimes means a need for unobtrusive, or even hidden, kitchens that serve different functions at different times of the day.

RM: We have worked on projects where the whole kitchen is shut off. What makes it challenging is the fact that we have to abandon the 600mm standard approach. That creates its own problem to try and get it to work, I do think it’s very exciting, but if you go down that route the danger is that you end up with a typically modular system that you repeat over and over again. Costs naturally become more prohibitive of course too.

SC: I think this whole area is fascinating and Rob is right, are people prepared to pay a premium for this kind of design or product?

RM: The only way to make the cost attractive is to develop the modular system that can be rolled out.

SC: We are very keen to develop that, but it’s very much in its infancy, so costs are still high in getting the development right.

PO: I think concept designs are always great, but I do question the practicality of them. Will people really be as happy when they’ve got that kitchen finished and they’re using it every day? I’m not so sure.

Q: Is there pressure on the manufacturer to develop more alternatives to the standard 600mm?

SS: It’s all about personalisation as far as the consumer is concerned – everyone wants to think this kitchen has been made for them. If you look at Burberry, for example, you can buy an aftershave with your name embossed on the bottle – if you can get that level of personalisation in everyday items, then what do people expect with a big-ticket, considered purchase like a kitchen. People want what they want, the budgets might not have changed, but expectations have. Every one of our kitchens has some element of made-to-measure in them.

Q: Multi-generational living is big trend pushing design and function – making space more usable for anyone, regardless of age or ability. How much is that shaping your approach?

LH: We’re looking at this a lot in the Kitchen Design degree course I’m doing – they call it a ‘4G’ or four-generational family. One of the big things is to find out the heights, weights and abilities of each family member from great-grandmother in a wheelchair to kids doing homework. How do you make sure everyone can use the space?

PO: The solutions have to be totally intuitive, too – it has be easy right from the start.

SC: We’ve done a lot of work with the University of Stirling looking at cognitive behaviour and how people are changing – and how we manage those needs, while maintaining the function of the kitchen. What we know is that people want to see a ‘normal’ kitchen look, but have the increased functionality behind it that helps their needs and whoever else might use it. A lot of that is actually quite simple – drawers pulling out fully, ovens at the right height, labels for handles and drawers, etc.

Q: It should be music to the ears of independents, because so much of their USP is getting to understand the client’s needs and designing accordingly.

RM: It’s all great stuff and, I believe, that the real key to taking it further is bringing the furniture and appliance manufacturers closer together. At the moment, they work far too independently and so we’re stuck with the 600mm standard. One makes the holes, the other makes the thing that goes in the hole. If we can get them to work together, we could see the kind of extensive options you can get already get in drawers.

It’s still all determined by the Christmas turkey!

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