The bread aisle moved.
Our local Walmart store was revamped this spring, and the manager explained that it was done primarily to address a change in customers’ buying habits. What has that got to do with casework design? Well, it seems people are not only buying food differently, but they’re also cooking, eating and storing it in new ways. And that means changes in kitchen layouts, appliances, workflow and cabinet size. Unfortunately, everyone isn’t going in the same direction in the kitchen, so design is getting a little more complicated.
Perhaps the most noticeable change is that people are becoming busier and less likely to cook at home. More and more families are ordering groceries online or using apps to order take-out meals or delivery. Some need to store more fresh fruits and vegetables. But most of us are going in the other direction and buying more convenience foods that are quick and easy to prepare, while we’re simultaneously cooking fewer sit-down meals.
Another very real consideration is family demographics. The traditional roles are shifting, and different people are using the kitchen. For the most part, they’re a bit shorter as kids buy into the toaster and microwave culture and fend more for themselves. Families don’t sit down together in the evenings as much anymore, and many meals are consumed standing, on the run, or even in the car. Many Dads have become much more involved in the kitchen and laundry duties too, and this has a subtle effect on storage. These generally taller people like to find the things that they need most in upper cabinets, rather than bending down to search base units. And the mechanics of having two adults in the kitchen at the same time is pretty much the same one that led to double vanities in bathrooms. No, we’re not heading toward duplicate dishwashers, but we do need to respect both people’s spaces, and design around them for good traffic flow.
Cellphones, tablets and laptops have also entered the kitchen, and now need their own charging, storage and usage spaces. That means more in-drawer outlets, countertop wireless charging, and eye-level shelves so that cooks in a hurry can watch videos and follow directions. Guests like Siri and Alexa need a place to be, too.
Many changes in lifestyle percolate and evolve in densely populated places, and then transform somewhat as they spread across the country, or indeed around the world. On a recent visit to Paris, we observed a number of stores where absolutely everything on sale was frozen. Customers arrived with soft-sided coolers, and light jackets. The aisles were lined with upright, glass-fronted freezers, and banks of open-top units.
There was no fresh bread aisle.
Interestingly, much of the local Walmart update was also devoted to more freezers. Plus, the amount of floor space dedicated to fresh produce was reduced. A trend toward organic foods doesn’t seem to be making up the losses there.
The net effect of this trend on design is different than historic ones. For example, during the 1970s and 80s, a number of retail chains developed the bulk buying concept where consumers purchased case lots of dry goods and canned products. These were easy to store in a basement or closet. As the popularity of freezer stores evolves, kitchen designers are going to be dealing with the need to build in appropriate levels of cold storage, and appliance manufacturers are most likely going to accommodate the trend by creating more built-in options. Column fridge and freezer units are especially hot right now. Unlike traditional top-and-bottom or side-by-side combination units, these are separate, tall cabinet-like units that can be mixed and matched, and even located in different parts of the room. A family may want a single refrigerator column, a couple of freezer units and maybe a wine cooler column, all tall and narrow and built into custom cabinetry.
In a way, the evolution toward frozen food is understandable. Fresh food takes up more space than frozen or boxed items, and people have to be at home a lot to use it all up, or even have the time to cook it. Families that are running to soccer games or going on business trips simply don’t have the luxury anymore of making home-cooked meals every day, especially if there’s only one parent in the house.
Here’s a sobering statistic. According to the office of the chief economist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food waste is now estimated at an astonishing 30 to 40 percent of the entire food supply. Kitchen designers can help a little bit in combating that by providing more appropriate storage, but unfortunately the real answers lie elsewhere in our cultural conscience.
Countertops are changing, too. More microwaves are being built in while there are fewer mixers or bread machines as people bake less. And the ubiquitous one-cup coffee machine has taken up residence and needs to be garaged or disguised, along with a large stash of disposable pods. Microwaves are also doing more work, so they need to be larger, more centrally located and at a more convenient height.
In those kitchens where people cook to entertain rather than out of necessity, there’s a trend toward more and bigger bottles that contain such vagaries as flavored olive oils and custom coffee additives. And when they bake, they often do so with prepared kits now, rather than baking from scratch. All of these small changes require a wiser, more personalized approach to storage. Even bread can be a challenge. No longer content with white sliced and hot-dog buns, families that have embraced the convenience of sandwiches now buy a wide assortment of pita breads, multi-grain loaves and flat wraps, and they need a storage system that allows them to easily find and retrieve their favorites. The base cabinet drawer that once was a bread bin with a sliding top is no longer adequate. Designers need to have meaningful conversations about these issues with their clients and create accordingly.
It’s ironic that, in an industry that’s rapidly transforming itself into an outsourced, assembly line model, the end users’ needs are becoming ever more customized.
As any custom cabinetmaker knows, natural wood doors and drawers are not as popular as they once were. A minimalist look with European post-war roots has gained significant ground over the last decade or so, as customers tell us that they prefer to clean foil or painted surfaces rather than clear coated fibers. But it’s not always stark – a painted or plastic palate on traditional farmhouse features is also appealing to folks in a hurry.
As the need for the warmth of wood has in large part been satisfied by a revolution in hardwood lookalike flooring, countertops are changing, too. While doors become increasingly monotone, customers are picking up color in the counters. Manmade quartz is especially hot right now, in part because it has no voids and isn’t porous like marble or Travertine, but primarily because of the color options. Veined granite is gaining ground, too, as speckled patterns fade. There’s a feeling that stone with natural veins is more organic (and ritzy) than busy patterns that are either manmade or seem like they might be. As designers get more adventurous with color in tops, this compensates for the diminishing lack of grain and color in the casework.
Designers can also integrate color in the baked finishes on appliances, or just in appliance panels. Blues and greens seem to be most popular this year.
Technology is now a design component. Some appliances can now sense what’s being cooked and alter their times and temperatures to deliver the best results. Apps can turn on appliances when the cook leaves work. One of the emerging trends in design is related to a concept called aging in place, which means that older people are staying in their homes longer. This includes designing for potential disabilities, loss of flexibility, restricted movement or a lack of physical strength. Think automatic drawer opening, safer flooring choices, touch-free faucets and voice recognition to control appliances and lighting.
Hardware is becoming a larger component in design, too. Remember the bread box drawer? It’s becoming a large, full-extension, heavy-duty base drawer with a foot activated sensor and soft close. Dedicated use cabinets have come into their own as hardware manufacturers design and offer more and more ways to organize. The hardware includes custom utensil storage, bottom and side-mount pullouts, units dedicated to cleaning supplies or recycling, shelving that slide out and others that pull down from wall units so shorter people can access them. Knives, spices and even bathroom vanities have all benefited from new ways to store, organize and access items.
Designers can access the websites of companies such as Rev-A-Shelf, Blum, Grass, Hettich America, Salice, Accuride, Doug Mockett, Hafele and Hardware Resources to see what’s new.
This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue.