The Future Designer

This article originally appeared in Kitchen & Bath Business Magazine on July 25, 2019. 

I INTERVIEWED SIX DESIGNERS FOR THIS ARTICLE – some veterans and some in the early stages of their career. I asked each of them what it would take in the next decade to be successful as a kitchen and bath designer and what might be standing in the way of success for those new to the industry. It was interesting to me that these designers were in agreement on so many things.

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Would you rather use social media presence or a showroom to build your business in the next 10 years? 

Five out of six designers said that social media will be more important than having a showroom in our industry. Peter Salerno, president of Peter Salerno Inc. in Wyckoff, N.J., closed one of his two showrooms and used the funds to hire a social media consultant and build a professional presence. His goal is to have 10,000 followers on Instagram by the end of the year (he already has 4,000 with 250+ daily interactions).

Ebony Stephenson, CAPS, owner of Designs by Ebony in Newport News, Va., explained that kitchen designers can reach more people with social media than with a showroom,and she can share more about her interests, her personalityand "get her face out there." Arianne Bellizaire, owner of Arianne Bellizaire Interiors in Baton Rouge, La., said social media gives her a larger audience and she doesn’t want to be tethered.

“As a one-woman show, I can’t imagine trying to coordinate time in a showroom with potential walk-ins, booking on-site appointments with clients and feeling the stress of needing to be in two places at once,” said Molly Switzer, owner and principle of Molly N Switzer Designs in Portland,Ore.

Paula Kennedy, CMKBD, CLIPP, owner of Timeless Kitchen Design in Seattle, believes it’s going to become harder to build a business without social media than it will be to do without a showroom, adding that with social media and mobile technology, she has flexibility and low overhead.

What aspect of the kitchen and bath industry are new designers least prepared for?

All interviewees said new kitchen and bath designers are least prepared for the utility side of the business, which is defined as construction skills, trade knowledge, mechanical competencies and the ability to communicate effectively with all involved in producing a project.

Switzer said new designers need to be more competent about building systems. New kitchen designers will be the least prepared to work with tradespeople, according to Stephenson. Cheryl Kees Clendenon, president and lead designer for Pensacola, Fla. based In Detail Interiors believes that function has taken a backseat to fashion, in which young people are on trend and well versed.

Fashion now dominates our industry much more than function, which was more dominant in the 1980s when I started. Most of the early kitchen and bath dealership owners and designers were men, and designs were little more than cabinetry shop drawings. These early kitchen designers werevery competent in construction and building systems.

As I travel around the country meeting with NKBA chapters, I’m seeing that the vast majority of incoming designers are young women who are bringing tech skills and fashion backgrounds to the industry. I see this issue as a sea changein the last 30 years, and I believe there’s a parallel on the construction side of the industry as many young people don't seem to be that interested in becoming tradespeople, either.

 

What skills and proficiencies are new designers bringing to the kitchen and bath industry?

Three of the six interviewed said that technology is the number-one proficiency new designers offer. Other answers included fashion, fresh ideas and global perspectives.

In addition, we talked about how young people are not just tech savvy but are tech natives – meaning that’s all they’ve ever known. Salerno wants young designers to do more in person than by text or phone and added that a computer can be a crutch for some. He wants them to get more personallyinvolved with clients from the first day because he thinks it puts them in a better position for building client relationships and managing challenges when they arise.

In terms of all the new technology coming into the home, Bellizaire feels this will likely be a really good opportunity for young designers in this business. "This shift toward technology in the home will give them a leg up because it’s an integral part of their daily lives – they don’t have a learning curve,” she added. 

Are new kitchen and bath designers more creative or analytical? 

Four out of the six said that new designers are more creative than analytical. Stephenson suggested that it might take a combination of analytical and creative thinking to be successful as a designer over the next 10 years. Salerno believes that many design schools foster left-brain thinking,and Stephenson thinks creativity is big in design schools because fashion dominates. Switzer feels students can also be analytical because they are mobile natives and have better tools like smartphones. "My phone is my work horse; it’s my pathway to communicate to my clients and trades team at any point during the day,” she added.

 

2020 & BEYOND

Two things stood out in our discussion. First was that new designers in our industry are weak in the construction/utility/mechanical aspects of producing a project.This is something that can be learned on the job like I did, but it’s also something that should be emphasized in design schools as well. Designers have always been on-the-job managers; they produce the designs they have created, and I don’t see this changing anytime soon.

The second thing that stood out was that new designers coming into the kitchen and bath industry in the 2020s will be using amazing new technology – not just to do things better or faster, but to do things differently – like operating a kitchen and bath business without a showroom.