Start ‘Em Up: New kitchen brands are engaging designers

This article was originally published in Kitchen & Bath Business Magazine on Oct 2, 2019.

Signature Kitchen Suite

Signature Kitchen Suite

It’s not good enough for businesses to be better or faster at doing things, they need to be doing things differently than the way they’ve always been done to win in this global marketplace. I’ve been talking to innovative startups in the kitchen and bath industry: Signature Kitchen Suite (SKS), a division of LG that is offering a new line of luxury appliances, and Cabbonet, a London-based company offering designers, architects and showrooms modern European-style furniture/kitchen designs and materials manufactured in Italy.

I sat down with Zach Elkin, general manager of SKS and LG Builder, to talk about starting up a new luxury appliance brand and the challenges he faces. We talked at length about innovations and technology – and, of course, appliances. The biggest challenge for Elkin’s team is standing up and scaling a business while putting processes and procedures in place at the same time.

I also chatted with Andrew Hays, CEO of Cabbonet, and Neil Bailey, president of Cabbonet Inc. – the company’s U.S. division – about starting up a new brand and about their company’s innovations. Hays explained that the quantity of work and vision involved in creating this brand has been all-enveloping for a long time. European product designs and materials will be disruptive in the kitchen and bath industry, according to Bailey.

A close look at two industry startups

Hays describes Cabbonet’s offering as, "Relatively simple and beautifully constructed furniture for the kitchen and every other room in the house. It’s simple to order and easy to fit with a gorgeous selection of materials and finishes."

Cabbonet’s mission is to bring to market artisan-style craftsmanship, beautiful timbers and fantastically engineered and high-quality products at an affordable and accessible level.

“We design our products and then find machines to build our beautiful designs,” said Hays. “We have a design-born vision.”

Elkin shares Signature Kitchen Suite’s product offering to the kitchen industry at the brand new 22,500-sq.-ft. Experience and Design Center (EDC) located in Napa, California.

"The EDC is the stage where we are introducing SKS to thought leaders within the design community and throughout the building community, as well as the best of the best in distributor networks,” he said. "The EDC allows us to bring our brands to life and lets designers, builders and trade partners see first hand the precision, performance and detail we put into the products."

Elkin uses the word “prosumer” to describe a consumer who has a design professional attached to them who understands the consumer and what they are looking to do in that kitchen. No two applications are ever the same he says, so the expertise of a kitchen designer is priceless.

It’s really great to see two large international kitchen industry manufacturers focus on designers as their key to success. Hays has a creative vision that encourages the design community to engage with Cabbonet. He says most European brands require that a designer has a showroom to be allowed to sell their products. He doesn’t want like-minded designers or architects restricted by bricks and mortar, so Cabbonet will offer its product to designers, architects and showrooms that fit the company’s distribution plans.

Mass production to designing for individuals

The new luxury is all about experiences,according to Elkin, who said it’s not about what you own, it’s about how you experience what you own. He and his team are designing and building appliances for people who really enjoy cooking and entertaining.

“Everything in the kitchen might not be a luxury item by category, but people will pick things they love, making their kitchen personal,” he added.

People want their kitchens to have personality and individuality, and according to Hays, "The kitchen is the ultimate place for self-expression now."



Innovation, technology, & people

Hays and Elkin both talked a lot about the importance of getting the right people on their teams. Hays describes the task as getting the right group to help create something they love.

“We are passionate people who are knowledgeable and committed,” said Elkin, who describes SKS as a collaborative culture and sees the company as helping folks design and build their for- ever kitchen.

Signature Kitchen Suite’s innovative processes have already produced industry firsts, including built-in sous vide cooking and integrated wine columns designed to preserve wine by protecting it against vibration, light and variations in temperature and humidity. When we discussed technology, Elkin said that the tipping point is coming for this and sees it helping with time management and efficiency.

"Technology in the kitchen is all about making the home chef better and making things easier from a repeatability standpoint,” he added. “It’s about saving time by managing better and becoming a more proficient and better cook and entertainer. It comes down to having more time to do the things you want to do and spending less time on repetitive tasks."

Innovation means doing things differently instead of just doing things better or faster. I was impressed with Cabbonet’s mission to bring high-style European designs and materials from Italy directly to kitchen designers in the U.S.; I think it’s innovative and brilliant. Signature Kitchen Suite’s focus on customer experiences and technology leads its drive for innovation. Cabbonet and SKS are definitely two kitchen industry innovators to watch in 2020.

Innovation and Disruption

Innovation and Disruption | Dream Kitchen Builders

This article was originally posted in Kitchen & Bath Business.

Technology is changing the way business is done in the kitchen & bath industry. 

Game-changing innovations in technology like mobile computing, artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR) and computer vision are providing new abilities and opportunities in our industry. All segments are deploying innovative technology on job sites and in manufacturing, communications, marketing and design.

Some changes are truly 180 degrees. For example, in some marketing departments the design of TV and print ads is rapidly being replaced with the design of interactive experiences for customers on social media. Home automation systems that are hardwired, expensive and installed by professionals are being replaced with wireless plug-and-play devices that use AI. 

Design software that was once labor intensive is now simpler and has the ability to “see” so we can import real images in the blink of an eye – and they are to scale. That’s disruptive technology.

Unbundling Projects

Kitchen and bath remodeling “all under one contract” is a service dealers sold a lot in the 1990s and 2000s. It was really convenient for customers to have one contract and person in charge of design, materials, labor, etc. It’s still a service homeowners want, but lately some are choosing to unbundle and have multiple contracts and people in charge and to even do some of the heavy lifting themselves. Technology makes it easier to be educated and more confident about taking on projects around the home. That’s what happens with disruptive technology, things get unbundled. 

Designers are unbundling services too and are offering them by the hour instead of requiring that design and materials be bundled together.

“The way we charge our clients and what makes the most balanced and fair monetary exchange between designer and client is an hourly rate,” said interior designer Mary Douglas Drysdale. “In my experience, clients are put on notice that if they can’t make up their minds or request frequent changes, there will be a cost. We have all sought to achieve a higher level of professionalism, so we should avoid conflicts of interest and charge as other professional consultants do.” 


Talking about Innovation

“People typically respond to change and technology by asking what is out there and how they can use it,” said Saul Kaplan, author of The Business Model Innovation Factory. “The right response to changing technology is “How do I use these new abilities to do things differently?” 

He says the way to approach innovation is to start with the lens of the customer and then map a customer experience to learn what they want. Next, you learn about the economics for the project. Then, take a blank piece of paper and think of ways to serve your customers that are better, faster and cheaper in every step. 


Industry Disruptors  

A disruptive innovator in the kitchen industry is Wood-Mode Fine Customer Cabinetry. The company is working with Virginia Tech on a project called FutureHAUS Dubai. Virginia Tech won first place for the project in The Solar Decathlon competition last November. Universities from around the world competed in this event to show innovative concepts about the future of home design and construction. 

 Jeff Wolfe, marketing director with WoodMode, said his company worked with Virginia Tech to design, build and install cabinetry that’s customized to fit new technology, such as adjustable-height cabinetry. The unitized walls or cartridges of the FutureHAUS smart home are dropped into a new home from above, one wall at a time. The technology is plug and play, and the assembly and construction is less labor intensive. We’ve always built on top of floors, so building things into walls is truly innovative.  

“Wood-Mode is also using disruptive programs by integrating LED lighting into the custom cabinetry design process,” said Wolfe, who explained that the light can be applied to almost any interior and can be operated with a switch, remote control or mobile app.  

The integration of lighting systems into cabinetry in a factory is disrupting the way homes are built. By combining mechanicals and cabinetry, the installation is simple and faster. 

“Kitchen cabinet installations are getting disrupted too,” according to Wolfe. “As the installation continues to see more integration of product and technology, it’s not just carpenters installing a box. Now designers and system technicians are involved in the installation plan, as cabinets become connected to the home’s central technology center.” 

Mobile App Innovation

AR has been around for a while, but it recently got a big boost when Apple launched the mobile AR platform ARKit. Anybody with an Apple mobile device can now experience and design with AR. Kavtek is a Canadian app start up using it to enable home design.

“Marketing and sales are the top reasons realtors use Kavtek,” said Chris Bellissimo, marketing manager with the company. “Realtors, builders and designers can easily design home-staging experiences and get different looks on the spot.” 

But many realtors are struggling to connect with millennials, according to Bellissimo. Some realtors prefer computers over mobile devices for business. They buy media ads to push their content the way they’ve always done it, and they don’t do inbound marketing. But social media and new technologies like AR are exactly what millennials want.

In the 1980s, PCs and CAD design were innovative game-changing tools that gave designers and image-centric business a competitive advantage. Back then, computer input was labor intensive, and the software was expensive. Thirty years later, we have tools like AR and computer vision that are free, easy to use, smarter and better. 

Kitchen & Bath Business: A Dream Home Come True

The following was published in Kitchen & Bath Business on March 2, 2018.

With plans to build their retirement/dream home on an almost unbuildable lot in a remote area in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, Stan and Montana Wakefield took a fearless approach and combed the planet to find inspiration and products to make their dreams come true.

The Wakefields were hands on in every facet of the project. After the shell of the house was built, they moved from their other home in Florida and assumed the role of general contractors for their new one so they could personally coordinate the local craftspeople and subcontractors. Montana did part of the manual labor, including staining, painting and caulking, and the only reason she didn’t stain the floors was because Stan thought she was working too hard. She designed the home inside and out and sourced and selected finishes for all the spaces. My job was to design custom cabinetry for the kitchen, the Murphy bedroom and the bathrooms.

Kitchen & Bath Business: A Dream Home Come True  |  Dream Kitchen Builders

Finding the Motivation

Montana’s inspirations came from her world traveling and her degree in fine art. European design informed her selections for authentic materials like the carved marble sinks in the bathrooms and in the kitchen. She did online image and text searches for months, looking for products in England, Italy, France and Spain. Alibaba, the Hangzoo, China, group of Internet-based businesses, “kept popping up.” She chose Alibaba because she found people who could make one-of-a-kind products to her specifications for less than similar off-the-shelf versions.

Montana wanted products that were decorative, functional and affordable. She found artisans in a small stone shop in China that made the custom marble sinks, as well as bathtubs and fireplace surrounds. An artist in Spain made a 10-lb. door knocker for the front door. Wood was repurposed from a 200-year-old cotton mill in South Carolina, which created the worn, old, rustic contrast with the clean white finishes chosen for the cabinetry, molding and trim. Montana chose sparkly things like the clear acrylic cabinet knobs, which were inspired by pretty things she saw in Paris.


Functional Kitchen with A Spectacular View

The most important requirement for the kitchen design was that it had to work well for baking, cooking, gathering and entertaining. Secondly, it had to look beautiful.

“The kitchen is the heart of the home,” said Montana. “It is so important for it to be beautiful, large and stately because it makes the house.”

She wanted lots of counter space for when she bakes several things at once, and the cabinet drawer interiors were customized to her cooking needs. We incorporated a baking drawer to store spatulas, biscotti tins, measuring cups and spoons, and custom drawer organizers in the prep area include a knife drawer, a two-tier utensil drawer and a spice drawer made from recycled wood. The walk-in pantry for food storage was important to the Wakefields because they buy in bulk.

Montana chose Crystal Cabinetry for the whole home because the product is made to order with a furniture finish and a lifetime warranty. The kitchen design features white-painted cabinets with classic Shaker doors.

“I selected white cabinets because white kitchens are classic, and white is always going to be in,” said Montana. “I like a bright house, and a light kitchen makes everything sparkle.”

Crystal Cabinetry’s commitment to green initiatives was another reason it was chosen for this project. The company not only has numerous green certifications but has also been directly involved in the development of the Environmental Stewardship Program (ESP) to promote green building.

The kitchen sink was inspired by an original marble farmhouse sink Montana saw in a 300-year-old home in Venice, Italy. The oversized single-bowl sink – carved out of one piece of marble and weighing about 325 lbs. – anchors the enormous island. Comfortable seating for four and large prep areas make this kitchen perfect for hanging out and putting some fabulous meals together.

Montana enjoys the changing view at the top of the Great Smoky Mountains while baking and giving online guitar lessons. The home was designed so the kitchen is oriented to take advantage of floor-to-ceiling glass, affording an unobstructed view of the mountains and lake.

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