No, it is not the Beatles. It is the increased consumer interest in modern European kitchen design in the North American market. Some people will disagree with this statement. The standard response from the traditional North American kitchen market is, “There is no demand for European-designed frameless kitchens, so we don’t (manufacture, distribute, sell many/any of) them.” In fact, by responding to consumers who, thanks to limitless access to all forms of design information via television, magazines and Internet, are seduced by the sleek look of European fashion kitchens, outsiders are beginning to address the conspicuous absence in North America of a kitchen style that dominates in other global markets. And European companies are beginning to recognize that demand and to work around the traditional cultural and logistical barriers that prevented them from entering the North American marketplace to begin with.
Allmilmo/Eggersmann Kuchen, the oldest family-owned kitchen manufacturer in Germany, has recognized this opportunity. Partnering with Inform Projects, a multi-housing interior environment design and distribution company located in Vancouver, BC, Eggersmann Canada entered the North American market. In addition to providing kitchens to higher-end multi-housing and single residential projects, Eggersmann Canada kitchens were installed in the Olympic Village for the 2010 Winter Olympic and Para-Olympic games. The development, Millennium Water, is now being sold as private residences. Eggersmann USA set up shop in 2009 with a flagship store in New York and soon opened another location in Florida.
Us and Them
It is interesting to note that all the materials and technology necessary to make a reasonably-priced modern-Euro kitchen already exist in North America. What is missing is the innovative design. That is not meant as an insult, but things are simply done differently in the two markets.
“Europe functions more on design and economy of size (a sensibility that is also creeping into the North American market). When a home is procured in Europe, the kitchen is essentially an empty room (rather than a built-in),” explains Harvey Reehal, principal of Inform Projects. “People buy their modular kitchens, which often stand on legs, and then when they move, they take them with. This practice fosters more of a sense of personal style and ownership over the modular components.” European kitchen manufacturers understand this and develop distinct designs that are recognizable as kitchen brands. Even Porche has a branded design. And while it is common to only manufacture a limited number of the highest end kitchens, it generates enough interest in the public to support their other offerings.
In the North American market when a home is built or bought, there is already a kitchen installed, and it is generally a conservative face-framed style. Commonly, even in higher-end developments, the kitchen is an area where project costs are cut, and the parts are pieced together from whatever is readily available and inexpensive. It becomes increasingly difficult for American manufacturers to thrive in this market. When cabinets all look more or less the same, and price is a factor, companies find themselves competing in an international commodity market.
Facilitating Kitchen Emigration
Reehal’s operation has invested a lot of time in organizing a system that gives developers access to the European kitchen brands that architects and designers increasingly specify to meet consumer demands. Eggersmann is not the only European brand they carry, but it is a good example of how brands enter the market from overseas.
“In general, Italian and German kitchen manufacturers are well-fulfilled in their European markets. Although they recognize the growing demand in North America, import taxes and shipping logistics make it cost-prohibitive to do business,” says Reehal. “Add to that ordering and installation uncertainties, and concern that there will not be enough orders to justify the cost, or that there may be issues collecting payment, and it is easy to see why selling to North America was considered more trouble than it was worth.” From the North American perspective, there were also concerns with bringing in European brands. What if product doesn’t arrive in a timely manner? What if it doesn’t fit imperial specifications?
To eliminate these barriers, Reehal developed a business model that begins working with developers and architects when they are in the “unit-bubble” stage of a project, basically when they are drawing ideas on a napkin and figuring out the concept. “We do a display studio, including the kitchen, for the developers who want to offer multi-family homes with premium cabinetry and fixtures. It is a very “Vancouver” concept of pre-sale. Most of the units are sold before construction even begins,” says Raheel. Close collaboration enables Inform Projects to submit clean orders to Eggermann’s German manufacturing facilities far in advance of the project. The developers know they can rely on the product arriving on-time and on-spec, and Eggersmann knows that the job is not only of a large enough scope to be worth the efforts but also will be installed by people who understand the product.
This multi-housing model built the in-roads into the North American market that have allowed Eggersmann to expand into single family residential markets in both Canada and the USA.
It was the lack of accessibility and increase in demand that encouraged Michael Soltoff, CEO of Eggersmann USA, to partner with the renowned German kitchen brand in 2009. “Our focus is to establish a network of exclusive showrooms, dealers, architects and designers,” says Soltoff. “We know that our clients are interested in high quality and exceptional design at a great value.
Olympic Feats of Environmentally Responsible Design
Anybody who watched any of the 2010 Winter Olympics has probably heard Vancouver described as “The Greenest City on Earth.” While that is subjective, it is true that within the city new construction is required to be at minimum LEED Silver-certified, with developers gaining extra benefits from the city if they achieve LEED Gold certifi cation or better.
This attention to environmentally sound design likely helped Eggersmann win the bid to supply the Olympic Village (now known as Millennium Water) with 863 kitchens and 2,000 bath vanities. “This year in February, Eggersmann earned full FSC Chain of Custody certifi cation,” says Reehal. “They are the ONLY kitchen manufacturer in the world to do that.” Eggersmann kitchens are built with textured HPL on top of primarily particleboard substrates (though MDF is used in more complex joinery). Their main supplier in Germany is industry giant Pfleiderer, who has invested heavily in production methods that allow them to meet FSC standards. In turn, Eggersmann has invested heavily in their manufacturing technology.
Reehal notes, “Technology drives design, and design depends on technology to satisfy the wants and the needs of the consumer market.” Most North American kitchen manufacturers already have access to the materials and equipment necessary to engineer products that are, if not purely modern and European, more design-oriented. Not only is the technology available, and the market demand increasing for distinctive products, but North American manufacturing faces new threats (and opportunities) in the post postrecession global economy. The big question is, moving forward, what can be learned from the successful kitchen fashion houses of Europe that can be applied to the North American market?
Domestic design/build firm Hufft Projects (see Architect Spec page 52 in S&P magazine) and kitchen innovator Viola Park (see page 38 in S&P magazine) understand that the market is shifting, that consumers appreciate stylish design and modern materials. Both companies have managed, even within a down economy, to innovate in ways that differentiate them from mainstream consumer kitchens. Perhaps more importantly, both have done this without abandoning their American sensibilities. Rather than imitating European fashion and processes that have evolved organically within a different cultural context, they have adapted them to fit their own market.
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