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Apocalyptic self destruction of the KBB industry

As the clock slowly ticks by and your once steaming coffee begins to get cold you can hardly disguise your anticipation, because this morning you are having your new kitchen fitted.  Then slowly in the distance you see a lorry turn the corner.  Inside this delivery truck is months of thought, planning and anticipation; a quiet voice in the back of your head asks; “I hope it looks okay” but you find reassurance in knowing that the designer you worked with was a professional, inspiring you and offering quiet reassuring confidence in equal measure.  So how is it that in the past so many kitchen and bathroom designers have been under appreciated and overlooked by clients, other design professionals and even the very industry in which they work?  But is this historical undervaluation of good design now turning the corner?

In many ways it is unbelievable that the designer of any product could be simply seen as a consequence of the actual product their employer is trying to sell. An under appreciated by-product of the bigger picture; kitchen and bathroom sales! In many ways the KBB industry has systematically turned things on their head, bypassing the source of inspiration and focusing solely on selling as quickly and as cheaply as possible, and because of this the kitchen and bathroom industry is riddled with holes.  It is ironic that many companies choose to fill these holes with salespeople, in the guise of designers and wearing a name badge.

In a capitalist economy it is only right that manufacturers and retailers search for more efficient ways of delivering cost effective style solutions to the public, allowing the conveyor belt of product to keep trundling forwards.  But at what cost?

You cannot underestimate the power of product anticipation as each client, from whichever price bracket will undergo a personal journey leading up to having a new kitchen or bathroom installed.  Clients may have made personal and economic sacrifices in order to afford their new installation which brings with it an overt expression of who they are and what they aspire to be.  It is unfortunate therefore that in some instances, both in the multiples and the privately owned retailer, that the basic human connection between client and designer is overlooked, and because of this, things start to go wrong.

Kitchen and bathroom design is about communication, empathy and experience and it is combining these tools with an understanding of function, design and architecture that one can truly be confident of delivering a good, client specific design.

It is important for the industry to understand that design is the source of everything, every kitchen, every worktop, every sink and that without the connection between consumer and designer the industry would have nothing to sell, because there would be no-one to sell to!

The kitchen and bathroom designer works on many levels.  Some designers have the knowledge and experience to combine multiple, constantly changing components to create functionally astute and aesthetically pleasing products which will not break the bank.  Creating a complex product like a kitchen on a budget is a skill that needs to be appreciated more.

Other designers will be presented with the unique opportunity to be flamboyant, to reshape our expectations and deliver fantastic functional art installations that will have magazine editors clambering for a pen in order to get the unique, first hand insight into the vision of the designer.  In a situation like this there is a desire to tap into the individual’s inspiration and suddenly the lowly kitchen or bathroom designer is allowed to step from the shadows onto the bigger and greatly more appreciated design stage.

And so cometh a change!  The pace of change has been slow and could be likened to water dripping on a stone, but just like the water, kitchen and bathroom designers are beginning to make a hole just big enough to let in some light.

Some large multiple retailers are now advertising the fact that they employ good designers exploiting the personal connection and the reassurances that a good designer can offer.  However it could be argued that some of the bigger names in the industry did not value the designer at all, instead they promoted a campaign of destructive discounting which damaged the industry and ultimately consigned their own names to the history books.

But just as in any blockbuster movie depicting apocalyptic scenes of self destruction the KBB industry has been offered an opportunity for re-birth, a new avenue to explore, a faint light at the end of the tunnel.

A small band of mavericks have broken away from the traditional retail model choosing to offer kitchen design on a “design only” basis.  These “design only” companies are offering a new way of buying a kitchen and presenting a new opportunity to manufacturers to source clients from places they had never dreamt of.  Design is flexible and not geographically restricted therefore the possibilities offered from these “design only” companies must be explored by manufacturers, retailers and even other design disciplines.

Remember, design is the source of every product, and the kitchen and bathroom designer is fast becoming the gate keeper between client and manufacturer.  Independent designers can offer flexibility and clarity to the buying process, acting as industry translators and as an easy source of new clientele for manufacturers.  Independent designers also offer the industry a comprehensive range of design solutions on a pay and go basis allowing struggling businesses to stay open and more celebrated enterprises to flourish.

Independent designers should not be feared, they should be celebrated!  Kitchen and bathroom design is changing!

By: Darren Morgan

Florence von Pelet

Florence is a senior editor at Modenus.com. Aside from her natural passion for interiors, kitchens and baths Florence also leads the way on Modenus’ BlogTours around the world so please follow her on Twitter to get the latest information and inspiration about design trends from around the world.

  • http://designkula.com Corey Klassen

    THANK YOU! Nothing else to add.

  • http://www.modenus.com Veronika Miller

    Glad you saw this comment Corey, made me think of you. 

  • Anonymous

    I am a sole proprietor. I offer kitchen and bath designs but I opened a boutique showroom not too long ago because I feel it’s important for customers to touch and feel the cabinetry so they better understand what it is they are getting.

    I’ve noticed a new trend of manufacturers selling directly to builders and while this may be a nice opportunity for people who only offer design services, it does nothing to promote the value of a kitchen and bath designer. If K&B designers only work under contractors I fear their value (and compensation) will mostly likely fall to the level of a draftsman working behind the scenes.

  • http://twitter.com/dmkitchen Darren Morgan

    I certainly don’t think that it is good practice for manufacturers to sell product to builders or anyone else for that matter without the client’s needs being properly accessed and channelled through a qualified KBB Designer. 
    The objective of this post is to empower KBB designers to understand their true value and for the industry as a whole to appreciate the intellectual property of these designers which, especially in the UK, has been taken for granted and deemed to be worthless.  Design is the origin of every product and KBB Designers should receive more credit.
     Even if a designer operates on a design only or design only/project management basis it is always important that the clients get touchy feely with the product so that they understand what will be arriving in the back of the delivery truck!  So in full agreement Ann!

  • Anonymous

    So spot on! Well said, well done. This needs to be shown and discussed to everyone in our industry. It’s been slow, yet it’s been extremely quick at the same time. The internet, the economy, the influx of knockoff cheap imports have all help erode our industry at a momentus pace. Manufacturers who do not defend their products from massively discounted enternet sales are aiding & abetting and will soon see the demand for their products vanish. No matter how cheaply they are sold. Designers and Showrooms are being barraged at every corner and I sincerely feel it has to begin from the Manufacturers policies and then having the backbone as a industry enforce them. A very few manufacturers really get it. Some see the writing on the wall as they overlooked it but now see large wholesalers importing their own lines and cutting their products back, They don’t know what to do. They know they need to get back to basics, get back to the party with the ones who brought them. But they’re afraid and don’t kn ow how. They made their bed and are trying to figure out what next? As designers and Independent Showroom operators, we must work together. The large Wholesalers and Manufacturers who choose to bypass us all are not our allies, not our friends. Their greed is so large a appetite it cannot stop, only consume. The quotes I’ve heard from our “friends” would shock you, they do not care who they sell to. Period! So don’t be fooled that they are “really interested” in your input, your voice. If they are supporting the giants that are all bypassing you the Designer, you the Showroom operator, then ask “why am I supporting their cause, because of their name?” Support the Manufacturers and Showrooms who really do look out for your interests, who really do want to help. Don’t let them devalue the services and knowledge you provide by taking away all of your tools and selling on price.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/ashishthakur.3181 Ashish Thakur

    This definitely is going to make a very interesting read An issue well brought forward. look forward to more feedback.

  • Anonymous

    After 30 years in this industry I thought i’d seen everything but I was wrong .
    I have spent the last 30 years as a cabinetmaker , kitchen planner and showroom owner .
    Earlier this year I became closely involved in the formation of a professional kitchen designers association .
    While publicly receiving industry support and acceptance , behind the scenes it is a very different story .
    As a business owner access to the industry is very easy , they sell me their products and need my support , but as an association rep i can see a very different side of the industry .
    The attitude displayed in relation to the profession of kitchen design , to say the least is dismissive .
    The companies who you would think would also benefit from industry training , certification and a strong profession  ie. the design software suppliers are amongst the worst .
    On a different level they still have to interact with me on my terms as a business owner and I took the opportunity to extract the reasons why they have a complete apathy towards us .
    The off the record comments are as follows :
    they have absolutely no commercial interest in supporting , promoting or investing in our profession , there is no profit in it .
    This short sighted approach of maunufacturers , suppliers and others has led to the self destruction outlined above  .
    Luckily things are changing , we as designers  are the only people motivated to make the changes . 

  • http://www.kitchenartworks.com/ Peggy Deras, CKD, CID

    Great post Darren!

    It’s great to see more and more K&B designers going independent.

    As a blogger on kitchens, and an independent K&B designer who does not sell product, I have been getting a few queries from cabinet manufacturers who are selling direct on the web. This is unusual. So far they are marginal manufacturers. We’ll see where it goes.

  • http://twitter.com/dmkitchen Darren Morgan

    Hi Peggy,

    Thanks for your nice comment.  I think there is a natural separation between manufacturing and design and that this polarisation is beginning to become more amplified by economic and demographic changes.  Independent KBB Design is more popular in the States but is only really becoming recognised as a viable option in the UK. 

    For too long the public and indeed the industry made the presumption that KBB designers didn’t need to eat, didn’t need to clothe their children and didn’t even need to keep a roof over their heads and that is why high quality KBB design work was perceived as being free!! 

    Change is coming to this industry and with the help of associations such as Society of British Interior Design the lowly KBB designer is being accepted into the greater design fold.  I can only hope that by being involved in things like this will allow the industry to regain some self respect from the intellectual source upwards! 

  • Anonymous

    If it were easy, everyone would be doing it…people who fail to research the road ahead of them will likely find bandits or natural disasters to navigate.

    Design = thoroughly researched intent.  People who believe they can go to Home Depot or equal on a Saturday and have a kitchen installed by Monday deserve what they get.

    We as designers need to focus on our own practices or businesses instead of complaining about what these people do…they weren’t ever our clients in the first place.  Complaining about others’ business models is…not focusing on our own.

    Be great at what you do.  Run an organized, systematic business, in an honest way.  Don’t plan on becoming a millionaire, this isn’t the business for that.  Enjoy your life as a result of the gratification that comes from helping your client achieve their goals.

    Remember they cannot ever pay enough for what you do for them:  what you do is permanent; the money they pay you disappears all too soon.

  • http://www.kitchenartworks.com/ Peggy Deras, CKD, CID

    Unfortunately, here in the US Darren, the professional interior design community (ie. ASID) and K&B designers are set at odds with one another over the licensing dispute that has been raging for decades now. ASID has been fighting for licensing; to maintain their right to practice in a long running dispute with architects, while NKBA and its members have been fighting just as hard against.

    We K&B designers, especially independents, have far more in common with ASID designers than with the Industry that brought us along, educated us, and maintains our continuing education.

    NKBA owes allegiance primarily to “the system”, created to provide an educated workforce and scheme of selling the products that make up a kitchen or bath for manufacturers.

    Licensing of interior designers upsets the apple cart that is “the system”. Wherever it has happened; K&B dealers and designers have been put out of business. Thus the battle.

    Quality K&B design is far more technical than just replacing cabinets and countertops, as you well know. Likewise, commercial interior design involves a lot of technical know-how. The main reason we stay apart, I think, is that commercial interior design is commercial and K&B design is almost exclusively residential (Commercial kitchen designers form another separate group often involved with sales of equipment for restaurant kitchens).

    Things have changed a lot in the 15 years since I went independent. It’ll be interesting to watch what happens next.

  • Anonymous

    Darren ,
    I think it is important that we learn from the past when moving forward .
    We are probably at the point of transition where an industry moves from what it was to what it will become .
    I think there may be one great danger in a growing number of independent kitchen designers becoming available to the consumer .
    Out of economic necessity many kitchen planners / designers may see self employment as the only way forward , but it is vital that they bring more than a basic understanding of kitchen planning .
    The consumer already has an endless option of free kitchen planning services provided to them , trying to earn a living from providing such a basic service is nearly impossible .
    While nobody wants to be unemployed it may offer many kitchen planners an opportunity to upskill , to learn an understanding of architectutre , interior design , industrial design and an appreciation of art and how they can contribute to our field of design .
    Better a small number of independent kitchen designers with innovative ideas than a large number of independent kitchen planners fighting for business .

    sean phelan .

  • Anonymous

    An interesting and heartfelt article. Having worked in the industry for 7 years I have witnessed the way the word ‘designer’ has been used very liberally. 

    A true designer is someone with flair, insight, passion and skill.  All too often a salesman with CAD is paraded as a ‘designer’ because they have product knowledge and can conjure up a 3d ‘design’.  The real distinction goes right to the core, the business culture – does anyone ever really discuss ‘design’, colour, architecture and what makes a good design within a sales environment?  There are other companies who regularly enter design awards and take their craft seriously, but don’t convey this within weekly ‘sales’ meetings.  Understandable some may argue, particularly in a tough economic climate. But again, its all about numbers.Ultimately, I chose to set up a design led, client focused practice and am proud that we do the exact opposite to the majority of the ‘High St’ offerings, earning us a Smarta100 Business Award within only 4 months of trading.We charge for our creative knowledge and product expertise, as well as fully managing the installation. This is where the value really is for the client, the internet can provide all the technical and product knowledge they require, but it can’t draw a unique concept for them or check off their deliveries! I didn’t wait for my industry to ‘value’ my design skills, i gave myself that value and packaged it to sell to a very willing audience of clients who seek creative solutions and out of the box thinking. It is this unique creativity that distinguishes a designer from a salesman with a label. 

  • Anonymous

    love it, pass that trumpet around, the experts….i wish these independent kbb designers would stop dis embowelling interior design as a whole. Interior design industry will not survive further fractioning by kbb designers, hopefully the lhs designers dont start blogs like these,,, lovely wee picture Darren


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