As a residential architect, you endeavor to design houses that delight, inspire, and endure. It's certainly difficult to accomplish such lofty goals on a budget-driven project. But pros know that, counterintuitively, it's trickier still on the high-end project for the demanding, well-heeled client. Expectations are high, and satisfaction is hard to come by.
The kitchen is one area where hopes spring eternal and infernal. Today's wealthy homeowners want tremendous function, jewel-like dazzle, and flawless craftsmanship in this hardworking room. The vagaries of site-built construction, however, can make such standards nearly impossible to achieve. That's why you may need an ace up your sleeve for these lavish projects: the European-style kitchen system.
overseas view As many world travelers know, Europeans view their kitchen cabinetry quite differently than Americans typically do. It's not a commodity to convey when you sell the house; it's the family heirloom to relocate and reinstall in the next homestead. European systems are designed with this in mind. Although the concept of the moveable American kitchen hasn't taken off, these high-quality, high-style European products definitely have.
“In the United States, everything [on the high end] is custom built,” says architect Nick Noyes, of Nick Noyes Architecture in San Francisco, “but the Euro-pean systems cannot be beat. They are so well engineered. The doors work well, the hinges work, and the quality is excellent.”
Echoing that view, architect Adele Chang also points to the superior finishes. “There is a difference between the two,” explains the principal of Lim Chang Rohling & Associates in Pasadena, Calif. “The word ‘custom' sounds good, but the level of finishes can't compare. In the factory, they're better able to do a quality job.” That's important, says Noyes, who explains that it's difficult to get good finishes on cabinets in California because strict environmental regulations prevent the application of durable lacquers, except in a controlled factory situation. “Pre-made cabinets don't have these issues,” he says. “And besides, the finish is superior to anything a [custom cabinet] shop can do.”
Mark McInturff agrees that European quality is superior, and he likes the aesthetic, too. “It's largely due to the style,” says the principal of McInturff Architects in Bethesda, Md. “They have an evolved look with interesting finishes and details. They also lift the cabinets off the floor.”
The list of European cabinet companies includes New York City–based Varenna by Poliform; Los Angeles–based Snaidero; New York City–based Boffi; Roseland, N.J.–based Bulthaup; Siematic in Bensalem, Pa.; Downsview Kitchens in Mississauga, Ontario; Studio Becker in Alameda, Calif.; and Poggenpohl in Wayne, N.J.
Snaidero's vast line of sophisticated contemporary cabinets boasts a high degree of customization. Favored by Miami-based firm Arquitec-tonica, products come in wood, veneers, stainless steel, acrylic, and laminate, along with a variety of accessories.
Noyes is a fan of Varenna, another Italian company with more than nine lines. Its latest, Alea, comes in wenge wood, laminate, aluminum and etched glass, and stainless steel. Lacquered finishes are offered, as are Carrara marble, granite, and stone countertops.
Chang does few custom homes these days, but when she does, she often specs Siematic, a German company that makes more than 81 door styles and 90 standard finishes. She's particularly impressed by the company's vast list of accessories.
Bulthaup is another German company whose kitchen systems have an impressive reputation. Architect Steven Ehrlich in Culver City, Calif., calls it the “Rolls Royce of kitchen mechanics.” Manufactured in Aich, the offerings include System 20, a modular line that can be fitted with wood or glass doors and casters, and the new b3, which allows elements of varying materials to be suspended ethereally from the wall.
euro summit Specing a European system is relatively painless, architects say. You will not need to relinquish design control, but those who have used the systems say the manufacturers' design staffs are very helpful in figuring out details, attachments, and accessories.
“It's a good idea to meet pretty early because some [companies] can't do certain things,” says McInturff, who has used Siematic, Bulthaup, Snaidero, and Varenna. “You need to know the dimensions they use,” to design within their parameters. Katherine Gallagher, marketing manager with Bulthaup says the company's designers like to establish how clients will use the kitchen, to help in the design process. And because lead times can be long, meeting early also ensures on-time delivery.
High on style and quality, European systems are also lofty in price—the only drawback architects identify. Although a pared-back order achieves modest savings, it's generally acknowledged that using European systems is an economic commitment. “They are ideally suited—perhaps only suited—to a custom home,” Chang says.
For architects hankering for that high-end look at a fraction of the cost, Ikea is a popular spec. Architect James Biber looked at European systems for his own house until economic realities forced him to eye the Ikea alternative. “It's an extremely good value,” says the principal with Pentagram Architecture in New York City. “It works well stylistically and is very functional.”
Natalye Appel, FAIA, used Ikea for her own house as well. “It was the only place I could get doors with aluminum frames and frosted glass at a price I could afford,” says the principal of Natalye Appel + Associates Architects in Houston. She now uses Ikea for commercial and residential projects, but instead of using the entire system, she uses site-built boxes and orders the glass doors.
Despite the value Ikea offers, Biber and Appel feel the products have their limitations. Says Appel, “The Ikea system doesn't have a lot of variety,” which could be a problem for some architects. She, however, welcomes the predictability. “It's easier,” she says.
Biber adds that you give up detail and long-term durability with Ikea systems. He also recommends using the cabinets without much modification. “They are not building blocks. They are systems, so use them exactly as they are designed.” Still, the value can't be beat, he says. “I am in awe of how Ikea manages to produce this level of finish and quality for what they charge.”
Fussy high-end clients might not think Ikea impressive or exclusive enough for their rarefied tastes. Luckily for them, mainland Europe has an infinite number of ways to spend their money.