By Ryan Christensen, Kitchen Designer
It’s been three years since the embargo was lifted. Vegas and I have a love/hate relationship, and the machinations of its underbelly spit me out like spoiled meat in 2011 only to leave me festering in agitated patience for my eventual return. I survived KBIS 2011, but only barely. I returned, knuckles dragging in a simian stupor, marinating in trends that would have to carry my design acumen for the years it could take before Las Vegas would admit me again into its glittering corridors. And so with a quick drink at the airport, I departed for Mecca, anxious how I might be received. Anxious if she, that diabolical Vixen the Strip, held a grudge, or if her regrettable decision to host KBIS would leave us bare-knuckled in a spar to see who would top whom. Vegas is a city of memories. What you forget she retains with the augmented precision of a million terabytes buried within the bowels of her vaults, whispering their temptations to you in the wake of your own forgetfulness, hoping you tumble blindly into the labyrinthine maze that will become your own drunken undoing. She is always the victor. The house always wins. So I could only utter my peace offering as I entered the airport: “I am here for KBIS. I kneel humbly before you not in contest, but to settle any debts upfront. This is work, not play. Please let me be.”
Vegas did not answer me.
KBIS 2014 was a veritable playground of ideas. So many that not one single blog could contain the information overload: just as I approached the convention with over-zealous curiosity, so too must I contain the limits of what transpired. For there were hundreds of miles of exhibits, all baring their teeth at the able-minded gawkers travailing their strip, hoping to hawk their products or ideas, caring not of their applicability to your specific field but of the potential earnings even slight interest could mean to their bottom lines. The most rampant theme I noticed was not even design inspired but rather hoped to ail tired joints: for every booth showcasing the next trend there were four with vibrant salesmen more than willing to hook you up to pulsating electric nodes in order to broadcast the latest technology in mobile-massage therapy. Because I am kind and generous, I stopped at one of these booths—perhaps as penance to buttress my initial peace offering to the city that never sleeps—and I felt those electrical nodules on my scapulae, pushing out rhythmic contractions that made my spine twitch, and I knew this was Vegas answering my airport plea through one of her cronies. She did not accept. “Why are you here when you could be at the playground, friend?” I did not know this person but it did not matter. Whatever pulses she was sending through my back were connected to the machines underground keeping tabs on balances and I’d remained in the black since I stepped off the plane. This would not do. I tore the pads off my shoulder and gave them back to the rep, understanding the vacant dullness in her eyes was the soulless city’s mask. She would have to do better.
I was here for the convention. Nothing else. And with the mindset one must master when filtering so much information, I sought to find those few impressive innovations that would not just mean the arbitrary standard upon which customers would choose for the next few years but a stepping stone for the industry as a whole. And I did find that very thing.
Most customers are visual. It’s not their fault, but oftentimes imaginations are skewed so that the designs shown in showhomes overshadow the mind’s ability to see options past the display board. The question I am most often asked is the result of the drawbacks of the KCD program I use to draft cabinets: can you not alter the colors to reflect the palette we’ve chosen? It’s a valid question and one whose answer often befuddles the client due to the utter simplicity of the fix. KCD is built for function over aesthetics so that the working draft is important for its dimensional values rather than its qualitative imaging. What I stumbled across at KBIS proved the answer I’d been seeking had existed all along and all it took was the Jobs’ like genius of programmers to meld the 21st century with the pragmatic approach I’d been taking. Here was this booth. Cabinet Vision. Replete with conjoined LCD monitors, a crowd had formed around the exhibitor as he stood immersed in the Matrix, a pair of 3-d glasses on pantomiming to the screen in an effort to mold the environment projected like Tom Cruise in Minority Report. I was in awe of the futuristic tone, the way in which the kitchen I was staring at on screen was shaped in mimetic response to a wave of the man’s hand as he simply chose from a catalogue to swap out one granite for another in photo-realistic modules that had me anticipating an investment in digital real estate.
Come drink with us, Ryan. Come play with us, Ryan…
I shuddered. It was a voice. It sounded far away but it wasn’t. It was near. It was the voice of Las Vegas. I knew it. Breaking my spirit. I could only look around at those gawkers so enthralled by the digital mapping happening before us…the actual building of a kitchen that could show the client not just the selections he or she happened to put together but the result of midday sunlight through the nook window and how it might play off the cabinetry. Nobody else heard the voice. I wondered if what I’d heard was residual feedback from the electrical nodes that had been planted on my shoulders but only shivered.
“Did you hear that?” I asked the woman next to me. She only crossed her arms.
“Don’t talk to me.”
A drink will fix everything.
The voice. Again. Closer. I pushed my way through the crowd in an effort to drown out the voice. An exhibitor handed me a pair of 3-d glasses and I checked the Cabinet Vision display through the lenses. At what point does the verisimilitude turn into a gimmick? I thought. The kitchen took perspective, allowing for a depth of field that set me right at the edge of the room. I could almost smell the coffee. Hear the virtual birds somewhere beyond the boundaries in the digital ether. The cabinets looked freshly lacquered, gleaming the artificial sunlight. This sort of technology could do wonders for client comfort: without the stress that comes with blind guessing or relying on one’s imagination, this program took the gambling out of the equation.
A man that looked like Terry Fader stood outside the kitchen window staring at me, his perfectly coiffed hair pushed off a sweaty lineless forehead. “Come and gamble, Ry-guy. A little Blackjack here and Craps there never hurt anybody. Then celebrate with a drink or twenty. We’ll look after ya, boy. We always do…” I threw off the glasses. Fader was gone. Nobody else seemed to notice him. The window was as it always appeared: a source of light for the interior, a mock copse of trees in the background. I had to get out of there.
I ran to the next booth. James Martin Furniture. What this exhibitor shared with similar displays like Badea and Luxe Bath Works was a unique approach to half bath vanities. Coming to Vegas my argument had always been to create a unique space in the half bath and these particular booths proved there was some method to my madness. I tumbled forward and grabbed onto the edge of a rustic vanity, its cabinets ornate and seemingly hand crafted, showing the sort of artistry a CNC machine would have trouble replicating. I tried to catch my breath, the very memory of Terry Fader and his Elvis comb-up still haunting me as I tried to escape the possibility that the man wanted to make me one of his puppets. I had to buckle down…and these vanities were the sort of trend-inducing non-sequiturs that might just keep my disposition professional. My argument in creating a different space in the half bath was always based on its separateness as a room, detached in its entirety from the kitchen or vanities upstairs and small enough to ensure any sort of experimentation would be on a marginal scale. Customers are always seeking some form of consistency throughout the house, but the half bath is the one room where playing with design makes sense for that very reason. These vanities ranged from traditional to uber-contemporary, some showing painted panels on curved substrates (creating a circular protrusion) with clawed feet acting the sort of elemental detail that would prove the piece had once been a decorative hutch or dresser; and others showing high gloss simplicity, with chunky vessel sinks matching the width and depth of the vanities themselves. I exhaled. I felt free again. I looked up into the mirror, and where I should have seen my reflection staring back at me a Mr Wayne Newton, face stretched so taut his skin looked like snakeskin wingtips, curled his lips to a devilish smile: “Come play with us, Ryan…” This came out in song.
I ran as the lyrics to Danke Shoen followed me in tremulous waves.
Richelieu. A name I recognized. Familiarity would be my safe haven! This booth confirmed my inclinations when I wrote my annual trend analysis whose thesis centered around the modernizing kitchen space. I could no longer hear Wayne’s voice: what I saw displayed would conflate my growing appreciation of high gloss with the possibilities of the finish. Decorative panels. Yes. This sort of differentiation in a space could be achieved by adding a high gloss panel replete with copper infusions or calligraphic designs, creating the sort of popping showpieces that would make one stop and ask: is this real? Richelieu’s display was all about questioning normalcy and mediocrity; its intention was to show cutting edge hardware that would allow a table extension to pull from an island or doors to slide horizontally into a side sleeve to reveal a full working kitchen behind, as if the working stations themselves required concealment in the space. The idea was neat and would work particularly well for something like a bar or tech center, but what truly struck me was the grand array of selections available for high gloss and the decorative panels. These designs would act the perfect complement in a contemporary kitchen, vanity or bar, inducing the sort of personality from the space that would make it one’s own; it’s this sort of ownership that makes design such an intimate process.
Just one drink.
I heard this voice just as I noticed a booth showcasing wall panels. Lustrolite. Another use for high gloss: backsplash, wall cladding…And there stood Terry Fader with a puppet of Wayne Newton, its base made of actual snakeskin and its eyes the beady black of hell’s void. “Just one drink. And then you work. A tit for a tat.” Peer pressure from a puppet.
“Ok, Fader. One drink.”
All else is black. I can only rely on witness testimonials, but the house won again. The house always wins.