By Ryan Christensen, Kitchen Designer
Here’s the breakdown: it started with maple. People wanted a clean wood to complete the polish of the kitchen, giving just enough grain to skew natural but not enough to scream: “it’s the 80s and Thriller’s a huge hit!” And then MDF was the new vogue. The monochromatic finish was timeless enough to assume trend changes wouldn’t barrage you with questions of “what were you thinking?” once you moved in, because Ivory cabinets were the blank slate upon which any motif would fit. The cabinets didn’t control the space because their consistency was just an invitation to do what you want, designer caution be damned. So what do you do to become unique?
The internet has created the skeptical consumer. With access to all kinds of information, the visual overload has penetrated a sort of cultural and design consciousness that puts at one’s fingertips the ability to consume an excessive amount of imagery that proves difficult when asked to pare down the effluent stream to any one given idea. So skepticism is a result of the information overload, because the skeptic is born when ideas compete. As a means of categorizing the visual parameters one can siphon from web sites like Houzz, the trend-makers seek to determine styles can be circumscribed by easy to pin themes: contemporary, inner-city gentrification, art deco, classical, arts and craft, or the bucolic renderings of transitional country. When a consumer buys a home, his or her first inclination is to determine which theme best suits the space he or she desires, and that ideal is either a prerequisite to the sale or the effect of idealizing the interior once he or she signs on the dotted line. Either way, once I sit down with the purchaser, I’ve already learned via correspondence what the desired end goal is, so I can determine if our selections in the Design Center fit the particular mould the consumer is aspiring to achieve. But aspiration itself is a prerequisite to skepticism, because an ideal can determine a correlative strain of confusion and second guessing. It’s only natural. So I’ve pared down those endless categories of design motifs one can find online to three: are you after a modern space, are you traditional, or would you prefer to achieve a timeless combination of the two, so that you’re not after any sort of extreme style but rather a transitional compromise?
My challenge was born as a result of the growing popularity in the modern space. Oak, of late, has garnered the reputation of a retrograde aesthetic that can terrify a homebuyer because of distinct memories that tie the finish to late 80s and early 90s houses, revealing the automatic reaction by a younger demographic that in attaining any sort of sovereignty and detachment in their venturing into home ownership that the investment best be served by differentiating their purchase from the space of their childhood. To put it simply, they don’t want their parents’ home. So these purchasers openly retch at the thought of oak; they see in the distinct grain the whorlish fingerprint of tradition, and thus memories of their grandma putting muffins into the oven or their mom at the sink with suds on her hands. This isn’t a bad thing, of course, but they serve as memories, and a new home is meant to create rather than re-visit. Oak can certainly be used to achieve the modern aesthetic, but it would require tackling its finish at the earliest stage, and thus assuring the mill quarter-saws the timber versus the plain-sawn finish most commonly attributed to its traditional visage. Due to the lower yield deposited as a result of quarter-sawn milling, the finish becomes the sort of hefty upgrade the purchaser would rather not subject him/herself to. But the design itself is beautiful, and would lend any space the sort of innovation one seeks when tending toward a contemporary finish.
The challenge became finding a similar product, something that could feasibly replace the monochromatic paintgrade as a standard contemporary staple, allowing the purchaser a substantial pallet from which to select. The question: where does one look to determine modern fashion trends? The answer: Europe. Why couldn’t the same specifications determine the onward trek of cabinetry?
Gruppo Frati. It’s something you’d expect to hear at Starbucks, called back and forth by baristas hoping to over-complicate a Columbian bean to charge $6 for something you can get for $1 at a convenience store. Hailing from Italy, and with the impressive Euro-chic that defines Florentine or Roman modernity, Gruppo Frati is a textured melamine line that can take the contemporary aesthetic one espouses from an exotic wood and impress it upon a laminate with melamine resins, giving one the minimalistic illusion of quarter-sawn grain or white-washed pine. The water-repellant laminate, practiced through high stability and abrasion tests and rolled with urea-vinylic glue, can be finished with grooved impressions, giving the flat surface a contoured groove that would realize its representation of natural wood. In the Walden showhome parade, opening soon, I wanted to incorporate a unique finish in the kitchen that would integrate modern elements while retaining a paradoxical rustic patina, imbibing the space a contrast that would have usually relied on the expensive procuring of reclaimed timber to complete the effect. The result is a galley wall and island composed of a consistent dropped bulkhead and full height cabinets that look old, re-possessed from some archaeological expedition to east coast farms that have since gone under as industries mechanized. The effect is awe inspiring. One might expect suffering countless splinters upon swiping his or her hand over a gable. The finish, then, is a verisimilitude of authenticity, allowing something synthetic to appear real or organic, which ultimately defines the intention of modernity. It takes nature and puts it through an industrial process in order to create a contradiction in finishes. Without relying too much on the poetic undergirding, the aesthetic itself is unmatched by either maple or oak. In our recent renovation of the Design Center—with the intention of updating the oasis within which the purchaser is expected to collect his or her color pallet—the designers and I ultimately chose a grooved cream melamine to both re-face and create entirely new built-in products, both lightening the space and modernizing the aesthetic.
The intention of melamine as a selection isn’t necessarily a product of a streamlined process or cost-cutting endeavor as a consequence of MDF’s recent fee, but rather an opportunity to open up options to the purchaser, to allow for a much rounder or fuller pallet from which to choose, or avenue down which more areas of contrast are available. As noted by the Huxley III showhome in Walden, the Frati-Cottage melamine provides a faux-organic grounding upon which Glacier White can perch, like intermittent snow caps in a dense copse of pines. It’s usually a test of a product’s usability, popularity, and practicality upon its application in a showhome, so we in the Design Center are quite confident a growing trend may transpire upon Walden’s eventual grand opening: the coming of the Gruppo Fraternity.