Today the kitchen is the center of the home, the hub around which everything moves, says Connie Edwards, director of design for Timberlake Cabinets. Most kitchens now have to work on multiple levels to accommodate today's busy families. The goal of the designer is to create task areas and a place for everything, and make the space inviting as well as an expression of the homeowner's taste. And the kitchen has to work.

Designers say that even in smaller houses, the kitchen is the one area where home buyers don't want to be shortchanged. If anything, kitchens in new homes are getting larger than ever before, often 300 to 400 square feet, and are often connected with a family room, says Linda Hughes of Yorktowne Cabinets.

Defining the space in a kitchen is the cabinetry, countertops, hardware, lighting and storage options all of which were the focus of the Annual Cabinet Survey taken by FDM staff at the International Builders' Show in January and the Kitchen and Bath Industry Show in April.

On display

In reality, what is seen in the show kitchen displays is not always the hottest selling item, but the newest and most innovative. However, often the newest products or ideas at this year's show quickly become the biggest sellers next year.

Doing the survey from year to year, it's easy to see how quickly something changes from being considered extraordinary to being accepted as standard. When a product is truly accepted into the mix and becomes something everyone is demanding, then it appears in almost every display.

The soft-closing drawer, for example, was the hot new item just a couple of years ago, appearing in only a few kitchens. It now appears in almost one-third of the kitchen displays. Soft-closing doors, a relatively new variation on that concept, are just now creeping into displays, with only a few of the highest end cabinets having them.

Similarly, a few years ago, storage innovations were the exciting new development, especially vivid in the Diamond Cabinetry display. Today innovative storage options appear in just about every display and storage products are not just the same old thing. The lazy susan, for example, has taken on an entirely new persona in its design and the variety of pullouts and the type of access to them has grown.

Consumers drive changes

Why are kitchens larger? One thing driving the size of kitchens is the desire for an island, which needs space all around it. Manufacturers have found that people want more work space and an area in the kitchen to prepare food while allowing interaction with family and friends or to view the TV. And people want these islands to be functional with either a separate sink or stove top.

Appliances are now driving the design of many kitchens. It's about the equipment, and appliances determine the size of the kitchen, say designers. Multiple appliances, sinks and specialized appliances, such as wine coolers, warming drawers and coffee makers, are requiring larger kitchens. There are food prep areas, cooking and baking zones, cleanup zones, entertainment zones, kid zones and storage zones all requiring space and storage.

People want storage and they want it where they need it most. We are a nation of collectors of stuff and we need more space to put more stuff. The problem in the past was that we weren't effectively using the space we had.

"Our testing showed that on average, a consumer uses only about 35 percent of available cabinet space," according to Neil Lynch, executive vice president, marketing and strategic planning at Diamond Cabinets.

Cabinet manufacturers are addressing the issue. Every bit of space is being used, with even the kickboard area disappearing to be replaced by a drawer or storage space. Fillers are no longer the norm. Instead, pullout spice drawers, pantries and tip-outs are being used.

At the shows, drawers were oversized and used hardware that could support heavy loads of dishes, pots, pans and food products. There were drawers within drawers. All types of organizational help were in evidence for flatware, utensils, cookie sheets, etc. No area of the kitchen was ignored when it came to organization. The evidence indicates that cabinetry is becoming increasingly more accessible.

Cabinet style

Cabinetry is being designed now with the quality and beauty that will fit in any room of the house, not only because the kitchen is so integral to family activities and connected to other rooms in the house. Most cabinet manufacturers displayed many other uses for their cabinetry, including entertainment centers, home offices and entryway pieces.

The most popular construction type was face-frame cabinets with full overlay. This fits in with the strong growth of the simpler, cleaner lines in today's kitchens. Even when embellishments and mouldings are used, they're generally kept to a more understated look. Cabinet design elements are meant to create gorgeous, furniture-like details, says Edwards, and those details can become the homeowner's signature style.

The most popular doors are those that are mitered and/or have simpler, cleaner lines. Overall, the arched cathedral-style door is losing ground to the square style, says Edwards. Some of the doors have rope mouldings, inset detail or beadwork in the door so glazes can be highlighted.

Horizontal use of cabinetry is growing, as are stacked cabinets and staggered depths and heights, all providing visual breaks to the kitchen. There are more open shelves and cabinets that are used for display purposes and as decorative elements.

More glass is used in doors as a decorative element. A number of manufacturers have designed the glass panels to be easily removed so they can be replaced with a textured glass or metal, wood or laminate panels, allowing the homeowner to quickly change the look of the kitchen.

Creating warmth, style

Designers agree that consumers want their kitchen to say something about them and the way to do it is with the cabinetry, countertops and lighting. It's all about using texture and colors to create interest. Interest can also be created in a kitchen by using mouldings, open shelves and add-ons to create nooks and areas of visual interest.

The exhaust hood is the one item referred to by many designers that is growing increasingly popular. The use of a hood, along with decorative elements, such as mantels, corbels, onlays, bun feet and millwork, create a feeling of a hearth in any kitchen and a natural gathering area. Even high-tech stainless or metal hoods can create an island of interest in a kitchen.

Stains and wood are definitely darker this year, with light colors declining in popularity. Hughes says that colors may be darker because homes are larger and the darker colors can be used in the larger spaces.

The hottest species is now maple followed closely by cherry. Both are rich in color and depth, take stains well and provide a feeling of warmth and elegance. Oak is starting to regain some ground with the quartersawn product being most used because of its attractiveness in Arts and Crafts, Prairie, Shaker and Mission-style cabinetry. Glazes are still strong because of the depth they can give to any cabinet door.

With countertops, it's all about texture and a natural look. Solid surface is still the overwhelming favorite for the displays, though granite had a strong presence and engineered stone grew in use. For the first time in a while, laminate has re-emerged in displays. Laminates are now available in a wider variety of looks and there are edging options that can give it a more visually appealing presentation.

DuPont is offering six new colors of Corian and rustic textural looks, along with a granite product that is certified by DuPont. Formica is showcasing solid surface, engineered stone and new textures, such as river wash, in its products. It has also created a product that mimics slate.

Finally, what sets everything off is lighting, which is becoming an increasingly important element in the kitchen displays. There are cabinets with glass doors that are being lit and drawers and hidden spaces have lights that turn on when the space is accessed. And many manufacturers are building lighting into their cabinetry.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.