The National Kitchen & Bath Assn. expo, KBIS 2012, featured 550 exhibitors showing wares for kitchen and bath designers, fabricators, custom cabinetry pros, remodelers and architects.

The KBIS show’s return to Chicago’s McCormick Place followed a sojourn in Las Vegas last year and is on the cusp of a recovering housing market. In a drastically changed market landscape, some of the largest cabinet and vanity manufacturers are placing their emphasis on promoting brand awareness among consumers, with emphasis on new media, as 60 percent of homeowners now start cabinet shopping online.

However, not among the exhibitors this year were Masco Cabinets, Armstrong Industries, Elkay and American Woodmark.

With these cabinet manufacturers not on hand, KBIS 2012 allowed more focus on cabinetry manufacturers like Wellborn Cabinet as well as smaller and specialty cabinetry makers.

Smaller and custom cabinetry and wood component makers exhibited independently, and cooperatively in solid surface, hardware and bathroom fixture exhibits, providing the underpinnings — and sharing the spotlight — in exhibits of pulls, slides, hinges, sinks and countertops.

The kitchen and bath industry supply chain are inveterate researchers, since demand for countertops, components, functional and decorative hardware are set by social trends and demographic shifts. Wilsonart International launched “The Wilsonart HD Kitchen” at KBIS. The originator of beveled edge countertop mouldings decades ago, Wilsonart unveiled two new edges — the Cascade and the Crescent — part of Wilsonart’s HD Kitchen modern look for contemporary lifestyles. But Wilsonart’s HD Kitchen represents a multi-pronged marketing and positioning move for the Temple, TX-based manufacturer of decorative laminate and acrylic solid surfaces used in kitchen and bath countertops and walls.

Wilsonart HD Kitchen promotion, which has its own micro-site, will also include research, webinars, videos, spokespeople, social and traditional media and consumer and trade events. In an edgy move, Wilsonart’s Chicago KBIS launch was accompanied by live comedy skits, “HD Kitchen Encounters,” performed by the city’s famed Second City comedy troupe. Time-lapse videos showed a variety of active family types — empty nesters, families with kids, etc. — in a swirl of movement centered on their kitchen island.

“With the explosion of technology, the changing patterns of work and the new configurations of family, the kitchen has morphed and now plays a new and richer role as the ‘heart of home activities,’” said Alison Pulver DeMartino, director of marketing at Wilsonart in announcing the project. DeMartino says the Wilsonart HD Kitchen move will help her company “explore and learn from these changes. It will inform our new product development.”

From its study so far, Wilsonart says kitchens are multi-purpose living spaces, with hidden appliances and furniture-like cabinetry. The shrinking footprint of homes is making the kitchen more central to families. This affects remodeling plans, as does an increased emphasis on cost savings, DeMartino says.

Generations also use the kitchen differently. Kitchens may become centers of business activity for work-at-home moms, retrofitted for aging Boomers or elderly parents moving in with children and grandchildren, or fully-wired and digitally controlled for 76 million Gen Y “millennial” consumers.

“As we look at contemporary families, a major trend is being mindful of dollars and cents,” DeMartino says. “At the same time families are living in their kitchens more, they are also returning to frugality in terms of money, time and resources. This has created a mindset where consumers are interested in conserving, not squandering.”

These trends have been widely verified in previous research by hardware giants like Grass, Blum, Häfele and Hettich. Visitors to Interzum in Germany last May were treated to extensive developments in motorized hardware that opens upper cabinet flap doors activated by a single touch of the doors — much of these efforts are geared to the convenience of older consumers who will stay in their homes through retirement, “aging in place.”

Multi-generational interiors were emphasized in many of the exhibits, with hardware, home storage and cabinetry solutions centered on the needs of parents sharing quarters with their adult children as well as their own parents.

Cabinets as Furniture

Bathroom vanities are migrating to platforms for freestanding sink bowls, resting on the cabinet, which is often built with short, furniture-like legs. Wood component embellishments are also popular in providing a furniture look for cabinets.

The major design trends highlighted by the NKBA in its annual survey were evident everywhere at KBIS 2012, among them:

• Declining use of cherry wood and maple, and rising popularity of oak (now specified in 22 percent of cabinets) and walnut (rising from 3 to 9 percent of cabinet orders).

• Darker natural finishes, now specified in 58 percent of projects, up from just 43 percent two years ago.

• Shades of gray have caught on in cabinets (up from 9 percent to 17 percent last year), occasionally opening to reveal a colorful cabinet interior. (Blum has a dark grey kitchen cabinet settings for its hardware, with one featuring a splash of orange on the inside.)

• LED lighting (embedded in hardware like clothes poles and appearing in kitchen drawers).

• Glass backsplashes, old-fashioned medicine cabinets, and polished chrome are also gaining ground.

KBIS 2012: Cabinetry Social DriversWhile some very large cabinet manufacturers have opted out of KBIS 2012 in Chicago, the bonds between the cabinet making industry and hardware and component manufacturers actually seem to be deepening.

Sugatsune, well known for its inventive soft-close hinges, slides and architectural door hardware, worked closely during the show with its wood components partner, Northern Contours, which sponsored a presentation by certified interior designer Annette Wildenauer, “Is the Generation Gap back,” on challenges for workplaces populated by multiple generations.

Celebrating 30 years in business this year, Sugatsune opened its first Chicago showroom in the trendy South Loop area, about a mile north of the KBIS show at McCormick Place. The showroom served as a stage for another Sugatsune partner: Woodways.

The Zeeland, MI, custom residential and commercial cabinetry firm builds some of Sugatsune’s showroom displays. Woodway sponsored Suzanne Rudnitzki in a presentation discussing the design process for custom kitchen cabinetry as well as commercial casegoods.

Häfele took it a step even further: its KBIS booth featured displays built in collaboration with Custom Cupboards, Rutt Hand Crafted Cabinetry, Wellborn Cabinet, The Grothouse Lumber Company and Harman/Kardon, which showed a sound system embedded into kitchen cabinets.

Due later this year at $2,499, the operative part of the Harman Kardon speaker, called the ‘exciter,’ is concealed within both left and right cabinet doors, attached with high strength adhesive to the inside of the routed surface of the cabinet doors.

Decorative hardware also was plentiful at KBIS, with Amerock, Berenson, Dekkor, Top Knobs, to name a few. The trend here, according to designer Erik Kolacz of Chicago-based Contrast Design Group, are combinations of unexpected colors and textures, can help to invigorate any kitchen and bath. Also, using vibrant pops of color in rooms with subtle, thoughtful designs.

Decorative hardware can be used to refresh a room’s functionality, as extensive offerings from Rev-A-Shelf demonstrated.

Functional hardware from Häfele, Blum and Grass, ranging from soft close concealed hinges to touch-activated, motorized flap door openers are best viewed in motion. Videos from KBIS 2012 are at woodworkingnetwork.com/videos.

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