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The Kitchen Debate at Grand Designs Live

Elegantly chaired by Aidan Walker and focused around Kevin McCloud’s new book 43 Principles of Home, five of us joined in a panel debate at Grand Designs Live earlier this month. We each had five minutes before the audience asked questions, with answers limited to around two per panel guest.

As editor of KBB Review, Andrew Davies began by voicing the kitchen industry’s umbrage at Kevin’s comments that cabinetry was mostly overpriced, with little difference in quality between a £5K or £50K kitchen. Andrew explained there were really two separate kitchen industries – the mass market at £6.5K and the bespoke starting at £20K. It is not hard to see why customers don’t get service or design included in the former and rarely in the latter.

Kevin McCloud called for more transparency around manufacturing, and the opportunity for customers to meet the workers. Ethics and artisanship are both ways of improving value for money. Paying high prices for lookalike fashion-inspired cabinetry is wrong in his view. He agrees with our tweet that ‘the designer is a valuable aspect of the kitchen process’. I assume he would like design service separately itemised, not included in margins, as I advocate. He clearly has a preference for the hand-made, as do most of us, especially those that have a history, design or art background, because design is the means through which creativity is expressed. It is also the medium through which householders can express their personalities: going for the ‘autobiographical’ home is one of Kevin’s 43 principles.

Martin Gill of Poggenpol cleverly nicked an IKEA shelf panel from a display and compared it with their version, demonstrating clearly what quality manufacturing buys, pointing out that only 40% of a budget is spent on cabinetry. His four parts of a ‘kitchen’ included appliances, countertops, cabinetry and fitting, with unfortunately no mention of the environment or design, as pointed out by a member of the audience.

IKEA sent their range strategist, Gerry Dufresne, who told us that with worldwide sales of one million kitchens they can be ‘eco’ with a policy of minimal use of materials and in doing so, take advantage of large-scale production to keep prices low. Intriguing, clever and cheap, IKEA leaves the customer to provide the excitement, as theirs is basically a well-designed DIY product. It will be interesting to see how they compete with Howden’s who are providing a story to their DIY and trade kitchens.

Simon Grantham of Miele explained how quality and engineering is ‘core eco’ and how being family run keeps a company on track, which seems true in this case. His contribution was a lesson in German commitment to long term and ethical values.

I spoke up for the customer’s right to creativity. I found myself thinking of Sir Ken Robinson’s ideas as expressed in his TED YouTube video (or in The Element, his new book). Creativity is an integral part of a customizable product and one that customers all too often fail to experience. I mentioned artisan makers and small companies, whom I feel offer the best route to the above, as well as to customer service. Buying a kitchen is an emotional transaction, not just financial; furniture, in addition to making the space comfortable, is at the core of kitchen design. I suggested there is a need for a college course to study kitchens, an area that is now central to home design. We are trapped by the history of the meaning of the word.

So, was the debate worth it? Yes, but it barely scratched the surface. In the words of Kevin McCloud, it’s about ethics, value, and service. The industry needs to be jolted into raising its game. The design institutions should link up with education to develop a joined-up design service. Why do customers at the higher end, or simply those that want to maximizes their home space, have to employ a kitchen designer (all too often a sales person in disguise), a kitchen manufacturer, an architect, a builder, a lighting designer, an electrician and an interior decorator?

When a customer employs a kitchen company, they are entitled to a holistic experience, maybe like having a personal chef prepare you a meal; he or she must plan for your taste, choose the right ingredients, and tailor it to your appetite. Clients want more than an empathetic health check for their kitchen, albeit with a prescription for improved cabinetry. The environment matters, but so too does unique and personalised content. An artisan maker can build something for them that is well-made, even if basic, in these lean times when insisting on creativity, passion and good things seems like going against the grain.


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