OPENING UP THE KITCHEN New lines are designed to coordinate with decor in modern 'great rooms'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Anyone who has ever considered redesigning a kitchen has gone through the drill. Corian, laminate, granite or ceramic tile? Wood floors, linoleum, carpeting or tile? Gas, halogen, electric coil or solid element cooktop? Glass doors, solid doors or a combination of the two?

Whew. By the time you decide on the kitchen design, there's little energy left to coordinate the rest of the house. To complicate things even more, these days the kitchen is no longer a place where the cook toils in isolation. More and more home builders are opting for "great rooms" -- large open areas where someone cooking in the kitchen isn't far from family members having a snack at the dining room table or watching TV.

The "great room" has generated even greater design problems for the homeowner. A whole new set of questions has to be answered. Will the country pine cabinets you picked for the kitchen blend properly with the country pine in the entertainment center and the breakfront? Will you spend a ton of money and be disappointed with the final look? And how much is left in the budget for an interior designer as well as a kitchen designer?

Ethan Allen, the upscale traditional furniture retailer with 300 outlets in the United States, Canada and overseas, is now simplifying this process by offering kitchen cabinetry that coordi-nates with four furniture lines -- from casual pine to elegant cherry. In-store kitchen designers and interior decorators work as a team to handle all the customer's design needs -- from the counter tops and appliances in the kitchen to the coordinating decorative flowers and carpeting in the family room.

The Towson branch of Garon's Ethan Allen Galleries kicked off the new Kitchen Collection last week with a grand opening celebration. Customers who live closer to the Garon's stores in Annapolis, Bel Air and Baltimore on Route 40 West can work with designers there who coordinate with the Towson store. The Ethan Allen chain began the program with its Danbury, Conn., store in 1990 and is currently test marketing it in 15 of its Galleries nationwide. By the 1992, the Kitchen Collection should be available in more than 75 outlets.

Nancy High, director of communications for the Furniture Information Council, says Ethan Allan appears to be breaking new ground with its Kitchen Collection; she knows of no other retailer with a similar program. It's another indication of how the way we live today influences the way we design our homes, according to Ms. High.

"Culture drives fashion," she says, "fashion doesn't drive culture. I think the phenomenon of two-income families has a lot to do with this. When you are at home, you want to be with your family, and often home time is centered around food preparation."

This desire to spend time together has opened up our homes, she says, and created these great rooms where we live, cook and play within shouting distance. And it seems natural, she says, that the furniture retailer would seize the opportunity to fill this market need.

But why fill a market need when economists continue to say the market for home furnishings is dwindling?

"It's true that it is a difficult time to start a new project, however, we believe that there is also a greater focus on the home and a greater focus on the family," says Farooq Kathwari, president and chairman of Ethan Allen.

"We feel that people are interested in improving what they have and our research has shown that people want to make improvements to their kitchens for both family enjoyment and resale value of their homes. Also, more and more families are spending more time at home because of the economic conditions."

One of the essential elements furniture retailers need to gain credibility in this new venture is a well-respected, knowledgeable kitchen designer. And Garon's got just that when the local owners hired Joan M. Eisenberg, a certified kitchen and bath designer who is active in the educational programs of the National Kitchen & Bath Association. She operated her own design firm, JME Consulting Inc., for nine years and is a consultant to the Maryland Home Improvement Commission in cases where consumers complain of poor workmanship.

Ms. Eisenberg says this is the first time that the industry has made an effort to make kitchen cabinetry and fine furniture match detail by detail -- from the same finishes and moldings to identical techniques used in distressing, a technique to make the furniture look old. But there's one major difference between the two -- the kitchen cabinets have a finish that protects them from grease and food stained hands. Beauty without a price.

"Corporate headquarters decided that the market was ripe and ready for this concept," she says. "Over the past seven or eight years, design has shifted to a more traditional English country look. The 'great room' look has become more and more popular and as a result more and more kitchen designers have been asked to coordinate the kitchen with the rest of the house."

The price tag on these kitchen renovations is high-end, but not quite as steep as you might expect from a store where dining rooms typically sell for $10,000. For example, the room setting of the elegant Georgian Court line with cherry wood finish is $24,640. The Farmhouse Pine line, a more down-home country look, is even more expensive because it has more cabinets -- $34,695. The Farmhouse model is shown with pricey Corian sink and Corian counter tops, accounting for nearly $7,500 of the price. Prices quoted are for materials alone; labor is extra.

Ronald Levine, president of the four-store Garon's in the Baltimore metro area, says independent dealers like himself had the choice of sitting back and waiting to see how the kitchen line played elsewhere or taking a chance. He saw the prototype a year ago last May at the Danbury, Conn., headquarters and decided to be one of the pioneers.

"Whether we sell a lot of kitchens or not, I believe the kitchen collection will bring a lot more traffic into our stores and will help sell more Ethan Allen furniture," he says. "People only come to furniture stores when they have to. If they want entertainment, they go to the Inner Harbor. If we become one of the kitchen places that people come to visit, we should get our fair share of the business."

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