New Colors for Today’s Kitchens

by Tim Young

As the kitchen takes on ever more importance as a live-work-play space, our design and décor requirements for the kitchen are changing apace. PANTONE recently spoke with Tom Mirabile, senior vice president of Global Trend and Design at Lifetime Brands and Lifestyle Trend Forecaster for the International Housewares Association, about designing for the new livability of today’s kitchens.

Tom Mirabile

PANTONE: You’ve stated that today’s kitchens are becoming more multifunctional, combining “eating and meeting spaces — bringing dining, cooking, meeting, and recreation all together in one large, open space.” Can you talk about how that evolution is influencing kitchen color palettes?

TOM MIRABILE: The kitchen is no longer simply a task-oriented space where we prepare food and store the groceries. Americans spend a tremendous amount of time there — conversing, working, gaming, and more than ever entertaining in the kitchen. That means we want that space to reflect our personal style as much as every other room does, and open floor plans make that visual synergy essential. In short, consumers are more comfortable with color in the kitchen than they’ve been in decades, and they’re smarter about it the use of color too.

The last time consumers were this adventurous with color in the kitchen was the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. It was the heyday for Harvest Gold and Avocado, accented with various (awful) yellows and rusts. Because these colors were used in the more “permanent” aspects of the kitchen, such as appliances, tile and countertops, these were mistakes built to last.  Also figure into the mix that those colors were very driven by retail, not by the consumers themselves, so choice was limited and customization almost non-existent.

Today’s consumer is a lot smarter with color. By and large, we’re keeping the foundation colors of the kitchen in a broad range of neutrals, whether that is steel, stone marble or ceramic. We realize that our tastes will evolve, and that a kitchen with great color “bones” is the best canvas for our changing tastes. Midtones and more mood enhancing colors are reserved for walls, where they can be changed easily and at nominal expense.

More expressive and vibrant colors are reserved for small electrics, dinnerware, serveware and accessories. Bright, dynamic and energized colors are dominant in food prep products and gadgets — objects that bring fun to everyday tasks like mixing bowls, peelers, spatulas and the like.

We love having these bright colors at hand, but don’t really want them to be on display all the time, so they tend to live in drawers and cabinets. Wall décor is another must-have in the modern kitchen, and that creates yet another opportunity for color.

PANTONE: The rise of anti-consumerism has affected functional choices in the kitchen, with people now opting away from the excesses of industrial-grade appliances toward more reasonable appliances. Has there been a parallel shift in design choices, as well – e.g. in colors and surfaces – that reflect this more austere sensibility?

TM: Well, austerity often brings with it concerns for quality and longevity… they are crucial elements in the perceived value of the consumer. That means that color will take a back seat to neutrality in high-ticket consumer items like appliances and countertop renovations. That said, the American consumer has developed a much more nuanced understanding of neutral colors and a great comfort in mixing them. If you asked consumers 10 years ago to define neutral, they’d say “black, white, ivory, grey, maybe brown”. Today’s consumer understands that mixing neutrals is important to add dimension, that warm neutrals create a very different mood and message than cool neutrals do. They know that neutrals can be just as trend-right (or wrong) as any other color family, and they want direction.

PANTONE: Are evolving food choices (e.g., increasing vegetarianism) affecting color choices in counters, tabletops, dishware and the like?

TM: In my experience, no. Generally consumers choose these things based on a rather immediate response to color or pattern, even texture. Secondary considerations are usually “How long will I own this?” and “Will I get tired of it?”.  I don’t believe that they stand there imagining what they’re going to eat on it, or how it will look under a stack of dirty pots and pans, do you?

PANTONE: In general, consumers are placing more and more value on design. How is this trend expressing itself in the new kitchen/living environment?

TM: Retailers like Target and many others have taught the consumer that design is important in every room (and at every price point), and that has created a demand and expectation that manufacturer and retailer must respond to, or risk seeming irrelevant to a new generation of consumer. That said, the two most visceral expressions of good design are Color and Form… and of the two, color is paramount in my opinion. KitchenAid is a perfect example of this; look at the classic KitchenAid stand mixer. When you can’t make an item any better with regard to design form, how do you maintain relevance in the way they have?  With color.

Currently SVP of Global Trend and Design at Lifetime Brands, Tom Mirabile has held senior merchant and product development positions with corporations like Neiman Marcus Group, Horchow and Bloomingdales among others, and has designed home collections for such icons as Vera Wang, Kenneth Cole and Calvin Klein. In his current role as senior vice president of Global Trend and Design for Lifetime Brands, he provides creative direction for some of the most well-respected brands in the housewares and tabletop industries. Tom travels globally to gather information on color, style and lifestyle trends, and also serves as Lifestyle Trend Forecaster for the International Housewares Association.

A version of this post originally appeared in TONES, Pantone’s free online newsletter dedicated to color and style. To view the newsletter or subscribe, click here.