IRISH people are good with words. And we're especially good at adjusting them so that they mean what we want them to mean. Take the word "contemporary" for example. It's bandied around a great deal, especially regarding kitchen design.
According to the most recent Houzz Kitchen Trends Study, more than half the Irish people who changed the style of their kitchen in 2016 updated to a "contemporary" style. Or at least that's what they said when they filled in the survey. But what does "contemporary" actually mean?
As it turns out, it means different things in different countries. An interior designer with IKEA once talked me through this. In mainland Europe, he explained, the word "contemporary" is used to describe severely minimalist kitchens. If a German couple want a "contemporary" kitchen, they expect straight lines and clean edges.
Then IKEA opened its Ballymun outlet in 2009 and Irish people flocked in. Many of them asked to see "contemporary" kitchens. When they were shown the European model, they backed away in horror.
It was all just too stark.
Fairly rapidly, the retail team at IKEA Ireland copped on that the problem was in the terminology. When Irish people said that they wanted a "contemporary" kitchen, they weren't looking for hard core modernism. What they really wanted was a less embellished version of a traditional kitchen.
What people mean when they refer to a "traditional" kitchen isn't any better defined. In the Houzz survey, 36pc of Irish respondents said that they'd updated their kitchen in a "traditional" style. That could mean anything! Most people know what sort of kitchen they like - it's usually an updated version of the one that they grew up with - they just don't know what to call it.
The language used in kitchen brochures doesn't help at all. Here's an example. The kitchen manufacturer Neptune describes their updated Henley kitchen as a "traditional" kitchen "re-imagined in contemporary industrial style." If that's not confusing enough, their website gets completely bogged down: "Whatever you like to call it: organic modernism, a contemporary classic or clean rustic…" Actually, the Henley is an unfussy kitchen design that will set you back between €20,000 and €25,000 (on average and excluding appliances). It looks smart, it's made of oak, and it won't annoy the mammy.
"People here will often say that they've got a "contemporary" kitchen - and all they mean is that they've got a new one!" says Lisa Johnston. She's one half of the cabinet-making studio, Cillian Johnston - her husband Cillian is the other half.
All Cillian Johnston kitchens are bespoke, individually designed for the client and made by hand. Their clients would typically spend between €45,000 and €50,000 on an entire kitchen project - that includes an estimated €15,000 on appliances. According to the Houzz report, more than one in 10 Irish homeowners spent more than €50,000 on their kitchen renovation in 2016 and another fifth spent between €25,000 and €50,000.
But the big spenders are no more fans of high modernism than the rest of us. Johnston's perception is that most of her clients' tastes fall somewhere "country" - that's your traditional rustic kitchen with lots of natural wood - and a style that she describes as "Hamptons."
The "Hamptons" style is named for the New England coastal villages and distinguished by handmade Shaker-style cabinetry, often painted white. The Shakers were known for their creative cabinetmaking. In a modern context, this can include pocket-door systems - the door slides back into the cabinet instead of swinging from a hinge - and sliding countertops, which pull out to create a temporary extended workspace. Johnston finds that the simple but dignified style sits well in Georgian houses. Once again, Irish people know what they like - they just don't know the terminology. "A Hamptons style kitchen would be described as contemporary here!" she explains.
According to the Houzz survey, the predominant colours of Irish kitchen cabinets are conservative: grey (26pc), white (24pc), and beige (10pc). Yawn. Internationally, kitchen colours are a bit more varied and Johnston has noticed a trend for kitchen cabinets in racing car green. "It's often themed with gold lacquered fittings, but it's not really hit Ireland yet," she says.
One emerging trend, although it's not mentioned in the survey, is for black kitchen cabinets. "We've been pushing it for years," says Johnston. "People think that it's going to be intimidating but it's very do-able." Rather than a flat painted surface, which would be too black for most tastes, she favours a stain that combines depth with a sense of luxury. "It's not very, very black. There's warmth and there's comfort."
If you like black but can't afford handmade cabinetry the new Kungsbacka kitchen from IKEA comes in a matt black finish described as anthracite. But the kitchen's main selling point isn't blackness. The cabinet fronts, which also come in other colours, are made from reclaimed industrial wood and recycled plastic bottles.
Stockists for Neptune are listed on neptune.com and will soon include a new outlet at Trevor Morrow Furnishings in Ballina, County Mayo, which will open in April 2017. See also cillianjohnston.com, ikea.ie and houzz.ie.