There's something in Irish culture that makes us reluctant to flaunt wealth. Maybe it's an adorable reticence about making less well-off neighbours feel uncomfortable. Or maybe (less adorably) because we don't want them to come looking for a share of it. That whole peel-an-orange-in-your-pocket syndrome. Either way, the end result is that we don't like to show off. With three notable exceptions. The Irish will dig deep for a wedding. Or a car. Or a kitchen. And we don't care who knows it!
In this instance, we're concerned with kitchens. These are always big-ticket items and most of us buy the best that we can afford. Some families will spend €30,000 on a kitchen. Others can only raise €3,000 (and they had to mortgage the cat). But, whatever their budget, anyone who has stretched their finances will want value for money. And, while there is good value to be had at all levels of the market, there are also a lot of unnecessary add-ons, superfluous technologies, and avoidable expenses.
"A lot of people have unrealistic expectations of what they can do for the money," says Michael Connolly of Lomi Design. "They know what look they want and they have loads of images of what it might look like, but they haven't got a sense of what it costs to get that look."
Let's take a whirl around fantasy-land. The new Intarsio kitchen from the Italian brand, Cesar, will be available in Ireland later this year from Lomi Design. It's a stunner. The promotional image shows it with a sink and countertop in Guatemalan marble. It's an intense malachite green with dark green veining and there's no doubt but that you're dealing with a natural material. Fill that sink with water and it would be like looking down into a rock pool. In form, it's a perfect rectangle with straight sides and 90-degree angles that echo the shape of the island in which it sits. "It's very reflective of the current trend for natural materials," Connolly says. "We spend half our lives looking at screens and that leaves us wanting to connect with something that is authentic and real."
Prices for a kitchen in the Intarsio range start at €30,000 (plus appliances) but the kitchen as photographed would probably cost at least twice that amount. "The marble sink alone would be between €5,000 and €6,000," Connolly explains. The other downside is that marble sinks require a great deal of maintenance. In conclusion, the marble sink is not really fit for the real world. It is a thing of beauty designed by someone who doesn't prioritise washing up. "I always recommend a stainless steel sink with some kind of radius so that you can clean the corners," Connolly observes. "A lot of promotional images are showcase kitchens designed to demonstrate particular qualities of the design. Some of the ideas, you need to step back from."
The real selling point of the Intarsio kitchen is the orientation of the veneer on the vertical surfaces. The finish is a natural wood veneer, selected for grain quality and handmade in sections so that some of the grain runs up and some runs across, creating a visual rhythm. It's also a very modern way of using a traditional material, especially in Ireland where kitchens made of wood are usually Country or Shaker-style. Natural materials like wood and stone are soothing, but they need to be maintained. "Once it's a natural material, it needs to be looked after," Connolly says.
On one hand, caring for a material generates respect for it. "If people think that something is bulletproof, they're not going to respect it that much." On the other, when you've got a five or six-person family knocking around the kitchen, protecting delicate surfaces can cause an awful lot of strife. In this case, bulletproof is best. "For a lot of customers there's no reason to look beyond melamines and laminates," Connolly says. "A big trend for us is Dekton - it's a dense ceramic worktop with a compact surface that's resistant to stains and similar in price to medium-level marble." Is it breakable? "Hit anything hard enough and you'll break it!"
As with materials, before you set your heart on built-in gadgetry it pays to research the cost. Pull-out larders, for example, are highly covetable but can cost up to €2,000 for the mechanism alone. Pocket doors - the ones that disappear as if by magic - are a wonderful invention but hidden technology often comes with hidden price tags. "People know what kind of kitchen they want, and they know what appliances they want, but they haven't added those two sums together," Connolly says. "Once you've added appliances and a worktop, a kitchen that is advertised at €20,000, may end up costing between €30,000 and €35,000."
That said, it's always worth looking what the Italian design lads are up to. Sooner or later, the trends will filter down to the more affordable shops. The slightly less expensive Unit kitchen (from €20,000), also from Cesar, features an island that can travel with you from home to home. The island includes sink, countertop, hob, and cupboards, as well as a dramatic circular table top cantilevered off one corner.
Interestingly, Ikea's Vadholma kitchen island (from €375) ticks several of the same boxes. It's portable, which makes it suitable for renters, and it includes seating and storage space but does not include a sink or a hob. At 126 x 79 x 193cm, it's designed for a smallish kitchen but is sufficiently well-designed to look well in stylish company. I've seen a Vadholma kitchen island hold its own beside a limited-edition Smeg fridge (€1,657 from Arnotts) and, to be honest, the fact that they were sourced from different ends of the spectrum added a layer of interest to the sense of the room.
Here are Connolly's final words on kitchen design: "I see a lot of kitchens that are designed without thinking about the room as a living space and they end up looking like a big room full of presses. A kitchen doesn't really have to be that big. You need to get the basics right and, after that, it's all embellishment."
The same goes for cars. And weddings.
See lomi.ie, ikea.com/ie, arnotts.ie.