Simpler styling, hidden appliances and a bit of color are just a few things topping the list of homeowners seeking to update their kitchens this season.
Here are the trends we found when we visited a few howrooms:
Fancy is fading.
Kitchens are moving away from ornate looks such as Tuscan and French country in favor of more transitional design, a trend Betty Nairn of Cabinet-S-Top in Granger Township, Ohio, calls "simplistic luxury."
The move toward clean lines and less ornamentation is due at least in part to homeowners thinking ahead, said Debra Shababy of Studio 76 Kitchens and Baths in Twinsburg, Ohio. Many are looking toward selling their homes as the economy improves, and they want their kitchens to appeal to a broad range of buyers, she said.
Contemporary design is gaining interest too -- even in the Midwest, a region long tied to the traditional. Barbara Dillick of Kitchen Design Group in Bath Township, Ohio, figures people have become more comfortable with the spare, sleek look because they've been exposed to it through shelter magazines, TV shows and upscale hotels.
Eat-in kitchens are still in demand, but where we do that eating has changed. The bar-style counter still is popular, but it's giving way in many new kitchens to an extension of the counter that looks more like a table.
Sometimes the extension is counter height; sometime it's higher or lower. What sets it apart from bar seating is that it's designed so the diners sit around the edge and face one another, rather than sitting in a line.
The idea of trading a table for a counter extension makes some homeowners nervous initially, Kitchen Design Group's Deanna Carleton said. But the setup has advantages: It saves space, the extension can do double duty as an extra buffet surface and the deep base that holds the countertop provides a good amount of storage.
More than ever, consumers are paying attention to the materials that go into their kitchens, Shababy said.
She said many respond positively when she suggests cabinet finishes with low levels of volatile organic compounds, vapors that contribute to indoor air pollution. They also like cabinets that are joined with dowels instead of glues containing formaldehyde.
Safety features are popular, such as lockouts that prevent stove burners from being turned on accidentally and mechanisms that keep drawers and cabinet doors from slamming on little fingers, Shababy said.
And people are leaning toward energy-saving features such as LED lights, as well as natural products such as wood floors and stone countertops, she said.
Granite is still the top choice for countertops, especially since common types have become affordable for most people, the designers agreed. But quartz -- stone chips mixed with binders and colorants -- is coming on strong, they said.
Kitchen lighting isn't just a matter of function anymore. It's also an expression of personality, Carleton said.
Hand-blown glass shades on pendant lights, contemporary drum shades and elegant chandeliers are all ways homeowners can infuse their style into a kitchen without making a big commitment. After all, it's easier and cheaper to change lighting fixtures than it is cabinets or countertops, she noted.
Layers of light continue to be common in kitchen design -- for example, a ceiling fixture combined with under-counter task lighting and ambient lights behind a glass-front door. But gimmicky lighting schemes such as lighted toe kicks aren't so popular, Dillick said.
LEDs are finding their way into the kitchen, mainly in under-counter lighting but also in recessed ceiling lights. They're available in both cool and warm lights to fit different decors and preferences.
Nairn has also seen a big preference for natural lighting via windows, skylights or reflective light tubes.
The depth of the typical refrigerator poses a design challenge, particularly in smaller kitchens. Manufacturers have responded with shallower appliances and drawer models, which are often used in combination in the same room.
Counter-depth refrigerators are easier to fit into a kitchen because they don't jut out into the room. But even though they're often taller, they typically have less storage space, Nairn said. So some designers are dealing with that space shortage by incorporating drawer refrigerators or freezers into the cabinets to hold additional food.
Shababy said that kind of arrangement makes sense only when the drawer holds foods that are used mostly in a particular part of the kitchen -- for example, a drawer for vegetables next to the sink where they're cleaned and prepared.
Bars are coming out of the great room and into the kitchen.
Dillick said many of her company's clients are requesting bar areas in the kitchen where they can store both the booze and the barware in one convenient spot. Often, they're taking out kitchen desks to free the space.
Bar cabinets that look like pantries are popular, she said. Often they're outfitted with a wine or beverage refrigerator; storage space for glassware, knives and a cutting board; and sometimes a sink.
Most homeowners still tend toward the safe and neutral in their kitchen's more permanent items -- cupboards, countertops and flooring. But that doesn't mean kitchens can't be colorful.
Walls are sporting bold hues such as persimmon or pomegranate, Dillick said. Accessories and appliances bring spots of color, such as a Wolf range with red knobs and a cobalt oven interior that "people fall in love with," she said. It's also popular to work a colorful painted cabinet or two in among white or natural wood cabinets to add a bit of interest.
Dillick has also seen the comeback of window seats, which provide the opportunity to add color in the form of fabric. Upholstered seats, pillows and window valances all add a bit of color and softness, which are often lacking in a room filled mostly with hard surfaces, she said.
All of the kitchen designers were hesitant to talk in terms of trends, because they believe a kitchen's design should suit the individual. Kitchens are places where we spend a lot of time, so it's more important to have what you like, not what's popular, they said.
"Really, it's up to you," Shababy said. "It's whatever makes you happy being in your kitchen."