Having a well-rounded perspective on the subject is important. An awareness of the history of the industry is indispensable when claims of 'new' and 'improved' are made. A tangent to this point is the issue of counterfeit or knock-off designs. Imitation may be a form of flattery, but originality demands respect.
More current knowledge is plays a role, too. Tracking global conditions—not just economic indicators but natural resource availability, population demographics, and political developments, as well—can yield significant clues about the future viability of a product. Fleeting novelty or genuine breakthrough: it's a critical distinction.
In this fifth year of the awards, joining me in judging duties was Rita Catinella Orrell, who, as erstwhile products editor of Architectural Record and current mastermind of not one but two influential blogs, designythings.com and architects-toybox.com, has cast her critical eye on items of useful beauty for quite a while. Her time and expertise were generously shared, and gratefully appreciated.
Attention, shoppers: Many of these products are available now, but others are yet to be released to the market. Per the competition's guidelines, all will be offered by the end of 2014.
Congratulations to all!
—Leslie Clagett, Editor
Designed by Giancarlo Vegni, this kitchen puts a traditional material—solid chestnut—in the service of a forward-looking architectural format. No visible hardware interrupts the grain or the form of the island, or its companion tall cabinet unit. Setting this model apart is the extraordinary treatment of the timber. To stabilize the wood, it's dried for three years before being hand-crafted into furniture.
A palette of 16 hues, featuring metallic-accented designs as well as rich solid colors, gives this cabinet collection plenty of aesthetic latitude. The high-gloss finish of the acrylic panels suits the contemporary look of the door style.
Conversant in Android and iOS platforms, this 30-inch oven can be controlled via smartphone or tablet. Download a new recipe to the appliance or select one that's included in its database. When the dish is done, the oven automatically goes into warming mode, and texts the chef that dinner is ready and waiting. A WiFi connection allows system updates and diagnostics to be seamlessly updated.
Anyone who has neglected a simmering pot will appreciate the programmable timer feature on this cooktop, which shuts off the flame of each of the five burners at the cook's command. Digital touch controls not only preserve the sleek profile of the appliance, but are a snap to clean, as the entire surface of the cooktop is glass.
Pairing a 24-inch cooling unity with a 24-inch freezer, this refrigerator offers precise temperature control in one-degree increments. In-door storage bins and shelves are made of glass, a material that, unlike plastic, retains the cold. A boon for busy, aka, teen-populated, households: When the fridge doors reach a 30-degree open position, soft-close hinges automatically swing the doors shut.
Behind one of this fridge's four doors is a compartment that can be set to either freezer or cooling storage; it's possible to switch the function based on your storage needs. Another novel technology lurks inside the produce bins. There, a blue light shines continuously, simulating the sun and stimulating photosynthesis, thus prolonging the freshness of the foods.
With three racks populated by infinitely adjustable tines, this washer has an impressive capacity, especially for a slim, 24-inch appliance. And its 40 jets are aimed at all angles where dirt might lurk on pots and pans. But all this cleaning action isn't water down the drain; water from the final rinse is collected and reused as the pre-rinse spray in the subsequent cycle.
Moving the control panel to the front of the appliance is reason enough to cop top honors in this category, but its performance also makes it a winner. During the final spin cycles, clothes are given a high-pressure spritz of water, which boosts the rinsing process. The glass lid has a soft-close mechanism, a welcome feature for the top-loading washer.
The slim, crisp architectural planes of this hood are unsullied by control knobs or a deep intake scoop. Touch/tap-activated settings are located front and center on the appliance, but their integral design is exceptionally discreet. A band of LED light—in white, blue, or amber—adds a glowing ambient accent to the 600 CFM vent.
Glass and steel are in aesthetic harmony in this design; hence the name of the vent. Because it operates using an infra-red sensor, there is no need to touch the control panel; simply hold a finger in front of it and the settings are activated. When the hood detects excessive heat, the blower speed automatically powers up to avoid damage to the appliance.
Honorable Mention: I-1300 Fin Hood by Streamline Hoods
A tour de force of fabrication, a circle of glass blades comprise this island hood. Splayed out in a 360-degree form, the unit would complement a contemporary kitchen, adding interest while maintaining the cool style.
The aerodynamic appearance of this range hood is a wholesale—and welcome—update of the familiar, funnel-like chimney vent. The front edge of the vent angles up and away, making head bumps less likely for taller cooks. Clad in easy-to-clean textured paint, it's also a material relief from the ubiquitous stainless steel. The hood pulls a powerful 1200 CFM.
Conventional spray heads produce a circular shower of droplets. That's fine for rinsing delicate salad greens and berries, but for cleaning plates and pans, a more powerful action is needed. With its blade-like flow of water, this faucet delivers a targeted sheet of water that angles under stubborn dirt; it also effectively washes down the sink itself. A clean sweep, indeed.
By NOA Design Studio, this faucet offers more than elegant lines. A ring of LEDs embedded in the rim of the pull-out spout eliminates any shadows cast by other light sources, and, as it illuminates the stream of water as well as the sink area, creates a unique ambiance in the kitchen. In chrome or stainless steel, the fitting has a flow-rate of 1.8 GPM.
A proprietary ceramic material by the name of SaphirKeramik transforms the typical bath basin from a congenially chubby fixture into a svelte piece of sculpture. Freed to design using thin walls and tight corners, architects Ludovica and Roberto Palomba have created a collection of sinks that capitalize on these properties.
Concrete sinks look great, but have two significant drawbacks: excessive weight and an unfortunate tendency to discolor. Fabricated from an innovative mixture of cement and jute fiber, this double-drain basin is a tough, stain-resistant alternative that is 40% lighter than its aggregate-based counterpart. Available in light and dark greys and a luminescent cream color.
Offered in three sizes, these stainless steel sinks bring both performance and personalization to the kitchen. A variety of optional accessories—in-basin magnetic storage baskets, cutting boards, knife inserts, and more—enhance the efficiency of the fixture.
Cladding these aluminum-framed vanities are glass panels that are digitally printed with hi-res scans of exotic woods—a merging of the tactile and technology that caught the judges' attention. Among the species given the high-gloss treatment are Indian Rosewood, Smooth Leaved Elm, and Charcoal Ash [shown]; there are eight in total on offer.
The name of this vanity is a double entendre. Not only is it tailored in appearance, but it is tailored to fit the customer's needs, with four components—the exterior, the interior, the counter top, and the accessory package—all subject to customization. From drawer configuration to wood finishes, it presents a pick-and-choose design.
Winner: DuraStyle by Duravit
One component of a full suite of bath fixtures designed by Matteo Thun, this acrylic tub rises above the competition with a subtle detail: a lip along the back of the bath both hides back-brushes and soap, and provides a steadying hand-hold when entering or exiting the tub. Available in soaking and jetted models; in one- and two-person sizes; furniture panel optional.
If one point of taking a bath is relaxation, the simplicity of this acrylic tub supports that objective. That approach extends to installation, too; a center drain allows the tub to be placed with more freedom than an end-drain design.
The pearly finish on this 1.0/.8 GPF toilet is created by zirconium and titanium dioxide—but there's more to the glaze than good looks. It also sheds water efficiently, and, when exposed to the UV light that's integrated under the lid, accelerates the decomposition of organic substances. In addition, the bowl is automatically misted with electrolyzed water after every flush, which further freshens the fixture.
Either a highly specialized task light or a thoughtful twist on the traditional night-light: You can decide for yourself the nature of this LED-illuminated, soft-close seat. Its usefulness, however, is indisputable, particularly when one considers the likelihood that every electrical outlet in the bath is occupied by devices from shavers to cell phones. Battery operated, the light shines on a seven-hour cycle.
Winner: Elan Vital by WatermarkThis faucet wins not just for its urban attitude [it's even fabricated in hipster-central, Brooklyn], but for its customizable qualities. Offered in 39 finishes, you specify the height, width, and spout length that works for your home. It's available in wall-, floor- and deck-mounts, as well as a bridge style.
The wavy, post-modern motif of this channel shower-drain grate has an impeccable design pedigree: architect Michael Graves. Part of his collection of accessible design fittings, it is available in polished and brushed stainless steel, and an oil-rubbed bronze finish, in lengths up to 100 inches.
Lamped with either LED or halogen bulbs, this sleek pendant can be hung singly or in multiples, with the chrome and borosilicate glass fixtures angled and swagged in a spirited composition. Designed by Arik Levy, Beamer fascinatingly becomes semi-transparent when lit.
Hudson Valley Lighting
The convex prismatic lens and the bulbous metal housing have historic overtones, but modern manufacturing methods give this pendant fixture a contemporary finish. Offered in satin and polished nickel, old bronze, and aged brass, the collection includes a ceiling-mount model.
The versatility of this stone-like material can be credited equally to its size—thin or thick slabs measuring up to 126 x 56 inches—and its performance. Resistant to UV rays and thermal extremes, it can sheathe an outdoor cooking island with the same reliability as it provides when used as an indoor kitchen counter surface. It is offered in nine colors and three finishes.
Inalco / Tile of Spain
This half-inch-thick porcelain slab comes in sheets that measure approximately 5x10 feet, making many countertop installations literally seamless work. The most difficult part of the job might be selecting which of the ten colors and two finishes to use.
Fluid as the forms of the these recycled aluminum knobs and pulls may be, they offer a firm grip; their contours fit the fingers like the proverbial glove. Designed by William Harvey, the collection includes a 17-inch handle as well as smaller pulls and knobs, and is available in oil-rubbed bronze, polished nickel, satin nickel, and white.
The faceted geometry of these handles and knobs catches the light as well as the eye. In five finishes—brushed satin nickel, polished chrome, polished nickel, sable, and umbrio—the design bridges contemporary and transitional styles.
More Morris Louis than Jackson Pollock, the patterns on these tiles are the result of a deliberate process. The porcelain is dipped in indigo, and the dye is absorbed naturally. Resolutely made by hand, each piece is one of a kind. In three sizes, they're rated for both indoor and outdoor use.
Recalling chiseled masonry detailing, the wide beveled edges on these high-gloss 5x15 or 10x15 tiles add bold dimension to walls. The collection's floor tile plays with illusion in its own way: an Escher-esque pattern of stacking cubes rendered in complementary colors.
This design puts an end to the hide-and-seek, open-and-close cabinet door action that disrupts many a morning grooming routine. Thanks to a pair of shelves that slide out from the sides of the cabinet, the contents stay accessible, and the mirror is always visible.
Victoria + Albert
Lengths of walnut or light oak are laminated for strength and contoured for a snug fit on the rim of the tub, allowing bathers to enjoy a civilized glass of wine with safety and style.