Written by John Williamson
Photography by Kallan MacLeod
Over the past two decades Morgan Cronin has established himself not only as one of the best kitchen designers in New Zealand, but as one of the best in the world.
Designer Morgan Cronin is at the top of his game: at this year’s National Kitchen & Bathroom Association Excellence in Design Awards, he walked away with six top awards. But he is no flash in the pan – his designs have been recognised both nationally and internationally since the early 2000s, winning New Zealand kitchen design of the year awards on four occasions, and the best in the world in 2006.
A Cronin kitchen is quite distinctive, defined by a simple, pared-back aesthetic, with a minimal palette of carefully chosen materials and colours and, although his clients come to him for a Cronin kitchen, he says that each one is different, reflecting the look and the feel of the individual client.
When asked about where he finds the inspiration for his designs, Cronin is self-effacing in his answer, preferring to shine the spotlight on his clients for the source of much of his creativity.
“Their enthusiasm and their ideas help me form an image of what they are looking for,” he says. “I get a good feel for their taste and the style of their home. All those things are important and impact the design. I then overlay all those influences onto my design concepts – that’s the starting point. This is why my designs have so much variety.”
Keep it simple
Cronin’s rule of thumb is to keep the aesthetic simple. “It’s subtle details that make my kitchens timeless – things that most people wouldn’t consider, like keeping all of the cabinetry off the floor – floating above deep-set toe kicks. Why? So the cabinetry doesn’t get dinged and aged by years and years of vacuum cleaners and mops bashing into them. Also, everything that touches the floor should be waterproof, so all the bases are solid timber.”
He doesn’t like mess or clutter either, so no open shelving – unless it’s in the scullery, or a client specifically asks for it. Any shelving is hidden behind cupboard doors. And definitely no handles.
“You can certainly date a kitchen by its handles. But it’s also about practicalities. These days benchtop overhangs are minimal. If you have handles, they will be sticking out, which can be a hazard. There’s simply no need for handles – there is clever hardware, if necessary, that assists in opening and closing cupboards and drawers.”
However, those ‘clever’ mechanisms can cause problems in their own right, he adds. Most notably at a kitchen island seating area, where doors can be inadvertently opened by touching or leaning against them – very annoying and most definitely avoidable.
When he’s designing a kitchen ¬– because of his hands-on manufactured approach – Cronin considers how each individual cabinet will be constructed as part of the design process. “I am always thinking about how I can make cabinetry better, so it will last and look pristine for longer. I have never been interested in mass production, opting instead to build less kitchens of higher quality.”
Black or white
It’s not that he is averse to using colour, but his preference is always try to minimise the colour palette of the kitchens he designs. He likes black and he likes white… or shades thereof. Why? Appliances and accessories come in black and white, so it makes them less intrusive. And neither dates.
The only caveat is that they must be subtle, soft whites. “I cannot stand cold, stark whites. They look horrendous,” he says.
One exception Cronin makes to his simple, monochrome creations is to allow the beautiful randomness of nature into his designs, with the use of natural stone – preferably marble – which he loves to incorporate into his kitchens on a large scale, wherever it suits. With everything else pared back, the stone shines out as the star in his designs.
“The stone doesn’t need to be bold and bright. Natural veining and subtle colour tones are enough. I do like using it on a larger scale, though, so that it makes an impact. Using stone that’s been honed or leathered takes the sharpness out of it, making it appear softer and more tactile.”
Never the twain
Architects and kitchen designers are two breeds that don’t usually play well together. There’s a raft of reasons why, which we won’t go into here, but Cronin has bridged the gap quite successfully, and designed kitchens for some of the country’s top architects. Why is that?
“Again, it probably comes down to the simplicity of my designs. I think architects appreciate that. Often, I will meet architects through my clients at the design stage of a house, usually because the client has specifically asked for a Cronin kitchen.”
Generally, they don’t seem too afraid to work with him, he says, guessing they see his aesthetic as being similar to theirs, and therefore not a threat to their designs or their vision for the client’s house. If anything, Cronin’s kitchens enhance their designs by defining the palette for the rest of the house – “Often, they’re pushing me to have my design done, so they can follow through with the same aesthetic throughout the home,” he says.
Best in the world
When it comes to kitchen design, New Zealand punches well above its weight, with its designers regularly appearing as finalists in global design competitions and awards programmes. Why is that?
“Because the market in New Zealand is on a relatively small scale; we’re still very bespoke – that’s naturally how we do things. In America or Europe, even the very expensive kitchens are mass-produced, so they are not designed and manufactured in the same way. They operate with sales teams and factories. For the most part, we are individual designers. Overseas, the mass market controls the industry, whereas we still have enough work and enough designers to keep everything on an individual, handmade level – and the pricing still stays reasonable.
The devil is in the detail
Incredibly, when Cronin does his site measures – and he does every site measure for every kitchen himself – he works to half a millimetre. That may sound slightly obsessive, especially given he is dealing in structures that fill entire rooms, but there’s logic to his thinking… “I am always aiming for perfection. When dealing with a myriad of measurements, I find it easier to work to half a millimetre than to round up or down to the nearest millimetre.”
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Cronin hasn’t been tempted to venture into bathroom design. Because his main business revolves around designing and building cabinetry – it’s about trying to manage my time productively. In a bathroom there is limited opportunity for cabinetry, often just a single vanity – it’s simply not worth his time taking them on. The same is true of expanding into interior or furniture design. “When I am not so busy, I will consider that. Currently, I’m extremely busy doing what I’m doing,” he quips.
When Form Meets Function
Of the five kitchens Cronin entered into this year’s NKBA Excellence in Design Awards, this sculptural design for a villa in St Mary’s Bay attracted the most attention – winning the Supreme Award Design Runner Up. It is also a finalist in an international design award – the winner to be announced later this month.
The brief from his willing client was for her kitchen to look like a piece of sculpture rather than a kitchen, with artistry taking precedence over functionality. The island was to take the place of the dining table, comfortably seating eight, and ideally made from concrete.
To create the island’s seamless sculptural shape, a prototype of the entire island was built from MDF in Cronin’s workshop. The concrete fabricators then constructed formwork around this prototype to copy its exact dimensions, before casting it in one piece, in glass-reinforced concrete. The whole island was then craned into place.
The kitchen also needed to have some connection to the modernised classic villa in which it sat, so Cronin devised a wall of 12 full-height cabinetry doors. These were detailed using the same mouldings as the home’s internal traditional doors. These include pronounced ‘cricket bat’ mouldings within the lower doorframes, above which are concealed recessed handle details for eight of the doors. Behind the four central doors are a drinks’ cabinet, a fridge/freezer, a drinks’ fridge drawer, and ancillary storage for pots, pans and tableware.
“This kitchen may look simple, but achieving that simplicity combined with function was an incredibly complex process,” Cronin says.