A Conversation with Amy Dillon, Lead Designer at AyA Kitchens
When I spoke with Amy Dillon, lead designer at AyA Kitchens, one question was top of mind. Their website states that their approach to design and production is mass customization, which seemed like a bit of an oxymoron to me, so I wanted to know what that meant to Dillon and to AyA.
“We’re producing completely customized kitchens on a large scale,” says Dillion. “Everything is à la carte.”
This means every piece is made from scratch on an as-needed basis. In cabinetry alone, premium oak, maple, and cherry components are assembled into over 30 different door styles, from the traditional to ultra-contemporary. With all the different options, you end up with over 3000 possibilities.
“We manufacture everything in Mississauga,” says Dillon. Panel processing takes place on one side of the 150,000 sq. ft. state-of-the-art production facility, and the other side focuses on doors. Quality control, assembly, and shipping all also happen on site. It’s this proximity and control that have contributed to many award-winning collaborations and successful community projects.
So “mass customization” really is the best way to describe AyA’s process. The next thing I wanted to know: what are people looking for? With literally thousands of options available from AyA, what is it that customers are asking for? Dillon said that a big trend in the cabinet space right now is the thinner profile has become popular for cabinet doors.
“The shaker has been around for years, so it’s nice to see this new, interesting detail catch on,” says Dillon about the little details. In terms of statement pieces, “We’re also seeing a lot of range hoods that are the focal point of the kitchen.”
While customers are becoming braver when it comes to colours, patterns, and textures, Dillon says she also sees a return to classic styles.
In general, Dillon says the people she designs for have become more thoughtful about the decision-making process and that people are making deliberate choices.
“It’s not just a matter of, ‘oh, I’ll just put my dishes in this cabinet,’” she says. “People are really looking at their kitchen and how they use it. I’m designing a lot of coffee stations, for example. People know they’re going to use a space to make their coffee every day, and they want a designated zone for it.”
From coffee stations to pocket doors and wet bars to hidden storage, Dillon spends her time designing unique kitchens that are aesthetic and functional so people can better enjoy the heart of their homes. But the details that make a kitchen exceptional go beyond the aesthetic and the functional; sustainability is a huge factor in every step of AyA’s process, from designing to manufacturing.
“People are interested in working with us because we’re working with the environment,” says Dillon when asked about the role sustainability plays in terms of production and design. One of their guiding principles is the old adage of “reduce, reuse, recycle,” and they take each of these steps to heart.
With the cost of wood being as expensive as it is, many companies are turning to pre-fabricated pieces, but not AyA. One of the principal objectives of their proprietary, in-house developed production software is material optimization. Using this software allows AyA to minimize the waste generated at every operation in the manufacturing process.
“We have nothing ‘on-hand,’” says Dillon. “Every piece is cut and made with a purpose, so there’s very little waste.”
This makes the best use of materials and also streamlines the whole manufacturing process. Not only do they have their own software and plant, but they have their own IT department to make sure nothing gets lost in translation between the designers and the manufacturers.
From solid wood to finishing materials, AyA works with employees and partners to reuse what they can.
“When it comes to the conversation of tearing out old kitchens, we make sure to provide options for what they can do with the pieces that are still good,” explains Dillon. Because AyA doesn’t do the tear-down themselves, they often recommend companies or organizations that can repurpose old cabinets, sinks, and countertops that are still in good shape, like Habitat for Humanity. “How often do you get a tax receipt for doing something good for the environment? It’s win-win for everyone.”
While AyA is eliminating as much waste as possible, it’s a natural part of the process and is unavoidable. Recently, in partnership with Q & A Design, AyA fabricated wood components from solid maple offcuts from their door department for a stunning reciprocal canopy that surrounded their KBIB/IBS trade show booth. On site, solid wood shavings and used brown paper towels from restrooms are composted, and the waste from cleaning their finishing lines is recycled and reused by AyA. The same goes for the overspray from the finishing process.
But Aya’s commitment to sustainability extends far beyond these three little words. In early 2007, AyA launched its Green Design initiative with a premium line of no added urea-formaldehyde plywood cabinets. In 2008, AyA launched EVO™, an affordable, no added urea-formaldehyde alternative to its certified low emission standard line of cabinetry. Making it affordable was vital.
“People aren’t necessarily spending more to be green,” says Dillon. “But if they have a reasonably priced option that takes health and the environment into consideration? They’re going to take it.”
All of their EVO™ cabinets are made with only Environmentally Preferable Product certified, 100% post-industrial wood fiber particleboard. AyA’s commitment to healthy environments also includes the use of only low hazardous air pollutants finishes and an exclusive UV-cured water-based topcoat finish.
“We ship kitchens all over North America, but we try to stay as local as possible when it comes to buying,” says Dillon. Some of their hardware, like hinges and door glides, come from Germany, but all of the wood they use is local, another effort to be environmentally sustainable.
AyA truly is a local company with an international reach. With locations across North America (and one in Trinidad and Tobago), AyA brings the attention to detail of a small independent business and the efficiency and expertise of a large company.
“We’re very design-driven and stay on top of trends,” says Dillon. But it’s clear AyA is doing more than staying on top of trends — they’re setting them, leading the way in terms of design, production, and sustainability.