About 99 percent of the projects I do are custom cabinets and this has nothing to do with the fact that my client base has deep pockets, it's based on the fact that custom is the best way to take small spaces and make them function well. I recently posted a reply on an industry blog where a new designer asked the question, "What's the best way to explain the difference between custom cabinets and factory cabinets?" What I found shocking is that most of the responses were based on misinformation or a general lack of knowledge as to the difference between true custom cabinets and factory-built cabinets. All of the responses touted the finish of the factory (boxed) cabinets as far superior and more desirable and some went so far as to demean the work of small shops and local craftsmen. By definition anything you order from a catalog where you choose pieces and parts, even if they're proprietary to that shop, are not custom, they are semi-custom. Had I walked into one of my recent high-end projects with a catalog of factory "custom" cabinets, my work as the kitchen designer on that project would have lasted less than 15 seconds, not 15 months. The cabinets I designed for Bella Luce were built by a local craftsman and many of the finishes were applied on site, not by a giant sprayer and a baking oven but by an artist.
It's my opinion that a lot of the "boxed" cabinets look very plastic and the finishes, though durable, often leave you with something that looks less than natural. A lot of the designers tout the fact that their finishes have a lifetime warranty, but with the average lifespan of a kitchen being 10-12 years, is this what you should base your purchase decision on? Look at it this way; we all quickly tire of things that are average or blah-looking -- but we keep beautiful furniture pieces forever. In my eyes it's worth the effort to go custom.
So this is my design philosophy: there are places and times when factory cabinets are the best answer but for the most part, it's worth spending a small amount more (custom isn't as expensive as you might think) to do the custom cabinets and work with a local craftsman to create a kitchen that comes out of your imagination, not out of a box. You get better functionality, infinite finish choices, something unique to your style and needs, and you support the local craftsmen while adding greater value to your home's resale potential.
What are your thoughts on the use of custom versus semi or boxed cabinetry?