Five years ago, an audience of luxury kitchen and bath designers nearly revolted when the keynote speaker at an industry event drew cautious aim. In a speech that touched on matters ranging from the poverty outside their windows to the environmental side effects of the construction boom to the imminent U.S. invasion of Iraq, he gently compared them to the first-class passengers on the Titanic drinking champagne while conveniently ignoring the people packed into steerage below and the risk of catastrophe ahead.

Matthew Millman

“It was incredibly controversial,” remembers Fu-Tung Cheng, the speaker referred to above and the founder of Cheng Design, an award-winning residential design firm in Berkeley, Calif. While his intention was to “raise consciousness” instead of political hackles, many in the audience took his words personally. Seven asked for their money back, and others “railed ‘that you just don't give speeches like that at a business meeting,'” he says. While a few attendees thanked Cheng for his message, which essentially asked them to think twice before tearing out another kitchen that 99% of the world would love to have, the prevailing reaction was that his speech was a buzz-kill at a well-deserved party and an attack on the American way of business.

COMFORT ZONES Today, some of those attendees might wish they had listened to Cheng's speech with a more open mind. His philosophy then, as now, is that luxury and conscience can and should coexist, and that it's in the best interests of business and society alike to create living spaces that endure, minimize waste, and yet still support the goals of the companies that create them and the people who live in them.

“I think luxury can be obscene if it's positioned in a way that it has no compassion,” Cheng says. With great privilege comes the responsibility “to understand that we're all on the same boat, and we have to maintain that vessel together.”

Increasingly, that message is resonating even at the high end. Capitalism is still in, but so is a growing sense of restraint, driven by economic factors that personally affect wealthy consumers, such as stagnating home values and lower investment returns, as well as by a growing unease with living conspicuously at a time of diminishing natural resources, global instability, and struggling families in their own communities.

“Good design is satisfying,” not opulent, says Fu-Tung Cheng, above in the small home he built 35 years ago out of reclaimed materials.
Credit: Matthew Millman “Good design is satisfying,” not opulent, says Fu-Tung Cheng, above in the small home he built 35 years ago out of reclaimed materials.

At the same time, some wealthy clients continue to push remodelers beyond their own comfort zones when it comes to excess, insisting on endless redos in their pursuit of perfection or refusing to settle for 3,500 square feet if they can afford 10,000 or ripping out and remodeling anew every few years as their tastes change.

How do remodelers strike a balance between indulging affluent clients and serving their conscience, especially when those clients know that plenty of other remodeling companies would gladly take their money?

“Most of the really good builders I know wrestle with this issue,” says Kevin Ireton, editor of Fine Homebuilding magazine. “All the best craftsmen end up working for wealthy customers and, likely as not, feeling guilty about what they're building.”

“It's not a thought I can dwell on too much and still make payroll, to be honest,” says Paul Eldrenkamp of Byggmeister Design Build, in Newton, Mass. “It's also an ages-old question: Are luxuries sinful when so many need so much? Part, but only part, of the answer has to be an acknowledgment that the yearning for luxury is a powerful motivator that has fueled much economic progress,” he says. “Do we each nonetheless need to draw some line we will not cross?”