The brand that is Mal Corboy, kitchen designer

He may not have the flashiest offices in town, but New Zealand’s most awarded kitchen designer hasn’t got there by hiding in the shadows.

You expect New Zealand's most awarded kitchen designer to live in a smart house with a posh kitchen.

Not Mal Corboy, winner of 46 design awards, including Australian kitchen designer of the year (twice), and (last year) a Society of British Interior Design award, up against 600 designs from 43 countries, with the awards ceremony in the ultra-posh Dorchester Hotel in London.

Instead, Malboy's home-cum-office is a small unit in a singularly unprepossessing beige-with-a-hint-of-pink concrete block off the main drag in the Auckland suburb of Kohimarama – small office downstairs, kitchen (presumably) upstairs. There isn't a marble benchtop or a stainless rangehood in sight.

           

Mal Corboy doesn't do flash Auckland offices  

Malboy doesn't care. He's not selling off-the-shelf kitchen units, so why tie up a lot of capital in a high-rent showroom with lots of expensive whiteware? He mostly sees clients in their homes, where he can suss out their kitchens, ask questions about their cooking habits, and look at their decor. Anyway, living above the shop, so to speak, means he can pop downstairs at any time to work on his ideas.

"For me, it's not a job, I'm designing or thinking about design or looking at it 24/7," he says.

But while his house may be understated, Corboy’s business mantra is to get himself noticed – here and overseas. Being successful in the design game means becoming a brand, Corboy says. Not the guy with the little ad in the back of Trends magazine, but the guy that did the kitchen for the Living with April (Ieremia) show, or for TV producer Julie Christie; the guy on the show My House, My Garden; the guy who wrote the kitchen book with recipes from Simon Gault.

To get clients these days you have to be all over the internet, he says; people need to see your name everywhere – articles, video, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Idealog.

Part of getting noticed means doing award-winning, interesting work – about the only decoration in his Kohi office are the certificates on the walls. Corboy has earned a name for himself by bucking the trend for off-white kitchens. He likes “energetic” colours – pinks, blues, greens, and unusual materials – coloured, patterned glass, for example. He takes his inspiration from trends in shoes, watches, even hairdressing salons, where the colours and designs of the bottles of product reflect fashion trends, he says.

Pet hates include beige (“People say I'll do beige or white for my kitchen because it will be good for resale, but that's bullshit. I’ve never had one of my clients say the kitchen colour they chose is putting people off”), and reality TV shows like The Block and Changing Rooms, where he reckons the kitchens are mostly white and boring.

The Block kitchens focus too much on white, according to Mal Corboy

"They like to show that anyone can design a kitchen," he says. "You can work in a shop and design a couple of kitchens and then you are a kitchen designer.”

Current Malboy projects include an Alice-in-Wonderland-inspired kitchen for a client in Melbourne, a big development in Trinidad, and the set for a show on the Food Network in Los Angeles. He’s working on the kitchens for the penthouse apartments in the new St James’ development, and has just finished the fit-out for the Oyster and Chop eatery on Auckland’s waterfront.

Corboy’s minor celebrity status these days is a long way from the apprentice cabinet-maker-turned train driver who arrived in New Plymouth in 1998 from Perth, with his Kiwi partner. 

"New Plymouth had one train and two drivers; that [career] was fully booked, so I got back into the kitchen industry – manufacturing, designing, installing."

He also went back to school, studying kitchen design, and it was as a student, in 2002, that he entered his first competition.

He was hoping to win the student category, and was disappointed when they didn't read my name out for that, only to find he'd won in the main category.

He says coming from the trade side (making and installing units), rather than the design side, gave him an edge. "I saw so many bad designs, drawers that were going to clash with the oven, handles that would hit the side. Designing a kitchen isn't hard, but you need to get the feel for the products and materials."

At that time, Corboy didn't charge for the design part of a kitchen installation; clients got that for free. By 2003 he was charging $50. Twelve years later, a Mal Corboy kitchen starts around $70,000, including appliances with most people spending more – some far more. He advises clients to set aside around 8% of a total house build for the kitchen, and the average Corboy kitchen comes in at around $100,000.

“My ambition, when I first went out on my own, was to make, design and sell kitchens within a radius of around 10-20 kilometres from where I lived. Now you can be selling in the whole world.”