Whither Stainless Steel?
Stainless steel kitchen appliances still dominate the market, but many affluent consumers are opting for more colorful or integrated looks.
By Bettijane Levine 04/30/2014
The fashion industry
recently tried to convince women that red was the new black. It didn’t work. In a similar vein, the kitchen appliance industry started its own campaign about two years ago, claiming that white — or black or color — was the new stainless steel. That didn’t work, either. Appliances aren’t easily replaced, like sweaters and blouses. And folks who’ve recently spent a bundle on stainless appliances are not about to discard them on a fashion whim.
Stainless remains the stalwart backbone of kitchen appliance sales in the U.S. But millions of consumers are slowly getting used to at least the possibility that someday, something might come along to replace it. And when they’re ready to renew their kitchens, they might just consider a change of pace.
The seemingly concerted industry effort to wean customers off stainless steel comes after a quarter-century of the iron-based alloy’s dominance over kitchen style around the country. And there’s some method to the industry’s madness in trying to unseat the metallic look. Stainless, when it first came out, was a high-end product. Slowly, it filtered down to every price level, becoming a staple in even modest homes, and lost cachet among those who wanted a new look or something less common in their kitchens.
Meanwhile, the kitchen’s identity itself has evolved over the past few decades, as the popularity of open floor plans has grown and food preparation areas have been integrated into great rooms and living rooms. Open-floor-plan kitchens must harmonize with the design of those other rooms, and appliance industry gurus hoped to come up with products that would be more decorative or appealing than stainless.
(Adding to all the fuss about open floor plans and post-stainless kitchens, late news from Manhattan real estate developers reveals that some pricey new buildings will lose that loft-like, open-space vibe. Instead, many new multi-million-dollar high-rise homes will have totally separate and isolated kitchens, reminiscent of the ’40s and ’50s. Some people just don’t want their guests to watch them cut the carrots.)
Whirlpool Corp.’s Ice White kitchen collection, Wolf’s black-glass ovens and General Electric’s muted gray “slate” shade all entered the marketplace, along with various colored appliances from many manufacturers. Some have been moderately successful. But none approach the continuing appeal of basic, bland and neutral stainless steel, which is durable and fits any décor.
Yet inroads are being made, says Russ Diamond, president of Snyder Diamond Appliances. In an interview with Arroyo Monthly, he said, “From a design standpoint, what we’re finding is that there are no rules anymore. Kitchen design is driven by the individual,” not by trends. On a mass-market level, Diamond says, “Stainless is still the most well-accepted surface for the kitchen. But Miele, Jenn-Air, Whirlpool and others all now offer white [and often black] as an option.” Indeed, design magazines are showcasing kitchens with a refreshing airiness, using pale or bright shades or matte white for cabinetry as well as appliances.
On the luxury level, Diamond says, the status of stainless is irrelevant. For well-heeled homeowners, the most popular design is an integrated look, with appliances flush with — and camouflaged by — the same cabinetry in the rest of the kitchen. The refrigerator and dishwasher don’t stand out, because their façades match all the other cabinets.
Function is more important than fashion in the appliance world and, in Diamond’s opinion, the newest advances in refrigeration are the “columns” — separate refrigerators and freezers that are columnar in shape and available in many sizes, and can be placed next to each other or anywhere in the room. Each is a self-contained unit with its own compressor, Diamond says, affording greater energy efficiency and flexibility in unit size and room design.
Sub–Zero and Miele have technology that connects wirelessly with their appliances, so that performance is continuously monitored. “If your refrigerator or freezer starts to falter, it will send a message to the manufacturer,” Diamond says. “They’ll do a diagnostic and tell you what to do. If you require a service call, they’ll know in advance what’s wrong, and the repair person will arrive with the right parts.” The same applies to some dishwashers, he says.
“Miele is by far” the most advanced, he continues. “They have residentialized the commercial dishwasher, like the ones you’d find in a restaurant, so that a homeowner gets dishes well cleaned within 20 to 30 minutes. They have lights inside their dishwashers and self-closing doors that latch by themselves. And customers are telling us they are the most efficient.”
Jan Ledgard, founding designer of Yorkshire Kitchens in La Cañada Flintridge, agrees that stainless appliances are still “pretty popular, especially those with new finishes that don’t show fingerprints as much as they used to.” However, she adds, “monochromatic color schemes seem to be coming back. The last three kitchens I’ve done have been a soft cream color on the cabinets and a combination of stainless steel and cream-color cabinet panels on the appliances. I do a lot of older Craftsman and Mediterranean homes and of course these homes are circa 1900. They didn’t have stainless steel back then. So I put cabinet door panels on the stainless steel refrigeration and dishwasher units” to blend in with the rest of the kitchen.
Cynthia Bennett, the South Pasadena interior designer who created the kitchen in this year’s Pasadena Showcase House of Design, says that while stainless has been around a long time, its popularity exploded during the past decade. “That’s all people seemed to want. Before that, we used to do all sorts of colors. And stainless is still very popular. But there’s a big return to paneling,” she says, “because the kitchen is no longer just a kitchen. It’s a living space. It’s part of an open floor plan — a great big open space that combines kitchen, casual dining and a comfortably furnished room where friends and family congregate.” That’s the contemporary way of life, she says, and her design/build firm does a lot of remodeling that reconfigures space to accommodate that lifestyle. In such a scenario, she says, “the kitchen can’t look too kitcheny. It should have continuity with the rest of the space.”
The popularity of combined kitchen and living areas has made the living room somewhat obsolete in many homes, she adds. Her Showcase House kitchen is huge — 850 square feet — and it’s integrated into a great room. “We paneled everything we could, including refrigerator drawers and dishwasher drawers using birch and alder woods.” As paneling has become more popular, she says, there’s a great variety of woods to choose from, in shades from pale to dark.
In some ways, the 21st-century kitchen is reverting to the pivotal position it held before the industrial revolution. Now integrated into the home’s major living center, it has once again become the spiritual and social focus of the home — similar to what it was when food was cooked in iron pots that hung above the fire in a cabin’s hearth. And so stoves (now called ranges) have a uniquely emotional resonance with many individuals who couldn’t care less about the design of their dishwashers, fridges and freezers.
The appliance industry’s strategy to move consumers away from stainless steel has included downplaying the current trendiness of the industrial look — ranges outfitted with chunky grids and knobs — presenting them as passé. Manufacturers are touting new designs with more delicate-looking appurtenances, in the same white, black or colors they’re promoting for other appliances.
For those at the top of the wealth spectrum, the stove that makes a statement — in craftsmanship, functionality and design — wins the day. Diamond says some clients bring their personal chefs with them to the showroom, so the chef can select the specific cooking components and configurations he or she wants to work with. Other homeowners ask their interior designers for a kitchen that will spotlight a handcrafted, extraordinarily expensive and often colorful range. “We just sold our display model La Cornue range,” Diamond says. La Cornue is a French firm whose cooking appliances “are like beautiful pieces of custom furniture,” he adds, and they range in price from $6,500 to $85,000.
And to replace his sold display item, Diamond has ordered a bright red custom-crafted Bonnet range with chrome trim from France, which he says will sell for $130,000 to $140,000. Such a unit is handcrafted to meet the buyer’s specifications, which may include gas, electric and induction functions, along with barbecue and griddle. Who would buy such a costly cooker? Diamond chuckles at the question, because he knows by now that there are as many aficionados for ranges as there are for cars. “We just sold a pink range by Blue Star — that’s the manufacturer that made the purple range bought by Two Broke Girls on TV. They saved and saved for it.” And, he says, there are affluent residents in the San Gabriel Valley who would value a high-functioning, handcrafted range as much as they would artwork or fine jewelry.