Technology is everywhere, and no where is that more apparent than in the kitchen. Advancements in appliances in recent years have been sending designers and their clients toward a future that is already here. These advancements allow consumers to cook faster, keep food fresher longer, and track groceries and supplies, all while seamlessly blending into a serene, efficient setting that is the backdrop for a family’s daily flurry of activity.
Indeed, Jennifer Uihlein Straszewski, executive v.p. for U-Line Corp. in Milwaukee, WI, notes that today’s kitchen appliances “no longer simply chill, or cook, or clean.”
“Today’s kitchen appliances must offer convenience, technology and style that keep up with the way we live,” she notes.
John Swenson, director of brand marketing for Electrolux Home Products in Augusta, GA, explains that Electrolux has taken the concept of the evolving kitchen and its host of appliances to the next level by renaming the kitchen. In fact, the firm has “declared the space formerly known as the kitchen as the live-in room.” Electrolux sees the kitchen of tomorrow as “moving beyond the bread-and-butter basics – the room we cook and eat in – to the high-functioning heart of the home,” he elaborates.
And today’s appliances, with all of their software and technology, have made that possible, manufacturers recently interviewed by Kitchen & Bath Design News agree.
Technological advances continue to impress consumers – as long as they look good and are easy to understand and use.
“New interfaces,” says Chris Kaeser, executive v.p. for sales and marketing for Ultra 8 International in Las Vegas, NV, “allow industrial designers to do things in an effort to promote style as much as function.”
Kaeser cites the example of touch-through stainless steel control buttons. “This is really great because now there is no need for ugly dials or buttons that can junk up the product’s look,” he adds.
“We’ve learned that it’s not enough to design a great product and rest on our laurels; we need to go above and beyond with the functional details, as well,” says Swenson.
Manufacturers are going that extra mile to develop appliance controls that improve the whole kitchen experience. As an example, Swenson points to control panels that light up on command and “go dark” when not in use.
“Residential appliances are becoming ‘smart’ appliances,” says Jeff Wimberly, director of sales and marketing/residential products, for Perlick Corp. in Milwaukee, WI.
Wimberly explains that technology is incorporated into appliances such as refrigeration for an “interactive experience.” An example he cites is the refrigerator control that is essentially a computer working with the compressor to “vary its speed, maximize cooling, yet minimize energy consumption.”
He adds: “Homeowners can adjust the temperature setting to precisely meet their tastes.”
Another area of technology that is making life easier for the cook is microprocessors. They allow for the “ability to monitor temperatures in cooking and cooling equipment” in a more precise manner than ever before, according to Paul Leuthe, corporate marketing manager of Sub-Zero and Wolf in Madison, WI.
Leuthe notes that “some of the diagnostic capabilities in the [appliances] help make the service provider’s job much easier.” This means less time spent finding the problem, and savings for the consumer, he adds.
Kaeser explains that some of the most innovative features in today’s kitchen appliances are those that allow the consumer to cook more quickly. These include induction and jet impingement. Other examples include convection microwave cooking.
Allen Lombard, president of Sirius Range Hoods in Buffalo, NY, also points to new technology in hoods. From range hoods that automatically control cooking surface ventilation to state-of-the-art task lighting that can be dimmed and even accent lighting, range hoods are coming into their own.
Lombard also mentions the growing demand for electronic operation rather than push button or slide controls.
Ever-quieter appliances are also in hot demand. “Quiet is still king through extensive sound dampening, motors and wash philosophy,” Kaeser says.
Lombard also points to technology that reduces the noise created by range hoods. A unique filter and blower system developed by Sirius allows for greater efficiency with less air resistance. This, in turn, means a much lower noise level, even at maximum performance, he notes.
The concept of efficiency is also gaining ground. As governmental agencies and environmental groups make headway in getting their important, eco-friendly messages out, designers and dealers are seeing more consumers who are asking more questions about an appliance’s ability to minimize its use of resources.
“Efficiency is huge,” says Kaeser, and while “bigger is still better for most consumers on our continent, a consciousness is evolving around efficient appliances.”
Ergonomics and Universal Design also play a key role in today’s appliance designs. While initially developed for the physically challenged and aging populations, designs such as “touch-tap cooktops, light-touch controls and controls that provide visual acuity with bigger, brighter numbers” are appealing to a broad range of consumers, says Mark Johnson, F.A.I.A., senior manager of architecture and design marketing for Whirlpool Corp. in Benton Harbor, MI.
When talking about what polishes off the high-tech look and function of today’s appliances, stainless steel just can’t be beat. Stylish consumers, say manufacturers, continue to want that professional, contemporary, sleek look when it comes to their kitchen appliances.
Wimberly says that the demand for professional-style appliances remains strong and is likely to stay that way. “I think consumers aspire to have and use what they see professionals use on TV and in restaurants and bars,” he says. He also agrees that the demand for stainless remains strong, but says that the gap between stainless and integrated cabinetry is shrinking.
Kaeser concurs that the demand for professional-style appliances is great in luxury homes. “The big bulky look still keeps growing,” he says. “It is unexplainable, but it is something like the demand for the Hummer. It is a ‘got to have.’”
While Johnson agrees that “stainless as a finish is still growing in market share,” he points out that the style trend is moving within the mass market. This, he concludes, could mean high-end, style-conscious consumers are going to be looking for something new. Johnson also reminds that, while many love the look of stainless, they have not enjoyed the upkeep. Consequently, he sees a new trend on the horizon: floating glass. This treatment, which places the color on the back of the glass, does not expose the paint and allows for visual depth. It also cleans up easily with glass cleaner.
Chris Lewis, senior director of marketing for appliances at Sharp Electronics in Mahwah, NJ, views the stainless trend as strong, but thinks that fingerprint-resistant metallics will become more popular because it will be easier to keep clean than stainless. She says that the strongest market for integrated overlay panels is in Florida, where a more traditional look is always in demand.
“Large professional-style ranges are still big for 2006, with the range and hood often serving as the kitchen’s focal point,” adds Swenson.
Johnson, on the other hand, has seen a trend away from big hoods, with more customers wanting a downdraft system. Recent research, he contends, indicated that “downdraft hoods may be more efficient.”
In the Zone
Now, as kitchen designers and dealers are taking all of these technological and stylistic appliance advancements and running with them, putting them into new configurations in kitchens, appliance manufacturers see a lag in the new-construction market in the way the latest appliances are being placed in the kitchen.
“Builders are building new homes with old kitchens,” believes Johnson. “They continue to use a 50-plus-year-old concept of the kitchen work triangle. Consumers are ready to move well-beyond that.”
They are, in fact, ready to move into the zone – well – zones to be exact. Cited by more than one manufacturer as a “huge trend,” the idea of zones can fall into two categories.
Johnson says that one way to use zones is to have “multiple work triangles in the kitchen.” This might serve a family with multiple cooks who’d like to avoid “tripping over one another,” he adds as an example. Another way to use zones, according to Johnson, is by “dividing and conquering.” By this he means creating very specific work zones; for example, a bake zone, a prep zone and a clean-up zone.
This, in fact, is something many kitchen designers have already been doing as a result of the demand for multiples of certain high-tech appliances and for a more diverse array of appliances in one kitchen – for example, two dishwashers; multiple refrigerator/freezer drawers; all-refrigerators and all-freezers; undercounter beverage centers, wine coolers, icemakers and built-in coffee makers; and possibly even a cooktop, double ovens, a microwave oven and a range, plus a warming drawer and separate ventilation.
Kaeser explains that many upscale kitchens today have “stations for cooktops, hoods and, perhaps, an undercounter refrigerator and sink, while the oven is usually off on its own, centered with a microwave, [and there’s] a central area for the big refrigerator or, perhaps, it’s also broken down into areas.” Kaeser says that having two dishwashers has been popular since the 1990s.
Another popular work zone is for drink storage and prep. “I think storage of bottled water, soda, beer and wine is important,” explains Wimberly.
Luck of the ‘Drawer’
One notable trend is that of appliance drawers, says Uihlein Straszewski. “Yesterday’s appliances are breaking out of the box, and innovative appliance drawer systems are transforming fashion and function in the home while fueling a new trend in under-the-counter options.” She adds: “Drawers are an important design element because of the convenience they offer, especially in the kitchen. Appliance drawers are designed to provide the same convenience.”
Swenson concurs, adding that consumers are “relying heavily on appliances such as warming drawers to give them more flexibility than they’ve had before. Dinner no longer has to be served the second it comes out of the oven.”
Drawers are also helping to clean off the countertops and walls. The microwave drawer, for example, can be easier to reach and still functional, while creating space on the countertop for something else, according to Lewis.
Another champion of appliance drawers is Leuthe. He has seen an increased demand for refrigeration drawer units with a variety of specific usages.
“There are units in the island of a home next to sinks that serve exclusively as vegetable storage,” he explains as an example.
He also cites the example of the drawer unit installed next to the back door of the home. This is “where the kids keep all of their treats cool and away from Mom in the kitchen,” he points out.
Leuthe further explains that, “aside from the large refrigerator people want in their homes, they really have bought into the idea of taking refrigeration to where it logically belongs – bars, master suites, work-out spaces” and so on.
Appliances in Orbit
Another big trend today is “de-centralized appliance locations in the home,” says Johnson. He mentions three examples of this growing trend: the morning kitchen in the master bedroom suite that will likely have an undercounter refrigerator, microwave and a coffee maker; the guest or in-law suite that will have a kitchenette; and the home theater that will have perhaps a microwave and small refrigerator.
“Satellite kitchens and snack centers provide the convenience of food and beverages at arm’s reach wherever they might be needed in the home for entertaining or simply relaxing and enjoying time with family,” offers Uihlein Straszewski. Undercounter appliances are popular choices in satellite kitchens, including refrigerators, icemakers, refrigerator drawers and wine-storage units.
Uihlein Straszewski further points out that “appliances are also finding a home in master suites and baths for everything from cold drinks to the storage of high-end cosmetics and prescription medications.”
Lewis says the microwave is also moving out of the kitchen and into other areas of the home. She sees an increased demand for microwaves – sometimes as a hidden appliance – in the entertainment center of the home.
The increase in demand for outdoor kitchens is also driving manufacturers. “Outdoor kitchens, which have grown increasingly popular over the last decade, can be viewed as an extension of the home renovation boom since they are essentially adding another room to consumers’ properties,” asserts Beatriz Sandoval, brand manager for Thermador in Huntington Beach, CA. “Appliances in outdoor kitchens…have increased the recreational, entertainment and social value of homes.” Sandoval further mentions that drop-in appliance models can “allow outdoor cooking enthusiasts to integrate their grills into their existing backyard landscaping without interruption.”
Johnson adds that this growing trend has been popular in warm-weather states such as Florida and California for some time, but is expanding to the northern regions of our country, as well.
Wimberly is enthusiastic about the future of outdoor kitchens. “What you have indoors will become the norm outdoors,” he believes. Whether keeping food and beverages cool, preserving wines, tapping beer, making ice or cooking, the consumer can do it and do it just about anywhere, manufacturers agree.
To that end, some specialty appliances have been developed to meet the specific needs in satellite kitchens or of very specific tastes. The increase in demand for wine coolers and wine-storage cabinets, as well as specialty coffee makers, are examples of this.
“The kitchen walls are truly tumbling down and people are integrating facets of their kitchen all over the house,” concludes Swenson.