High style and higher Btu. Modular design. “Smart” technology. Advanced built-ins such as steamers and woks. A cornucopia of innovations has made the formerly simple process of specifying a stove a complex and multifaceted affair.
For the past few years, ovens and ranges have been grouped by their market demographics. Professional-style appliance manufacturers targeted gourmet cooks and those looking to make a design or status statement.
The other primary target group was overworked two-career couples with children, striving to get something resembling a home-cooked meal on the table. Both groups inspired technological advances, but in different directions: the pro camp desired precision and tools to help improve cooking prowess, while the overscheduled went for speed and convenience features.
Today, these lines are blurring, with some consumers choosing items from each feature set, or even “all of the above.”
Jason West, brand manager, GE Consumer & Industrial Appliances, Louisville, Ky., says he believes the key difference between the pro and convenience markets is “how people interact with the appliance. Some like big, oversized knobs and handles, others prefer smooth glass touch digital controls. But behind the interface you will find advanced technology in both product designs.”
“Consumers want high performance packaged in an easy-to-use product,” adds Lori Dolnick, spokeswoman for Miele in Princeton, N.J.
For every true gourmet cook, there are 10 people who just want to look like one. “People like the idea of projecting a professional image with their cooking equipment,” notes Scott Brown, director of Thermador sales, BSH Home Appliances, Huntington Beach, Calif. For wall ovens, that professional image is frequently conveyed via the controls. “You’ll see a chronograph, or a temperature readout that’s actually a needle as opposed to electronic controls that project that air of being precise,” he explains.
Size and power are two other determinants of a pro look, such as the 30-in. which is now the norm for a range, with models expanding to as large as 60-in. West says he’s even seen two 48-in. ranges in one kitchen.
Brown adds that professional functions also come in a much smaller package, for instance, a professional cooktop that offers high Btu capacity for searing but can be housed on an island. And indeed, the modular approach, with cooktop and oven moving to different spots in the kitchen to increase functionality, is the alternate trend to the mammoth pro range.
“In electric surfaces, flexibility is a key focus on radiant cooktops,” West elaborates. “Consumers are looking for cooking surfaces that allow for different types of pan sizes, like the addition of a bridge burner between two burners for cookware that isn’t round. Also, burners that have multiple size options, dual and tri-ring burners.”
Kingsley Shannon, Jenn-Air brand manager, Newton, Iowa, cites modular options such as warming drawers, as well as a mini convenience oven (“the smallest in the industry”) which can work as a second oven, or a solution for a small metropolitan condo. “Everyone feels like they want to customize their kitchen space these days,” Shannon says. With a modular approach, it’s easier to personalize work areas according to the way a homeowner likes to cook.
But Jane Crump, manager of public relations, Viking Range Corp., Greenwood, Miss., believes that a modular approach can actually use up more room “when you have to find counter space, or wall space. We make a baby range 24 in. wide. It’s a fully functioning Viking range and oven with four burners. It will fit in almost any kitchen.”
For those who want all cooking functions in one compact package, “in ovens, dual fuel is a fast-growing segment of the market,” West says. Additionally, “dual-stacked burners offer a range of flexibility and cooking controls. A consumer can have a high-output 17,000-Btu burner for fast boil times as well as a low simmer 500-Btu burner that is great for melting fine chocolates and sauces.”
Similarly, Shannon cites Jenn-Air’s 30-in. range with a double electric oven and a gas cooktop, as well as a wall oven with menu-driven control. “The latter is similar to how an ATM operates — consumers are getting more technologically savvy, and they really want an appliance that is sleek and streamlined,” with hidden controls and an easy, intuitive menu.
And AGA’s new Legacy line features dual fuel function (a departure from the company’s traditional radiant heat technology), with three ovens and five or six gas burners, reports Andrea Greene, vice president of marketing, AGA Ranges, Cherry Hill, N.J. “We’ve married conventional ranges with the AGA look and created a dual fuel range,” she explains. AGA’s original radiant heat appliance, formerly gas only, is now reconfigured to be available in electric as well.
Miele’s MasterChef cooking products include a speed oven, a steam oven, convection ovens in a variety of sizes, warming drawers, built-in coffee systems and lift doors, Dolnick explains. “The entire line is crafted so you can configure the appliances side by side or on top of one another and every handle, control panel and door will match perfectly,” she elaborates. Soft-touch control panels let the consumer choose from hundreds of preprogrammed options.
Thermador offers three units in one: a microwave on top, a warming drawer in the middle and a convection oven on the bottom. “If one person is there, they can eat. If the other person hasn’t arrived yet, the meal can be popped into the warming drawer, and if the third person comes and doesn’t like what mom or dad cooked there, there’s the microwave for them to use — and it has one unified appearance,” Brown elaborates.
In the past, ultra premium brands didn’t offer a full suite of appliances, so homeowners had to mix and match. And even today, “if the consumer is very into status, they will cherry pick the lines, with a different product from different categories,” Shannon says. “But more and more consumers are wanting things that match. Otherwise they spend $100,000 on a kitchen and they find the different design styles of the manufacturers aren’t working well together, and that throws everything off.”
“Now that suites are available in ultra premium, we find it’s very strong for our brand,” adds Viking’s Crump. “It’s not just the handles, it’s the brush of the stainless, the caliber of the steel, the style of the knobs, an overall feeling of design integrity. We just think it’s an aesthetically appealing visual for a homeowner.”
But manufacturers emphasize that even though “the majority of consumers are not gourmet cooks — they really just want to make chicken or a frozen pizza — they want lots of performance features, not just the look,” Dolnick says. “People don’t want to feel they’re getting something that’s slipcovered,” Brown adds.
“A product can look great, but if it doesn’t have great performance or innovative features, consumers will be tremendously disappointed,” West echoes.
In terms of design, stainless steel remains the dominant exterior material. The pro range lends itself naturally to contemporary looks, particularly industrial-themed “loft” styles as well as popular rustic Tuscany themes. “It’s almost like recreating a hearth feel with the focal point being a range,” notes Viking’s Crump.
A pro-style’s classic features also make it compatible with transitional 20th century looks such as Art Deco and mid-century. AGA’s iconic, classic style makes it a particular favorite for retro and antique applications. Brown adds that homeowners going for a strong historical or regional theme may choose integral fronts for other appliances such as dishwashers and refrigerators to minimize their kitchen’s high-tech appearance and let the pro range stand as the most visually dominant appliance.
An alternative in a contemporary setting is the glass top, with hidden controls for a minimalist, sleek look. Shannon points to Jenn-Air’s opaque floating-glass, black and white series “to meet the need of the contemporary consumer looking for something different that will have some longevity.”
Miele’s Dolnick also points out that these days, with consumers remodeling their kitchens more often than in previous generations, a high-end appliance may outlive the design theme of the remodel. So the next time around, a homeowner might keep appliances — or just change out the integral front — while changing the overall style.
As if by magic …
Speed cooking has emerged as the “magic” function of recent years, taking a significant percentage of cooking time out of meal preparation. These ovens, which combine convection and microwave cooking features, are now available in upscale, pro-look varieties such as Thermador’s CM Series.
Some Whirlpool models have a scrolling text option, which helps prompt the user. “It has a feature called sequence magic programming, so you can start with a bake and finish off with a broil without coming back to the oven,” says Jan Gingrich, brand activity director, Whirlpool Brand, Benton Harbor, Mich. Other additions to make life easier include GE Profile’s self-cleaning racks to go with self-cleaning ovens.
Some believe the jury is still out on speed cooking. “When you get to a high price point, most consumers either love to cook and want the precision control you can get with pro-style appliances, or they want to look like they love to cook even though they go out to eat six times a week,” quips Shannon. Also, “there’s a lot of emotion tied to the cooking experience, and people still want to do it the way mom used to.” People would opt for takeout, delivery or fast food rather than speed cooking, Shannon says.
But West insists speed cookers like GE’s Trivection and Advantium “changes how consumers cook quality meals for their families and loved ones. You can bake a 22-lb. turkey in less than two hours, or lasagna that normally takes about an hour will come out perfectly cooked and bubbly in 15 minutes.”
“Research shows consumers feel a little guilty about doing fast food and takeout,” Gingrich adds. “They say, ‘If you can allow me to get a home-cooked meal for my family and eat it within an hour, I’d like to do that.’” That hour is increasingly precious, those surveyed agree.
With the advent of open floor plans and the great room, the kitchen has become the family gathering spot, with cooking as a family activity. Crump says, “It may be the only time the family spends together.”