Do-It-All Appliances

In recent years, the appliance market seemed to be divided into camps, and took an either/or approach to features. Gourmet cooks demanded power, control and simple elegance, while overworked families opted for speed, pre-programmed ease of use and quick cleaning.

But as the kitchen continues to redefine itself with Great Room layouts wherein modules replace triangles, today’s consumers increasingly ask designers to give them appliances that do it all.

They must be advanced and complex, but also user-friendly. They should be able to be tucked behind panels or under the counter, but still provide a lot of internal space. They should be easy to maintain, but still make a powerful design statement. And some are even expected to serve multiple functions, such as an oven with a microwave tucked inside, or a remotely programmable refrigerator-oven combo.

High Style

“Kitchens have gotten sleeker and more efficient,” declares Alex Siow, v.p./marketing for Zephyr in San Francisco, CA.

“The mass market is definitely becoming more design-conscious,” adds Paul Leuthe, corporate marketing manager for Sub-Zero/Wolf in Madison, WI. “However, they do not necessarily want something that looks flashy. It has to be simple and look beautiful. That is the success of great design.”

“Today’s consumer is extremely [design] savvy,” concurs Jennifer Uihlein Straszewski, v.p./director of marketing for U-Line Corp. in Milwaukee, WI. “Consumers are looking to attain a lifestyle when making purchasing decisions, regardless of how much or how little they have to spend. [They know that] what they have says something about who they are or who they are striving to be.”

“Consumers want meaningful innovation – they want appliances that are stylishly uncomplicated,” believes Tom Majer, director of brand marketing communications for Frigidaire, in Augusta, GA.

“Today’s consumers are looking for appliances with a balance of creative ingenuity and intuitive functions to help them do more in less time with less effort,” asserts Tracy Frye, contract marketing manager at Whirlpool Corp. in Benton Harbor, MI.

The appliance industry is doing its best to fulfill everyone’s complex and often paradoxical desires. The market has “perked up considerably in the last few years,” claims Larry Lamkins, assistant v.p./marketing for DACOR in Diamond Bar, CA. “Each year now, the appliance manufacturers attempt to outdo each other by introducing something new and exciting. This is a huge benefit to the end-user.”

Outside the Box

Once the square boxy room in the corner, the kitchen has increasingly insinuated itself throughout the house via its appliances. And, in the kitchen itself, said appliances are more likely to be tucked under the counter or into a drawer.

“Drawer units are hot,” notes Straszewski. “The ‘horizontal trend’ has taken hold. Kitchen designers and homeowners have a strong preference for drawers rather than doors [under the counter] – therefore, appliances are also [becoming more] outside the box.” She cites U-Line’s combination refrigerator/freezer/ice maker drawers and wine storage drawers as innovations as examples.

Frye believes kitchen zones have replaced the triangle. “Zones allow consumers to perform beyond the typical sink-stove-refrigerator work triangle,” she explains. “These design solutions consist of a series of separate, yet interrelated areas” that take into consideration layout, appliances, lighting, storage needs and cabinet placement. “These designs include zones for baking, entertaining, food preparation and clean-up, as well as zones based on cooking style, number of cooks in the kitchen, and whether or not children are involved in the cooking process.”

“Too many people struggle with the big box stuck in the corner [when] they actually want refrigeration where it logically belongs,” says Leuthe.

“Homeowners want the luxury of having a cold beverage or snack within arm’s reach regardless of where they are in the house,” agrees Straszewski. “The satellite kitchen trend has resulted in undercounter appliance installations throughout the house, from the theater room to the master suite.” Within the kitchen, the addition of an extra undercounter refrigerator creates a prep area, or a kid-friendly zone for snacks outside the work area, she adds.

Undercounter refrigeration models also now sport a variety of sizes and configurations. For instance, Perlick offers units from 24" to 72", with multiple zones of refrigeration such as refrigerator, wine cooler, freezer, explains Jeff Wimberly, home products manager for Perlick, in Milwaukee, WI. “It’s got smart technology which recognizes the temperature inside the cabinet and adjusts its speed as a compressor to keep the cabinets at the right temperature,” he notes.

But Lamkins points out that replacing one huge refrigerator with multiple smaller ones isn’t always a good idea. Lower-end undercounter units don’t have a fan system, but rather a “gravity-style, cold-air movement system,” which doesn’t blow the refrigeration throughout the cavity to make the temperature evenly controlled, he explains. Some undercounter models are true refrigerators, he adds, but they’re more expensive, so a multi-refrigerator system could end up costing more per square refrigerated foot than one big unit.­­­

For those who want to stick with a full-size refrigerator, manufacturers surveyed here agree there are new shapes and sizes from which to choose, as demonstrated by KitchenAid’s French door bottom-mount refrigerators, which positions fresh food at eye level. Performance features for the full-size refrigerator include such niceties as higher-powered ice makers which can increase the speed and quality of producing ice cubes; moisture control systems that lengthen the refrigerated life span of fruits and vegetables; and a dual compressor system for freezer and refrigerator. “[The latter ensures] you have the freshest food and nothing spoils too fast,” says Leuthe.

Dual Dishwashers

In terms of dishwashers, the biggest trend seems to be that consumers are discovering they need more than one.­ “A lot of people switch back and forth; they never really need to use the cabinets [to store dishes],” notes Chris Kaeser, executive v.p./sales and marketing for Ultra 8 (Ariston) in Las Vegas, NV. Generally, homeowners get matching dishwashers and place them flanking both sides of the sink.

“It’s definitely less expensive to install two dishwashers than to install two of the really high-end cabinets,” points out Matthew Kueny, product development manager with Miele USA in Princeton, NJ. He explains that, in larger households, the dishwashers tend to operate in tandem, whereas in smaller families, one works as a temporary­ storage cabinet, while the other runs loads.

Up-and-coming performance features in today’s dishwashers include a built-in water softener at an affordable price point, notes Kaeser. Softener “eliminates lime scale. People see these white cloudy glasses and think, ‘My glasses are etched, they’re ruined,’ when typically it’s a mineral deposit. The water softener will address that issue, as well as maintain the life of the product, because the pipes are also treated as the soft water goes through the machine.”

As with refrigerators, the dishwasher drawer concept seems to be catching on and moving beyond the ultra high end; design-wise, stainless steel and integral fronts remain top consumer choices.

“We see a really significant increase in fully integrated or non-control-panel dishwashers where you really can’t see the machine and it’s blending in with the cabinetry,” notes Kueny.

Intuitive Ovens

While dishwashers and refrigerators get hidden in drawers, ovens tuck more seamlessly into a wall. Maher cites built-in products that mount flush into the wall or slide in at a depth even with cabinets to save on space and give the kitchen a clean, streamlined appearance.

However, performance remains the key area of concern in cooking appliances. “Induction is getting rave reviews from everyone,” declares Woods. “Dealers like to talk about something new, builders like the idea of offering a product that will perform like gas without the ventilation requirements of gas, and consumers are excited by the performance.”

Steam cooking still remains more of a high-end niche product, and opinions are still mixed regarding speed cookers.­But it’s “too early in the learning curve [for both technologies]. When you think of people investing in substantial equipment to help them prepare great meals, why would you want to ‘run through’ the process with speed cooking? But I see induction [cooking] really catching on,” Leuthe believes.

Lamkins believes that more intuitive controls will be key in the future of oven technology.

“In the past, if you were going to do the Thanksgiving turkey, you would take the pounds of the turkey and compute at 350° x 20 minutes a pound x 20 lbs.,” Lamkins elaborates. “Whereas now, the controls will allow you to say, ‘I have a 20-lb. turkey that I want to roast,’ and boom, you’re done.”

In cooktops, too, more stringent control is key. For instance, traditionally, cooks used techniques such as throwing a few droplets of water onto a wok to gauge how hot it is, but, “your controls should tell you when it’s ready,” says Lamkins. “I know I want my wok to be ready every time on number 6 on the controller. That’s where the industry is heading in controls – more intuitive and user-friendly.”

Visible Ventilation

No place in the kitchen has evolved as grandly and elaborately as the once-lowly, utilitarian vent.­

“Whenever you have a party, the crowd always gathers in the kitchen,” says Siow. “Ventilation is eye level and it’s always above the range, which is the center of the kitchen – [and] is the center of the home.”

Small wonder then that the vent has emerged as a place to make a major league design statement, especially when accompanying island cooktops.

A free-standing, professional-style range “is bulky and muscular,” says Siow, “and that’s fine. But when you have an island installation,” a big boxy vent is “like you’re hanging a refrigerator in the middle of your kitchen. Aesthetically, it’s challenging.”

The results of Zephyr’s quest for a functional unit that’s not obtrusive includes Fu-Tung Cheng’s line of stylized ventilation products. The island version comes in 60" and 72" with the sleek details and high style of Cheng’s wall-mounted hoods.­

Consumers who choose not to make a design statement with their ventilation hood tend to go all the way in the other direction, and make it as unobtrusive as possible, manufacturers agree.

Blake Woodall, director of sales and marketing for Vent-A-Hood Ltd. in Richardson, TX, points out that vent liner sales have skyrocketed to meet the demand for softer looking kitchens.

People “don’t want their kitchen to show so much stainless steel that [it] has a restaurant feel,” Woodall further explains.

“More and more people are designing their own hoods to blend in with the cabinets and are using a liner,” echoes Woods.

When it comes to function, it’s still the vent that’s seen but not heard that’s most in demand.

“Many customers believe that the way to attain a quieter range hood is to install an external blower system,” says Woodall, only to find that the noise increased!”

Placing the motor farther away does not reduce noise, contrary to popular belief.

“It is not the motor that makes the noise, it is the air,” Woodall elaborates. “The more air you’re moving, and the more friction you create when moving that air, the more [noise you create]. So the larger the exterior blower, the louder the air noise roars, especially when you create friction by pulling the air though a mesh or baffle filter.”

Vent-A-Hood addresses this issue with a filtration system that internally encloses the motors and liquefies grease by centrifugal pressure, he points out.

Wine Country

If the vent started out as a utilitarian necessity, the wine cooler was once a luxurious afterthought. Consumers have embraced the concept, however, and especially with the trend toward undercounter placement, the wine cooler is increasingly considered a must-have – particularly with higher-end kitchens, the manufacturers surveyed here agree.

“[We’re selling] undercounter anything,” says India Hynes, owner/president of Westside Wine Cellars in Los Angeles, CA, “[especially] the ones that can be built in, instead of just standing alone.­You have a lot more design flexibility [that way].”

Multiple temperature zones within a wine cooler are another burgeoning trend, Hynes adds.

Red wine doesn’t have to be refrigerated, but it does need to be stored in the proper temperature, she elaborates.

“If it’s too warm or too cold, the cork will pop. If you don’t have enough humidity, the cork will dry out. Too much humidity, the cork will mold,” she says.

Hynes further notes her company’s biggest sellers are 60-bottle, stainless steel coolers, some featuring a UV-protected glass door “But you’re still not supposed to put it directly in the sun’s rays,” she cautions.

Hynes predicts wine coolers will grow more computerized because of consumer demand for exact temperature control, and digital displays, though this is not necessarily a good development.

“The more you give a customer computer ‘doo-dads,’ the more problems you have with the unit,” she quips.

Hynes also cautions that most smaller wine coolers are not designed for long-term storage. “You can put your wine there, and it’s protected for a year,” she says. “The humidity factor is very important,” especially when dealing with particularly humid, or dry, climates. “The metal cabinets are taking the ambient humidity from outside,” she believes. Plus, smaller refrigerator wine coolers do not include humidity control, she adds.

“Most [wine coolers] rely on the laws of physics to control their temperature,” agrees Leuthe. “That’s why they are called coolers. They cool to some temperature, and allow the cool air to drop and the hot air to rise. That’s how you get the different temps in the units.”­He points out Sub-Zero’s wine storage units employ a more controlled system.­

“Proper storage is critical in preserving wine,” echoes Straszewski. “Without a stable environment, one in which the temperature does not fluctuate more than one or two degrees, a wine’s integrity can be compromised.”

Humidity, light and vibration are all concerns when configuring optimum wine storage, she adds, concluding, “The differences between low-end and high-end units are much more important than aesthetic features alone.”

The Finish Line

Naturally, the perfect appliance needs the perfect finish, “something that looks beautiful, feels good and reeks of expensive,” says Lamkins. Finishes must also be durable, notes Leuthe. “If people are paying the luxury prices for these appliances, they expect them to perform and stand the test of time.”

In recent years, the finish of choice has, of course, been stainless steel, although the look has become so popular, it no longer has the impact it had when it was first introduced. Innovative texturing is one way of making steel look new, while steel-look finishes emerged as a functional alternative to achieve the look without the fingerprints.

Some manufacturers are moving to finishes with a metallic feel, for instance, KitchenAid’s new matte, metallic finish called Meteorite.

For example, Maher cites Frigidaire’s EasyCare real stainless steel finish, which was designed to resist fingerprints and smudges for a more user-friendly [and family-friendly] finish.

“We’re also moving to a metallic paint,” reveals Lamkins. “The glisten and the luster that you get from metal are there in the paint, which is being applied beneath glass. That process helps tie the two together, the metallic new color look with a more desirable surface to keep clean.”

Integral fronts that match cabinetry are also gaining in popularity, especially for retro, vintage or antique looks. “A designer is limited [only] by his or her imagination,” Leuthe says of this trend. “We can blend in with anything. We can make refrigeration basically disappear.”

“Stainless steel’s not going to go anywhere,” declares Wimberly. “But I see other types of metal eventually working themselves into the kitchen.”

Siow also sees stainless combining with glass and other metals such as aluminum, copper and brass in the future. “There are all kinds of mix-and-match opportunities that can really bring out what’s beyond the traditional stainless,” he believes.

However, Bob Woods, v.p./sales for Viking Range Corp. in Greenwood, MS, cautions that, “Copper can add a lot of maintenance that people do not always welcome.”

Siow does further note that using more exotic types of metal on one appliance can prove to be a problem when it doesn’t match the rest of the kitchen. For instance, “You cannot find aluminum ranges,” he notes.

Of course this begs the question: Is it really necessary or even desirable for all the appliances within a kitchen to match, and be manufactured by the same company?

On this subject, opinions differ widely. Some research indicates consumers like the design integrity of a unified look throughout, but some manufacturers counter that no one company can produce a suite of products in completely different appliance categories and compete with the specialists in all these categories.

But whatever the price point, both design and performance of today’s appliances are likely to be a quantum leap beyond what was available five years ago.