Applied Science

Applied Science

Stainless steel and professional grade equipment still predominate in high-end appliances, while imaginative new technology inspires a speed-oriented market.

By Daina Darzin Manning

Accordingly, today's appliance companies are working hard to come up with innovative products to meet all of these consumer needs and those of super-busy families who just want food on the table fast, fast, fast, according to the manufacturers surveyed by Kitchen & Bath Design News. 

The Pro Kitchen
"In the past, there were people who were interested in cooking, but if you asked them, 'What are your hobbies?' they wouldn't say cooking," explains Brian Maynard, director of marketing for KitchenAid Home Appliances, in Benton Harbor, MI. "Now, they do. We live in an era of 'chef as rock star.' People are interested in being a connoisseur with regard to cooking."

"People are leading a double life as a cook," notes Gary Ball, Thermador brand manager, BSH Home Appliances, in Huntington Beach, CA. "Weekday cooking is fast. The weekend is when they're enjoying some real time in the kitchen," he adds.

Similarly, Larry Lamkins, CKD, director of product support for DACOR, in Pasadena, CA, differentiates between convenience cooking and cooking as a social environment. "One is fast food, get it done, get it ready for the family," he notes. "The other is enjoying the way you're entertaining your friends with the kind of cooking you're able to do." 

For all of those needs, the centerpiece of a mid- to high-end kitchen is likely to be a professional or pro-look range. 

Professional-quality ranges and other appliances revolutionized the industry a few years back, as high-end consumers flocked to commercial-grade products, and stainless steel became the prevailing design trend.

Do people really use this stuff, or just have it for show? Well, both. Ball compares it to one's home, or SUV. "Do they really need six bathrooms? Do they really do a lot of off-road driving? Probably not," he admits. "It's not so much that it's for everyday use, it's knowing that you can do it if you want to. Six burners appeal to a family that [knows] that for entertaining and holidays, you can really get things going." 

Today's consumers also do much more research about products to make sure they're getting the latest technology, he adds. "They want to do everything right," he notes. 

"Right" these days means professional appliances with style, manufacturers agree. Professional appliances didn't have a lot of sophistication when compared to products originally targeted for the residential market, says Ball, who notes oven features such as better lighting, cleanability and convection capability as consumer desires. "Manufacturers didn't get too involved in electronics and advanced features," he elaborates. Now, however, professional-grade appliances are adding these features, as well as snazzier designs. 

"We're seeing a really strong acceptance of our designer line," notes Dale Persons, v.p./public affairs for Viking Range Corp., in Greenwood, MS. "People say, 'I want performance and quality and rugged durability in construction, but I'd like a sleeker look.'

"For several high-end appliance manufacturers, sleeker means coordinated, with handles and other details of ovens and dishwashers maintaining a uniform look a strategy that not only gives the kitchen a more elegant, integrated feel, but inspires brand loyalty, notes Persons. He points out that many manufacturers provide good products, and a uniform look can inspire a customer to buy an entire kitchen from one company. "If I'm selling BMWs, and you're selling Lexus, I couldn't say, 'if you buy a Lexus, that's a terrible car,'" he analogizes. "They're both good cars. Customers make a decision not strictly on performance they make it on a number of things, including styling." 

"We've seen consumer interest in a look that's professional but not commercial," confirms Maynard. He sees a more rounded, ergonomically designed, comfortable feel as hot right now. "Retro is back, and that rounded look is more from that era," he adds. 

The predominant design trend in kitchen appliances is steel, steel, steel, manufacturers maintain. Stainless steel is the "new neutral," and everyone surveyed says it's here to stay. "Stainless is almost a no-color color. It's very universal," says Lamkins. 

Ball points out that while consumers admire adventurous picks in magazines and showrooms, they buy the tried and true. "It's kind of like porcelain bath fixtures," he notes. "Everybody loves to see red or black, but when they actually buy, they buy white." 

But, as stainless steel becomes more and more available at lower price points, upscale consumers will be more likely to consider other choices. 
"I believe you're going to see other types of metals," says Ball, "softer looks that aren't quite as shiny." He points out that copper has always been a kitchen mainstay, while aluminum a lighter, more matte steel-like look is currently hot in Europe. 

"It's a very sophisticated finish, it looks very classy," says Bettina Walcher, marketing manager for Gaggenau North America, in Huntington Beach, CA. "People like the sleek design; it looks very contemporary and light." 

Lamkins predicts that appliances will take their cues from the plumbing industry in imaginative applications of colors with metallic surfaces. Ball points out that black appliances are having a bit of a resurgence, while white is losing steam; Lamkins cites black chrome as an up-and-comer, while pewter shades are also a possibility. 

Maynard predicts growth in copper, aluminum and textured metal finishes, adding that, inspired by the iMac series of brightly-colored computers, small appliances are now available in a wide range of colors and can be used as an accent in kitchens. 

Toys in the hood 
The preponderance of professional ranges has made the high-end vent hood an essential part of kitchen design. In fact, the hood is often the focal point. 
Alex Siow, director of marketing of Zephyr Ventilation, in San Francisco, CA, points out that the vent hood is at eye level, prompting it to be the centerpiece.

"We have a lot of consumers who start building their kitchen by first picking out the hood, then picking the designs around it," he says. 

"We see a lot of consumers who are designing kitchens around the hood," agrees Maynard. 

Stainless steel is still the primary hood color, adds Siow, but brass and other metals, as well as glass hoods, provide an edgy and beautiful new look. 

"They look cleaner, you're able to do a lot more curves and higher- end design elements by using hand blown glass," he says. 

However, many designers note that the trend for vent hoods is to have them hidden behind wood that complements kitchen cabinetry for a homey hearth look, especially in more traditional kitchen looks. But kitchen manufacturers have also come up with elegant new styles to provide an alternative to your basic, stainless steel industrial hood. 

"The true commercial look continues to be very popular for the purist," says Viking's Persons, "but I think there's a styling component to ventilation that we're trying to expand. The hood in many cases makes a styling statement of its own." 

Walcher adds that the noise of a vent is increasingly an issue; consumers have also begun to realize that bigger isn't necessarily better. For instance, Gaggenau's pop-up vent arm (part of its mix-and-match cooktop series) draws vapors right at the source, making it more efficient and quiet, she notes. "Quiet venting is the trend of the future," she believes. 

Similarly, Maynard cites hoods with dishwasher-safe filters and custom finishes as popular choices.

Lamkins believes that "where the industry has lagged in ventilation is downdrafting, not updrafting." He points out that cooktops are often located on islands, and room design doesn't lend itself to an overhead vent. "The visuals and space beg for a no-hood environment, and there's no approved down-draft ventilation systems for a commercial-style cooktop," he notes. 

Walcher also notes a new sophistication when it comes to lighting. "With overhead hoods, the lighting system is important," she elaborates. "It's nice to have halogen lights so you have good illumination of the worktop." 

Higher technology
Want an oven that can tell exactly what it's cooking, picks the best way to cook it, and does so in minutes instead of hours, then magically deposits the finished product on the dinner table complete with garnish? 

It's not possible yet, but almost. Technology has made huge inroads in the kitchen appliance market, aiming to make cooking faster, better and more convenient. 

"Electronics are allowing appliances to do what they do better," says Kim Freeman, program manager at GE Appliances, in Louisville, KY. She cites her com-pany's Artica refrigerator, which has both an express chill and express thaw feature, as an example of this. "You don't have to think days in advance what you have to have for dinner any more," she explains. "And it'll chill a bottle of Chardonnay in 17 minutes." 

Technology can also make the cooking process better as well as faster. For instance, Gaggenau now provides an oven that enables the user to utilize steam in cooking at various levels. Walcher says it's great for bringing out the flavor of food without adding fat. "It's healthy cooking," she says. 

Energy efficiency is also a growing issue that prompts consumers to make different choices in appliances, says Freeman, who cites more stringent regulations on refrigerator energy output as an issue impacting appliances on the market today. 

Additionally, modular drawer systems such as Fisher & Paykel's dishwasher drawer have addressed space concerns, showing that dishwashers don't have to be huge, clunky items.

And now, there's even a countertop model dishwasher, reports Atul Vir, president of Equator Appli-ances, in Houston, TX. "People think it's a toy, but it's a real dishwasher in a compact size," he says. The countertop model, which can wash eight full sets of dishes, appeals to a number of markets: people who live in older, big-city apartments whose tiny kitchens don't have the space for a built-in; those who like to entertain and need a second dishwasher; singles who have small loads of dishes, and offices that need a more thorough and sanitary way of rinsing coffee mugs. 

Conversely, people with huge kitchens are leaning toward multiple full-size dishwashers, says Maynard. He notes that dishwashers are cheaper than cabinets, and some consumers have two and use them as perpetual storage. "One [batch of dishes] is clean, and then you start putting dirty dishes in [the other dishwasher]. You just go back and forth [without ever putting the dishes in a cabinet]." 

One product that has been available in the high-end market for years, but has just become available in lower price points via the GE Avantium oven, is the high-speed microwave combination, which mixes microwave and conventional cooking for high-speed but crispy results.

"That trend is growing more at a mass level," says Maynard. "People who buy premium brands typically want to have more involvement in their cooking. [High-speed cooking] products have not reached the point where the consumer has as much control over them as I think most consumers would like." He thinks the price point of the combo high-speed microwave will go down still further, leading to mass acceptance. 

But Persons warns that, when it comes to technology, it's possible to have too much of a good thing.

"I don't think the super high-tech stuff is what people are looking for," he believes. "Cooking is not strictly goal oriented. The quality of the food is part of it, and I know people are in a rush, but I think [cooking] is their relaxation, too. It's their way of maybe slowing things down." 

He likens cooking as a hobby to the guy who spends the weekend working on a special car. "He could get somebody else to do that, but it's his relaxation."

People who cook for fun enjoy simplicity, like good old primal flames from a gas range, rather than a high-tech oven with multiple knobs, 
he believes. 

But Gaggenau's Walcher insists that customers just need the benefits of a high-tech product like steam ovens explained to them carefully in order to capture their interest. She says, "You have to demonstrate it, and then people love it." 

New Frontiers
What's next for the upscale consumer who already has the perfect kitchen, with all bells and whistles firmly in place? 

Persons predicts strong growth in the upscale outdoor kitchen, which aims to do for the backyard barbecue what professional ranges did for indoor cooking improved performance plus status. He notes refrigeration, warming drawers and beverage dispensers in addition to a top-of-the-line grill as components of the outdoor kitchen, and adds that the trend isn't limited to warm climates.

"The deck has really become an extension of the kitchen," agrees Maynard.

Wine coolers are another growing trend, with upscale products leading the way. "The new luxury is being a connoisseur," says Maynard. "People want to store their wines properly. They want to be an expert." 

Lamkins predicts the need for small wine coolers, perhaps as part of a refrigerator drawer system. "Unless you're a wine connoisseur who drinks a lot of cold wine, you don't need a huge storage area," he says. "The industry will be looking for a convenient way to store six bottles at the right location instead of 30 at the wrong location," he believes. 

Ball points out that the wine cooler isn't necessarily a high-end item. "Best Buy is selling wine coolers that are imported from the Far East at some very attractive price points," he explains. "So the [mass] public may not be aware of $5,000 built-in wine coolers, but when they see a $400 wine cooler that looks like a dorm refrigerator, they think, 'hey, I'm really getting into wine, this is affordable, this is kind of neat.' There's a real opportunity there." 

Whatever the configuration of a kitchen's appliances, they're likely to be more stylish than ever before and the range of products offered will only increase. Maynard points to the proliferation of larger retailers, as well as media outlets, devoted to style. He concludes, "It's cool to decorate now." KBDN