High BTUs, High Style

High BTUs, High Style

Appliances perfectly calibrated for optimum functionality and impeccable, specific design mark today's burgeoning appliance market.

By Daina Manning

Lives, families, kitchens, technology. Everything has become more complex and effective these days, and appliances seem to
be following suit.

It's not just about putting new features on the same old configurations. Rather, today's appliance market is looking at function in a new way, without preconceptions.

Go Modular
The idea of the work triangle seems to be the first thing to go.

A modular approach "was a logical outcry from consumers and designers," according to Paul Leuthe, corporate marketing manager for Sub-Zero Freezer Co. in Madison, WI. "The NKBA talks about this work triangle, but how many years back was that established? It's outlived its usefulness [these days when] you have smaller cooktops you can couple with refrigerators, or take our drawer system and put that next to a sink and have a vegetable preparation area."

Not only are appliances spreading and duplicating in the kitchen via task-specific modules, but they're finding other
spots throughout the house, as well. "They're stretching," says Leuthe. "You can have point of use in offices, master suites, rec rooms." He adds that some people are even using refrigerator drawers for storing make-up in the bath.

"People love entertaining, but don't enjoy spending all their time in the kitchen when they have a house full of guests," notes Susan Fisher, v.p. and general manager for Jenn-Air's strategic business unit in Newton, IA. "Because of this, manufacturers are bringing appliances out of the kitchen. One of the hottest items in the Jenn-Air booth at K/BIS this year was the coffee table with a built-in warming drawer."

Similarly, Richard Uihlein, territory manager of U-Line Corp., in Milwaukee, WI, sees a children's module as a popular addition.There, snacks are stored in an easy-to-get-to undercounter refrigerator, perhaps in an island, out of the way of the adults who are cooking.

"We have already seen dishwasher, refrigerator and warming drawers," adds Bryce Wells, marketing manager for the Irvine, CA-based Fisher & Paykel. "Other companies have started to make ovens and ranges that are smaller than the usual 27" or 30" sizes."

Ease of use
What is the other thing people want? Good food, faster and easier. Fisher cites "powerful ease of use" as a major consumer desire. Menu-driven controls and customizable features "make the oven easy to customize to a specific cooking style," including a "help" feature to make the controls simple to operate.

Larry Lamkins, assistant v.p./marketing at DACOR Appliances, in Pasadena, CA, points to the touchpad interface as a popular controller, "perhaps because it provides a very clean, modern look that's not too far off from that of other gadgets consumers use today, such as PDAs and cell phones."

"With non-traditional families, where every individual may eat dinner at a different time, the kitchen needs to be functional for every family member," adds Matthew D. Kueny, manager of the Product Development Group for Miele, Inc. in Princeton, NJ. He sees a consumer need for "products that take the guesswork out of appliances, that allow even the most novice user to achieve great results." He cites Miele's MasterChef menu system, "which allows the user to simply tell the oven what is being cooked, and the oven takes over."

Fisher adds that new features such as Auto Convection Conversion also take the guesswork out of convection cooking, and provide consistent results by automatically converting cook time and/or temperature from conventional settings to the appropriate convection settings.

Overall, speed is key, notes Beatrix Sandoval, manager of brand marketing for Thermador Corp. in Huntington Beach, CA, citing her company's new "lightning fast pre-heat" feature. But opinions vary about whether speed convection microwaves are the answer for today's over-scheduled consumers.

Leuthe believes that busy families just eat out when they don't have time to cook but when they do make the effort, they want to make something special, the old-fashioned way. "When people want to cook at home, even if it's a simple meal, they want to spend the time and make a quality meal for the family,'" he explains.

Bob Woods, v.p./sales for Viking Range Corp. in Greenwood, MS also sees consumer resistance to speed cooking because it entails learning to cook a new way, "so is it really a time saver? How fast is fast?" He says consumers can get high-quality, already prepared food at upscale supermarkets and just add some finishing touches a quicker method than starting from scratch with speed cooking.

Classic style
The current explosion of building and remodeling has, of course, also produced the fabulous, though unused, "trophy kitchen." But no matter how much or how little use appliances are getting, appliance style remains key.

"There has been a trend in appliances lately to have a more stylish and 'modern' appearance," thinks Wells."Much of this is accomplished in handle and door design. There are [also] some lines in the marketplace that are taking hints from 'retro' periods and applying them to contemporary design."

These increasingly popular Transitional and Modernist looks are manifested more in appliance details such as controls, knobs and handles, agrees Viking's Woods."We have our designer series with the retro clock, [these days when everything is] digital, we went back to an analog clock for a retro look.Those are the details that will set the appliance [apart]."

Kueny points out that really traditional styles are more expensive to manufacture, in both appliances and cabinetry, so transitional looks make economic, as well as design sense. Uihlein adds that for consumers who do want to make a design statement with a vintage-look appliance, they're more likely to pick cooking equipment rather than refrigeration. Other companies strive to get a "best of both worlds" look, for instance, Miele's MasterChef oven collection "which blends a very traditional framed look with a sleek, modern handle," says Kueny.

"A lot of the commercial appliances are very basic, very non-trendy," adds Woods, who notes that these work with a variety of design styles.

Lamkins thinks clean lines, simple shapes and hand-crafted construction are keys to making appliances that can segue to a variety of different design styles. "New, improved materials will also supply many additional shade and tint characteristics, which will make a unique design statement," he says.

Opinions vary as to whether pro-style appliances translate to antique looks. Some favor an eclectic mix, and others recommend a more historically correct approach with integral fronts hiding contemporary appliances.

"Fully integrated dishwashers [and] dishwashers with concealed controls are growing very rapidly," says Kueny.

"People like to play a game, 'where's the refrigerator,'" agrees Sandoval. "I think custom paneling is going to be more and more popular, especially [if] our crazy interest rates and the remodeling frenzy continues. As people invest in more expensive cabinetry, they'll go ahead and cover [the appliances with matching fronts] and make it streamlined."

For other-room applications, Uihlein says consumers either want a hidden, integral front or want to display, for instance, their wine collection in a glass-doored wine cooler in a home entertainment room.

"Refrigeration [can be] like a chameleon," echoes Leuthe."If you want to put wood [integral fronts on them] and make it go away, you can do that, but if you want to make a statement, you can do that too. I don't think there's any one trend that's predictable across the country, and I think that speaks well of the industry."

Material choices
When it comes to materials, colors and finishes, Fisher emphasizes that this is one area that's not prone to fads. "Appliances are built to last, trends are not," she says. She believes consumers favor the classics, such as black and white and, of course, stainless steel.

"Steel is still the predominant finish," confirms Alex Siow, v.p./marketing for Zephyr Ventilation in San Francisco, CA. "But I see other materials being introduced too, such as glass. [And] I see different colors and materials [combined with] stainless. Colors on glass combined with stainless bring out its warmth."

Glass will also make a more important impact in the kitchen beyond tiles and vent hoods, notes Fisher. She reveals that "Jenn-Air is also preparing to offer a new glass finish [to appliances], as an alternative to stainless and painted textured steel, that will truly enhance these classic style trends." Some manufacturers are also catering to adventurous homeowners who want to use larger appliances as a colorful focal point, for instance, DACOR's new Preference wall ovens, available in grey, blue and green, notes Lamkins.

"The exclusivity of stainless steel, something that made it so popular in the custom kitchen market, is starting to wear off," adds Kueny. "With so many manufacturers now offering stainless 'professional' ranges in the entry-level positions, the appeal in the high end has diminished. With that said, stainless steel still has appeal but in built-in rather than in free-standing products. We also see some design trends with variations of [classic] black and white."

Lamkins, however, thinks steel is still going strong. "Consumers want to feel as though their kitchen is top-of-the-line, professional-grade," he believes. "The stainless look conveys the experience of a commercial or restaurant kitchen."

"People are still excited about the professional series," agrees Sandoval. "It takes a while for people to get out of the traditional kitchen appliance mode. They're moving more and more toward the bold, bigger, more hefty commercial-style appliances for [residential applications]. I think everyone wants to look like a chef at home."

Lamkins cautions that consumers also demand greater precision and safety in appliances than pro chefs "because appliances are getting used in a home environment where unbridled power could be detrimental to novice home chefs, and also dangerous to kids."

Sandoval also believes that precision is key, for instance, for being able to do delicate simmering on one burner while powering up high BTUs on another.

For interior function, Uihlein points to more personalized organization in refrigerators, echoing the more complex and intricate organizers that are gaining popularity for cabinetry.

"Consumers nowadays want to make sure [appliances] perform at the level promised," adds Leuthe."They don't just want smoke and mirrors. They don't just want the commercial look, they want the commercial performance."

As for the much-touted expansion into other metal tones and materials such as aluminum and copper, reports are mixed, but other metals still seem to be a niche market. Woods points out that actually using different metals as opposed to tinting, texturing or otherwise altering stainless steel may raise some maintenance issues. "When you go to some of these exotic finishes, you're looking at maintenance that may scare some people away," he says. "[Easy] cleaning and maintenance are always high on consumers' list."

Still, great room configurations lend themselves to a greater expansion into other metallic shades. Lamkins points out that a copper tone for ranges and cooktops works well with today's earthy tile colors as well as with high-end copper cookware. Kueny believes warm metal tones will remain primarily accent colors, because they're too overwhelming to finish out an entire kitchen. He adds: "We currently see some manufacturers playing with variations of standard materials finish coatings over stainless and some enameling."

Similarly, Leuthe cites Sub Zero's bead blasted "platinum" stainless steel, which provides a soft, satin luster. "The other color we worked with is a carbon steel, acid etched to give it a black, almost gun-metal look, [rather than a] high gloss [look]," he adds.

Taking it outdoors
"The outdoor kitchen is one of the fastest growing segments of our business this year," declares Woods. "It's a whole lifestyle thing the backyard becomes another room in the house." Viking's extensive line includes a refrigerator, warming drawers, barbecue, side bar, gas oven, electric and charcoal smokers, and even stainless steel cabinetry that will stand up to weather.
Landscapers are installing more elaborate hardscapes to support an outdoor kitchen set up, with stylish concrete applications that provide a solid floor and the look of stone with less maintenance. Fisher points out that placing appliances in an outside settings has also opened up possibilities for putting them in other non-traditional settings, such as pool and carriage houses."In order for these non-traditional placements to work, appliances need to be multi-functional and take up less space," she stresses, citing the Jenn-Air Convenience Oven, a full-functioning wall oven with a small footprint designed for entertaining outside the kitchen. Undercounter refrigerators and warming drawers also make an easy transit to other rooms and outdoors, she adds.

Will investing in outdoor set-ups cause homeowners to cut back a little on their interior kitchen? Not likely, those surveyed agree. "They're enhancing, not replacing," declares Sandoval, who believes consumers will stay brand loyal and choose their outdoor appliances from the primary manufacturer they used for their interior kitchen.

"Since many of the outdoor kitchens are now being specified with products that deliver the same features as indoor appliances," adds Lamkins, "it has forced the appliance manufacturers to produce more wet-area-approved versions of their products." He adds that many current indoor products such as hoods cannot be safely taken outdoors.

And what's on the horizon for the appliance market? Lamkins sees more programmed kitchen processes within one appliance. "A single-cell appliance will perform multiple tasks, for example, a refrigerator that can be an oven/microwave, then finish the job as a dishwasher. This will open up unique space-planning opportunities," he says.

For small appliances, Kueny sees steam ovens as gaining interest, while Wells believes still more appliances will become available in modular versions.

Fisher concludes that what people are looking for these days are customization and personalization.

"We've given consumers the power they need and we've made appliances more attractive than ever. Now we need to provide more innovative ways to integrate appliances into kitchen styles, either as hidden components or as design elements that support the style vision of the room," she says. KBDN