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The stainless steel appliance: Is it avocado yet?

Iris Price | Improvement Center Columnist | September 19, 2014

If you are planning a kitchen remodel this year and want to know what's trending in kitchen appliance finishes after the two-decade reign by stainless steel, it's…

drum roll, please…

Stainless steel: still the one

That's the answer you are most likely to get from real estate agents and interior designers, especially if you are planning to sell your home within the next five years. Everyone is playing it safe.

Even an appliance expert at the corporate offices of Ferguson Bath, Kitchen and Lighting Gallery with showrooms nationwide agrees, "Stainless Steel appliances continue to dominate the bulk of our appliance sales through our Showroom Channel."

When large distributors are buying and selling mostly stainless steel appliances, you know there's a demand. Stainless steel is not going to disappear anytime soon, and that's because homeowners, home buyers, flippers, and even flip-floppers are confident that you can't go wrong with stainless steel appliances in the kitchen.

No one wants to run the risk of remodeling a kitchen only to find that buyers are turned off by such "daring" appliance colors as white, black or other "new" finishes because even just a minor kitchen remodel -- appliances, countertops and cabinet doors -- runs almost $19,000 according to Remodeling Magazine's Cost vs. Value Report for 2014. No, you don't want to take any chances, but if you did…

The Ferguson representative steadfastly believes stainless is in no danger of losing its steely grip this year: "Stainless Steel is still the go-to finish." But the possibility of change looms on the horizon. "While brands like JennAir, Whirlpool and GE have introduced colors like Floating Glass Black, White Ice and Slate in the kitchen, Stainless Steel continues its reign. Other brands are introducing their own alternate finishes at KBIS/IBS in Las Vegas, January 2015, which may indicate at least the need to compete for that alternate finish business."

And if you're only upgrading the laundry or mudroom, you should be okay going a bit crazy with some other shades of gray metal like Chrome Shadow, Metallic Carbon or Titanium.

Black or white: the new avocado?

While black appliances are currently popular in Europe, possibly owing to the rising cost of stainless steel, it might be some time before that trend catches on in the U.S. However, an article in the September 12, 2014, Wall Street Journal calls attention to a new, sophisticated and dramatic kitchen "noir" look that features inky colors for cabinetry, walls, accessories and appliances. According to the article in the Wall Street Journal, The Rise of the Black Kitchen, "Led by the recent popularity of trophy stoves such as the black-enameled cast-iron models by upscale European manufacturers AGA and La Cornue, American appliance companies are also embracing the dark side: Viking offers its VGR 7 series ranges in black and graphite gray and, this fall, Jenn-Air debuts the $8,499 Obsidian, a stainless steel refrigerator with an anthracite interior."

Obsidian refrigerator
Jenn-Air's Obsidian fridge. Photo credit to Jenn-Air. Obsidian is available at Ferguson Bath, Kitchen & Lighting Gallery.

For those who are tired of the all-white kitchen, it might be welcome, but it takes time for the average American homeowner to embrace a radical change like that -- if ever. The demise of stainless steel appliances has been predicted for years, so when Whirlpool launched its "Ice" collection in 2012 featuring white and black appliances, some said the end for stainless was nigh. But even Whirlpool hedged its bets by including a stainless steel option. White appliances have always been available for some models of various manufacturers' appliances as an alternative to stainless steel, but many homeowners pay a premium for stainless when given the choice. Stainless has maintained its popularity in spite of its reputation as hard to keep clean, possibly because it's also durable and neutral.

Still, with the kitchen taking front and center stage -- the hearth and heart of the modern home -- steel is not everyone's favorite choice in decor, especially in an open-plan home. Homeowners who want to consider their kitchen appliances part of the furniture, opt for hiding them behind cabinet panels for an integrated look. Some have speculated that the enduring popularity of stainless steel, however, has more to do with culinary awareness and cooking shows. Everyone is a professional-chef wannabe. Even if you can't cook, your kitchen should look like you can channel your favorite Top Chef.

The bottom line may be that no one wants to be a trendsetter when they're spending thousands on each appliance, especially if you're a manufacturer or major distributor. You may think a fridge with black interior or matte metallic exterior like Slate from GE is really cool, but it could look as homely to a potential home buyer in a couple of years as if you'd opted for avocado -- regardless whether it's über-cold.

New finishes favored by Millennials

If you're itching to embrace change and you seek validation from the design world that it's time to break the chains of steel, you might have better luck asking young designers their opinions. With little memory of anything other than stainless steel kitchens, some under-30 interior designers expressed more forward-thinking preferences when interviewed for GE Monogram's blogsite, Save Room for Design. Discussing favorite kitchen appliance trends, Brittany Gardner said, "I'm excited about seeing more vibrant colors available on appliances and the mixing of different metal materials," and Lauren Lawless sees "a lot of retro-styled appliances coming back. I love the look and think it's a really fun trend that can give your kitchen an extra bit of fun and personality." Referring to GE's gray metallic finish, Slate, Jessica Altman loved its "matte look and a slight alteration on the stainless look."

Interior Designer Martin Spicuzza, Principal of Studio Spicuzza in Chicago, with 25 years of interior design experience was not as easily impressed, however, with any new finishes in kitchen appliances: "Stainless steel has been the rage for many recent years and should continue for years to come."

Perhaps the turning point will come when greater numbers of Millennials have their own kitchens to remodel. The stainless steel apocalypse may be coming, but it's not here yet.

About the Author

Iris Price is a single Baby Boomer whose antidote to a lack of retirement funds was to launch a long-delayed career as a writer. While others her age concoct bucket lists and travel the world, she bought a new-construction home and obsessively creates lists of must-have home improvements and personal realization goals. She specializes in writing about home services and self-motivation.