by Ann M. Colford

Back in Spokane's early days, no one had electric refrigeration. Fresh foods stayed cool in an icebox, an insulated chest with a compartment on top that held blocks of ice, and the iceman made his rounds delivering ice to rich and poor alike. Once electricity came along, the electric icebox, or refrigerator, became an early status symbol of middle-class achievement. Few models existed, so simply having a refrigerator was enough to earn status points.

All that changed in the post-war boom years. The '50s brought variety to the American consumer, and choice came to symbolize the virtues of America, as touted by Vice President Richard Nixon in his impromptu yet infamous "kitchen debate" with Nikita Khrushchev at the 1959 American Exposition in Moscow. Once everyone had a refrigerator, the object alone no longer brought status -- thus, the explosion of color and style into the marketplace.

The pink and turquoise appliances of the '50s gave way to the gold and avocado classics of the '70s. Now, neutrals -- white, cream and the newest neutral, black -- rule the day. But it's the mixing and matching of features that determines desirability. Standard mid-range refrigerator offerings haven't changed much in the past decade, with the exception of some stainless steel models making inroads into the mass market for a premium price. Side-by-sides, with the benefit of eye-level storage in both sections but the drawback of narrow shelves, are still popular. Maytag now has a model called the Wide-By-Side that addresses the narrow-shelf problem with a refrigerator compartment that's wider at the top and narrower at the bottom. Bottom-mount freezers are gaining cachet, too, as consumers recognize the advantages of an eye-level refrigerator. And the ubiquitous through-the-door ice and water dispensers attract attention as well.

But it's at the high end that the trendsetters are at work, as always. Open up any kitchen design publication, and the glossy photos are chock full of appliances that look like they belong in a restaurant -- or appliances that don't look like appliances at all. Commercial-style appliances make significant statements about the importance of food and entertaining to one's lifestyle, while refrigerators that blend inconspicuously with the cabinetry turn the kitchen into an elegant room filled with fine furniture.

In high-end appliances, form now outpaces function. Sub-Zero and other premium brands offer a super-sized version of the side-by-side with companion all-refrigerator and all-freezer units, creating the Lincoln Navigator of kitchen appliances. Options include outside pull-out drawers on each unit for easy-to-reach storage and glass doors for easy visibility and browsing. Despite the obvious drawback of having to keep the inside of the fridge pristine for public viewing, glass doors do have a functional advantage.

"If your husband is the type who stands in front of the refrigerator with the door open, staring inside, then this is the model for you," quips Larry Beck of Fred's Appliance in Spokane. "That way, he can see what's inside without opening the door."

For those who live at the cutting edge of style, the latest looks were on display recently in Orlando at the annual Kitchen and Bath Industry Show. Think black and stainless are de rigueur? Think again. Manufacturers trotted out rich espresso-toned surfaces and high-gloss exotic woods to complement the industrial sleekness of stainless. And speaking of stainless, variations on the metallic theme, from nickel to platinum, have caught on with designers. Built-in appliances have been the rage for several years, but now the new buzzword is "integrated" -- appliances must be integrated into the overall design in the kitchen and beyond. As Sub-Zero defines it, integration means "refrigerators and freezers you can hide anywhere in the house, inside the furniture or cabinetry of your choosing."

What drives this trend toward bigger and fancier refrigeration, anyway? After all, the average American household continues to shrink in size while our cars and houses -- and appliances -- get pumped to gargantuan proportions. Given recent trends in "nesting" and all the focus on home and hearth in the last two years, the kitchen has assumed even greater importance as a center for our lives with family and friends. As such, it becomes a place where we express who we are and where we stand in the social hierarchy.

Advertising helps us understand the language of home decor. For example, Sub-Zero proclaims itself to be "the natural choice of people who don't cut corners" and "the anchor of your uncompromised kitchen." No one wants to be caught cutting corners, and compromise has taken on the taint of weakness in our competitive, winner-take-all society, so the clean stainless kitchen says, "I'm responsible and I demand only the best for my family." Who wouldn't want to buy that message?

Publication date: 07/17/03

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