Beyond Stainless

Are we finally nearing the end of stainless steel's kitchen dominance?

The young couple enters the house. It is large, spacious and airy. It has a sizeable front and back yard. It is in an excellent location. Best of all, it is in their price range. Beaming, they admire the hardwood floors. Raptly, they drink in the cunningly arranged open floor plan. And then . . . disaster.

"We really wanted stainless," says the crestfallen pair, and trudge back out the door.

If you are over a certain age, you have definitely watched this show. You can hardly avoid it. "HGTV," sighs a DIY addict of my acquaintance, "is porn for married people." An informal survey of my friends indicates that this is all too true. The survey also indicates that most of the pleasure comes from watching idiots, young and old, refuse to buy otherwise perfect homes because the appliances do not come with a cheap stainless steel panel on the front.

Just as we had the housing bubble, we now seem to be at the apex of the stainless steel bubble. Consumer goods go through a natural cycle: first rich people have them, then someone figures out how to mass-produce them at much lower prices, then rich people decide that it's vulgar and start looking for something else. Wall to wall carpet used to be a luxury, rather than the mainstay of low-end condo developments. Elaborately carved furniture was the epitome of luxury, until the Victorians invented wood-turning machines and turned it into a joke. Polyester made satin dresses look "cheap", rather than expensive.

Is stainless immune to this cycle? The original stainless appliances were basically restaurant stoves with better insulation and an electric pilot; they were stainless because that's the easiest way to comply with sanitary rules in a restaurant kitchen. Stainless signalled higher BTUs coming out of the burners, bigger ovens, and so forth. It also signalled that the oven was very expensive.

Nowadays, we're mostly talking about a low-end appliance that has had a cheap stainless panel stuck on the front. What's more, everyone knows it, because you can see them in the kitchens of houses that clearly didn't cost much to build or furnish. Will people keep buying it when it's no longer a status symbol?

When I suggested this a year ago, people scoffed. Stainless goes with everything! They declared. And it's so sanitary! And durable!

I humbly submitted that unless you are cooking with restaurant-level BTUs, modern enamel finishes are just as durable as stainless steel. And that sanitation-wise, there's probably no difference for the home cook. Though I did enjoy the fellow who suggested that he sterilized everything in his kitchen with a Harvest Gold autoclave.

They disagreed. We left it there.

A year later, casual perusal of HGTV and design catalogues indicates that the rich are indeed moving away from stainless. La Cornue seems to be replacing Viking as the aspirational kitchen range, and you're starting to see other companies coming out with brightly-colored ranges to capitalize on this trend. Manufacturers, says the Wall Street Journal, are on a full-fledged hunt for the next stainless steel.

There's only one problem: colors date. Nothing screams "seventies" like avocado, or "eighties condo" like that all-white kitchen with the laminate cabinet doors. Bright colors are fine for rich people who can redecorate as a sort of a hobby, but what about the rest of us? This has complicated the quest for a stainless steel replacement; finishes like "oiled bronze" have already come and gone.

My money is on white, black, or grey. Anything else is ultimately going to virtually pinpoint the year that you redecorated. That's okay when you're dealing with a "Tuscan grape" or glass tile backsplash; they can be chiseled out and replaced in eight years at relatively low cost. But no one wants to throw away thousands of dollars worth of appliances because their bet on sage green turned out to be disastrously premature.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

The counterargument to my supposition is that after 25 years of stainless steel's increasing dominance, it's still hard to imagine what comes next. On the other hand, it's also hard to imagine that people are going to keep buying appliances that remind them so much of their grandmothers.