Why Were Stainless Steel Appliances So Popular?

stainless-steel-kitchenThere’s nothing more common in today’s market than the sight of stainless steel appliances. Over the last decade-plus, they’ve gone from exceptional to ubiquitous – a time period which, not coincidentally, saw a similar arc for the million-dollar asking price. But how did the stainless steel appliance become the perfect metaphor for the mainstreaming of wealth?

Way back when, the stainless steel appliance was seen almost exclusively in restaurants. It’s relevant that the rise of celebrity chef culture immediately preceded the rise of stainless steel appliances. No one outside food circles knew who Anthony Bourdain was a decade ago; now my 63 year old mother salivates over him as much as his food. As Bourdain, Ramsey, et al, got reality shows, cameras in the back kitchens linked the stainless steel appliance with the romance of the outlaw chef, in the minds of consumers. (Something else to consider: the rise of Instagram as a promoter of food porn, further goosing the glamorization of kitchen culture.)

Restaurants, of course, favored the spartan material for practical reasons.  At the insanely high heats blasted out by these industrial-grade appliances (a commercial grade range on charbroil, for example, can put out eight times the heat of a normal range), any painted finishes, not to mention other materials, would bubble and melt. Also – stainless steel doesn’t, like, stain. This is important when you’re making 180 entrees a night, seven nights a week. Not so much when you’re using your stove twice a month to drunkenly make macaroni and cheese. But that’s beside the point; status items aren’t about practicality. In fact, they’re anti-practicality. They point of a status item is that it’s excessive. (It’s not actually that excessive though – most of the stainless steel appliances you see in today’s homes are only industrial in appearance; their output is usually more in line with consumer needs than with commercial ones, which require special gas lines and reinforced floors. This is also why, in high-end homes, the listings sometime specify “restaurant grade” or “commercial grade” stainless steel appliances; no cheap consumer-grade knockoffs here!)

At the same time, the aesthetic of the stainless steel appliance perfectly dovetailed with the stripped-down industrial “faux-authenticity” vibe that was all the rage until a serious backlash started to build in 2015. Exposed brick and ductwork were nicely complemented by the spartan vibe of stainless steel – their common pretense was a lack of pretension. When you put it like that, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the stainless steel trend started, like a lot of trends, in Europe. European designers embraced stainless steel appliances back when we Americans were still fumbling around on our tacky painted ones. (Also not a coincidence; Apple’s lead designer, and the sensibility behind all those sleek, brushed steel unibody products like the MacBook Air, is European.) And if you know how these trend cycles work, you won’t be surprised to learn that Europe has been over stainless steel for a while now.

The favored luxury finish across the Atlantic, which just debuted in the US last year, is a matte black, though lacquered black also has its boosters. (And now we know where Kanye, who’s spent the last few years in Paris desperately trying to break into fashion, got the idea for his flat black Lamborghini.)  This is in keeping with big picture cultural dynamics which have seen the avant-garde turn from an ostentatious aesthetic towards monochromatic minimalism;  just look at the people walking around Bushwick or Berlin and you’ll see what I mean.  Which also means that inside of five years, dinner party guests are going to be cringing and snickering at your shiny stainless steel appliances, regardless of their price tag.  Plan accordingly.

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