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Life after stainless steel: It's coming, slowly

At the big kitchen-bath show, technology and materials drive trends.

April 27, 2006|Katherine E. Nelson | Special to The Times

Chicago — FOR anyone searching for life beyond stainless steel, the Kitchen/Bath Industry Show and Conference that closed this week in Chicago offered a glimmer of hope from manufacturers whose new products were tweaks on old-fangled materials: copper, bronze and, perhaps most interestingly, glass.

Tempered glass appeared in appliances from Dacor, cabinets from Cucine Lube USA and translucent custom countertops from ThinkGlass.

"Glass was the norm for appliances for decades, up until 15 years ago when stainless steel started to grow in popularity," said Elaine Chaney, senior vice president of marketing and sales at Dacor. "Today we are seeing it as a great way for homeowners to bring color into the kitchen. Plus cleaning is simple, and the material does not scratch as easily as stainless."

Still, the bustling trade show known as K/BIS -- think 900 exhibitors and more than 60,000 attendees -- revealed that despite the fingerprints and water spots that rankle owners of stainless, and despite the innovations such as Jenn-Air's oil-rubbed bronze appliances, steel is still king.

Sears and its Kenmore brand introduced Kenmore Pro, which the company calls a professional-grade appliance suite of stainless steel ovens, cooktops, hoods, counter-depth refrigerators and a dual-fuel range, most priced from $1,000 to $2,000.

At the other end of the spectrum, the German manufacturer Gaggenau showcased its first refrigeration units, which feature all-stainless steel interiors and refined lines sure to set architects' hearts aflutter. The price: $6,799 for a 36-inch, three-drawer model.

Although stainless still reigned, hard-edged minimalism finally loosened its grip.

"Over the last several years, many markets have seen the emergence of designs featuring flat surfaces and sharp edges. Unfortunately, this look is not terribly functional in many bathrooms," said Philippe Grohe of Hansgrohe. "Consumers tend to prefer rounder, more organic designs for these intimate spaces."

Hansgrohe's Axor brand, known for its rigorously geometric faucets by the likes of Philippe Starck, did an about-face with the introduction of the decorative, Belle Epochinspired Montreux line.

Also seeing curves ahead: Vitra (the bathroom designer, not the furniture maker) showed a new collection due to arrive in 2007 from Ross Lovegrove, a British designer known for his organic forms, and Jado tapped French architect Jean Nouvel for a sinuous shower and tub filler.

Gone were the box-like sinks from manufacturers such as Blanco and Elkay. Their new sinks feature slightly sloping (10- to 15-degree radius) corners that are easier to clean.

Changing tastes may be one cause for the softer look. A more urgent reason: Geometric designs have become easy targets for knockoffs.

"The zero-radius is the easiest sink in the world to make: It's a box with four edges," said Lloyd LeBlanc, director of the residential division of Julien, whose new Vintage collection introduced a curving take on the zero-radius sink. "The challenge for manufacturers is to stay ahead by creating new curves and looks that are more complicated to reproduce."

In the effort to add warmth to contemporary offerings, manufacturers also turned to technology. The happy, shiny glow of the LED appeared everywhere -- in sinks, on oven knobs and control buttons, and even as a peekaboo night light in a bathroom cabinet.

KWC featured the Canyon and Eve families of faucets, which use LEDs in the water stream. The lights act as a conversation piece but also serve a practical function by illuminating the sink and, in the case of Canyon, changing color from red to blue to indicate water temperature.

Brizo's offering -- a smart, hands-free kitchen faucet named Pascal -- has sensors that turn on the water as soon as hands, plates or other objects move under the spout. A quick touch of the faucet also can start or stop the flow.

Kohler went for the wow factor with its DTV, a digital shower command center with an iPod-like control that can manage water pressure and temperature for up to eight (yes, eight) shower heads. Family members can preset their individual preferences.

Neptune's Neptuner didn't just bring stereo sound into the bathroom, it brought it underwater. Mounted to the underside of the bathtub, the device transmits sound waves through the water, delivering audio from, say, a wall-mounted TV or a stereo system.

K/BIS always has its share of out-there design, but this year most manufacturers stayed close to the tried and true. Building on the outdoor kitchen trend, companies such as Sub-Zero/Wolf and Viking focused on line extensions with sealed cooktops, infrared grills and refrigerators that can take the heat of the sun.

And for consumers looking to stick with the same old stainless steel look? Manufacturers are offering an increasing array of matte finishes that resist those darn smudges.

Katherine E. Nelson is associate editor of Metropolitan Home magazine. She can be reached at

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