When Vicki and Charles Spira set out to renovate their Pikesville kitchen, the goal was not to create a dramatic room for stirring up extravagant meals, but rather to ensure that the kitchen would blend seamlessly with the rest of the house. "I'm not a gourmet cook," says Vicki. "I wanted a room that we could live in." Taking visual emphasis away from the appliances was key. So when it came to the refrigerator, the mother of all appliances, the family opted for a Kitchen Aid model clad in cherry panels to blend into the rest of the cabinetry. It's not unheard of to spend more than $100,000 to create a high-end kitchen, and a top-of-the-line fridge is one of the bigger-ticket items. They can cost upward of $15,000—think of it as a small car, if it makes you feel better. While Sub-Zero started the trend in super-sized refrigerators more than two decades ago with its restaurant-inspired models, today nearly every appliance manufacturer offers über-refrigerators. General Electric's Monogram, Profile, and Cafe lines rival the German-made Bosch, Liebherr, and Miele. There are popular models from Dacor, based in California, and Whirlpool's high-end brands, KitchenAid and Jenn-Air. Also in the running are LG, Marvel, Viking, and Thermador. Many of these brands can be seen at local showrooms (see sidebar), some offering sales directly to the public, others selling only to designers and contractors. The options can be as dizzying as the prices. But choosing a fridge was easy for Vicki. She may not have known exactly what she wanted from the outset, but she knew what she didn't want.
"Our last refrigerator was a side-by-side," Spira says. "I hated it. You couldn't fit anything wide in it." Spira was also dissatisfied with the refrigerator that had come with the house. "The bottom freezer compartment drawer was just a big bin of stuff you couldn't get to." Spira solved both of those issues with the top-of-the-line KitchenAid: It's a French-door model, one of the latest trends in refrigerator designs, with two doors that open like a swinging gate to a spacious upper refrigeration compartment and easy-to-organize freezer drawers below.
The old side-by-side (also a KitchenAid) has been relegated to the garage for cold drink storage, and Spira is thrilled with the way the wide opening of her new model accommodates large bowls and party platters.
Sam Gregory, vice president of sales and marketing for Appliance Distributors Unlimited, describes the French-door style as "almost like a walk-in closet for women and their shoes. It's a tremendous feeling to have everything within view, and in easy reach."
The main reason French-door models are so popular, says kitchen designer Ilene Silberg of SD Kitchens, "is that most of what you need is waist-high. It's easy to see and easy to reach." The two doors mean less area is required around the refrigerator to accommodate door swing—a good thing when today's models have mushroomed to widths of 48 inches. "The slimmer doors mean the refrigerator can be placed near an island or a wall, so the designer has more flexibility about where to place it," she says.
The Spiras' choice to cover the refrigerator with paneling to match the cabinetry is also a trend—albeit one that has been around for a few years, says Silberg. "People want their refrigerators to disappear into the kitchen," she says. To that end, refrigerators, while in some cases getting ever wider, are also shrinking in depth, with built-ins as shallow as 24 inches, so they don't jut from the counter.
Fully-integrated refrigeration is also popular these days, says Scott Waldhauser, vice president of Kenwood Kitchens in Lutherville. Some manufacturers offer under-the-counter units designed to look like cabinetry. "Some people go for drawers just for the kids, so they can get their juice boxes; others do their entire refrigeration under the counter," he says.
Another advantage to low-placed units, says Jen Gately, a designer for Canton Kitchens, is they open up wall space, working well in kitchens with lots of windows. "Sometimes it's hard to figure out where to put the refrigerator," she says. "It can be such an imposing object."
While Canton Kitchens works in houses throughout the region, Gately says she does plenty in the company's eponymous neighborhood and other urban neighborhoods with smaller spaces. She says she recently worked on a house in Hampden where the client found a GE fridge she hadn't seen before. "It was tall and skinny, about 23 inches wide—perfect for a rowhouse," Gately recalls. "I flipped out."
In fact, tower-style refrigerators by various manufacturers are not always small. While Gately's client had a combined refrigerator-freezer, some manufacturers are coming out with models that divide the two functions in half. Glenn Donohue, senior designer for Kenwood Kitchens, says Miele and others are making refrigerator columns as narrow as 18 inches wide. "You can separate them with a countertop or cabinet," he says. "Or you can put the freezer in another place entirely. It has the same function as a side-by-side, but gives the kitchen design more flexibility."
Donohue and others point out that the freezer is not necessarily a part of the traditional "triangle" of stove, sink, and refrigerator reflected in most kitchen designs. "Freezers aren't part of contemporary cooking," says Sam Gregory. "Most people go to the freezer once a day, maybe to get something out for dinner. By moving the freezer to a remote corner, or even a pantry or mudroom, the refrigerator can be part of the triangle, but it doesn't take up so much space."
And what about glass doors, which enjoyed a burst of popularity when Sub-Zero brought its restaurant-style look to the market 20 years ago? "I used to work in the restaurant business," says Christine Corbitt, a real estate agent and former owner of the Fells Point restaurant Red Star. She says she considered glass doors, but ended up with a stainless steel side-by-side, a GE Profile that retails for over $6,000. (She got it at Bolewicki's Appliance Center on Eastern Avenue at a discount.) While Corbitt liked the idea of a glass-door model, she balked at the cost: "For what they cost, those refrigerators must come with someone who cooks your food for you," she says.