- The Washington Times - Friday, June 28, 2002

It sits like an aircraft carrier in the kitchen, all cast-iron doors and insulating metal lids. It's an oven, but the Aga cooker featured in the brochure might as well be a tank or a submarine or something else built to last through an international entanglement.

Increasingly, heavy-duty ovens such as the 1,400-pound Aga or the sleek Thermador have become a kind of domestic armor, ready to muscle those wimpy 24-inch wide standard ovens out of the way. With a battalion of sleek and costly commercial-style appliances and fixtures filling the home-supply stores and style sheets, heavy-duty upgrades are tempting even the most pragmatic remodelers.

The past decade has seen a big change in consumers' approach to kitchen and bath renovations, says Bob Dhyani, owner of Appliance Builders Wholesalers in Silver Spring.

"People are not replacing their appliances and fixtures just because they are wearing out. They are replacing them because they want something better," Mr. Dhyani says. Sure, there is still a market for the standard GE workhorse refrigerator, with its energy efficient top-mounted freezer. Or the solidly built Kenmores and Amanas that inevitably die of shame at their out-of-date facades before their heating coils and delayed start mechanisms call it kaput.

With the explosion of custom-built homes and great-room renovations, however, designers, architects and market-savvy homeowners are choosing appliances and fixtures that blend function and style in a way that only a small segment of the home-owning population once did.

"Ten years ago, Jenn-Air was the high end. Designers and remodelers were picking those and Kitchen Aids out," Mr. Dhyani says.

The new lineup includes Elmira Stove Works, Viking, Wolf, Dacor, Miele and Waterworks. Consumers are spending on ovens alone what they once spent on sports cars.

Fixtures, too, have gone high-gloss, with elegant designer faucets shown springing out of granite backsplashes into equally elegant sinks.

The trend toward fancier upgrades has certainly had an impact on the bottom line.

"The kitchen we just did had $17,000 worth of appliances in it," says Ann Kerstetter, design manager at Running Remodeling in Kensington. "We also do budget kitchens, but even the regular appliances are nicer than they used to be."

Indeed, even midrange budgets can get into the stainless steel, commercial-style that has fueled the demand for such high-end brands as Muller, whose $3,800 refrigerator looks like an icebox circa 1950.

"For a majority of the population, they will wait until there is a definite need for a change rather than simply to change their look," says kitchen designer Mark White of Annapolis-based Kitchen Encounters, "but a lot of people these days are hoping their refrigerator and dishwasher will break down soon."

A recent study done by the Washington-based Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers found that the desire for new features is mentioned more often as a reason for replacing a microwave oven or a refrigerator than for any other home appliances. Washers and dryers, on the other hand, are kept in use until they die.

Tracey Seott of Queen Anne's County, Md., recently decided to get rid of her oven, stove, microwave, dishwasher and dryer, even though they were all in "excellent condition." She upgraded to midrange appliances that would better reflect the gloss of her new granite countertops during a recent kitchen renovation. She said that style was a secondary consideration, behind space.

"Space was our deciding factor, and the more expensive lines offered smaller-sized appliances that fit better into our new kitchen," Mrs. Seott says.

While such practical considerations as space and budget continue to influence consumers, the big-ticket appliances also appeal to the household cook's inner gourmet the one who wants to sear steaks with 15,000 BTUs, or saute sauces at the lowest temperatures possible.

Certainly that's whom the advertising material for Thermador's six-burner cooktop refers to when it says, "Every so often something comes along that has a way of bringing ideas to life. And makes you more talented. … Something that says go ahead, improvise a little. You've got all the help in the world."

But shiny new appliances even ones built like tanks won't necessarily make a mediocre cook into a culinary virtuoso. Washington caterer Margaret McDonald says that each house she has lived in has had a kitchen in need of improvements that she never gets around to doing. Still, she manages to crank out crowd-pleasing meals.

Beyond having sharp knives, good cutting boards and a reliable gas stove, Ms. McDonald says little else in the kitchen matters.

"People have these huge, walk-in refrigerators and they swear by them, and I've got this small refrigerator I'd love to get rid of, but it works," she says. Since it is small, Ms. McDonald says she shops more frequently and buys smaller amounts that don't need to be kept fresh in the refrigerator for four or five days.

"There is nothing wrong with buying new equipment because it is beautiful and stylish. You spend a lot of time in the kitchen, and you want it to look nice," she says, "but don't buy beautiful equipment to fool yourself into thinking it will make you a better cook."

That brings up the most obvious point that, with the kitchen environment changing to incorporate living space, beauty matters more.

"People don't feel like that space has to be strictly functional anymore," Mr. White said. "They want it to have some style and high function. They want it to say something about who they are and what they like."

Fortunately, the new lineup of brands do bring powerful reputations to the kitchen table, Mr. Dhyani says.

"I know that I've got a lot of people replacing their old Sub-Zeros with new ones just because they don't look good, anymore," he says.

Alas, even heavyweight appliances cannot overcome the fickleness of fashion.

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