In the home-building industry, everything makes its debut at the high end. It can also disappear up there if it doesn't meet expectations or creates headaches, warranty issues and service calls.
If a luxury item survives the initial vetting by the marketplace, it will eventually reach the majority of consumers, though it can take years and the product may be considerably modified.
What aesthetic or technological innovations may be in the pipeline for you? At this year's Kitchen and Bath Industry Show, held this spring in Las Vegas, I saw some interesting developments in ranges, cooktops and cabinetry.
About 30 years ago, Sub-Zero slimmed refrigerators down from an industry standard of 30 inches to 24 inches. With this shallower depth, a kitchen could have a sleek, streamlined look without a big clunky box intruding into a designer's vision. Since then, however, clunkiness has returned in the form of six- and eight-burner professional ranges that, like those old refrigerators, can be as deep as 30 inches. To bring things back into aesthetic balance, De'Longhi, an Italian appliance manufacturer, offers a professional-feature range in a slimmer, 24-inch depth.
The smallest De'Longhi range is 24 inches wide, too, with four burners with gas, electric or dual fuel (gas burners and electric oven) for $1,800. That may interest downsizing baby boomers who want smaller houses with smaller kitchens, but just as many perks.
The larger ranges are gas only. The 36-inch-wide model (five burners, $3,000) and the 48-inch-wide model (six burners, $7,000) have two ovens so you can broil or roast dinner in one while you bake dessert in the other. The gas ovens on all the ranges have an infrared broiler that sears meat during the initial 60 seconds of cooking, retaining all the juices in it.
The De'Longhi gas ranges also have a larger 16,800 BTU burner (the largest unit has two) for wok cooking or for boiling large amounts of water. Like all new gas ranges and cooktops, each burner has an electronic ignition instead of a pilot light.
It will take a while for the features on the De'Longhi ranges to migrate to the mainstream, but at least one revolutionary method of cooking is already there. I saw induction cooktops offered both by luxury manufacturer Diva de Provence (five-burner cooktop for $3,600) and by Sears Kenmore Elite (four-burner cooktop for $1,500).
What is the radical departure here? A conventional gas burner, electric coil burner or a halogen electric burner generates heat. That warms up the cooking pot, which in turn heats and cooks the food. With an induction burner, an electric coil below the glass top generates a small electromagnetic field instead of heat. When a pot containing iron is placed on the burner, the energy agitates and excites the iron molecules in the pot. The agitated molecules give off heat, which cooks the food.
The induction method of cooking is extremely efficient. About 90 percent of the heat produced is used to cook the food. With gas, only about half the heat generated actually is used to cook food; the rest goes out into the kitchen, which is one reason the room can be unbearably hot during the summer. With electric burners, 35 to 40 percent of the heat generated diffuses into a kitchen.
Because the induction method is efficient, it cooks faster. It also cooks faster because a burner can operate at a high temperature almost as soon as it is turned on. For example, with the Sears unit, a quart of tap water reaches a full boil in 98 seconds. The Sears unit has 16 gradations of heat from high to low; the Diva de Provence has 12, many more than most chefs ever use, both manufacturers said.
Another advantage of the induction burner is that the stovetop itself does not get hot. Food spills do not cook on it, so cleanup is easy. People will not get burned.
The downside to induction cooking is that you can use only cookware with iron content; the unit won't operate with aluminum or glass pans. To make the switch to induction easier, Diva de Provence includes a five-piece set of cookware. With purchase of the Sears unit, you get a griddle.
The Diva de Provence unit is available now at appliance dealers; the Sears unit will be on the market in September.
Another change seen at the kitchen and bath show is that the slick look of European-style cabinetry, which has been exclusively a high-end product, is now affordable for a much bigger segment of the market.
Sensing that many consumers are ready to be stylistically adventurous, KraftMaid -- a mid-price, semi-custom cabinet maker with the highest cabinet sales in the United States and a reputation for traditional-looking products -- has developed a new line, Venicia, that verges on edgy.
For "I want something that looks traditional but with a difference" homeowners, KraftMaid offers the Venicia-Natura collection. The doors are wood with raised or flat panels, but the detailing is unusual.
For the "I want something definitely different" group, the cabinet maker offers the Venicia-Lustra collection. Doors are finished with a top grade of thermofoil that looks and feels like lacquer, an expensive finish that is offered only by custom cabinet makers. The door styles include a severe flat panel for both the door and drawer front, which is common in Europe but unusual here. The colors include stark black or white, metallic gray and one that looks like an exotic African hardwood.
For the "I want something really different" crowd, KraftMaid offers the Venicia-Mirra collection. The doors have a heavy acrylic finish that's so glossy you can see your own reflection. Two of the four flat-door styles have continuous polished aluminum pulls (the pulls run the full width of each drawer and cabinet drawer), and two door styles have metallic gray edging for both the cabinet doors and drawer fronts.
The cabinet boxes and drawers in the Venicia line are also new. The cabinet boxes are frameless, common in Europe but unusual in this country and a first for KraftMaid. With frameless cabinets, the cabinet box has three sides instead of four, and the doors are hinged to the sides instead of the front. Without a front frame, you gain three inches of width in each cabinet, and you don't have to reach around a center stile when taking things in or out. To give the Venicia kitchen a more unified look, the cabinet interiors match or blend with the door color in the Lustra and Natura collections. In the Mirra group, all the interiors are gray.
The drawers can be either wood or gray metal. (KraftMaid calls this the Contempo drawer.) For either, you can purchase wood or metal dividers and customize your drawer storage to a remarkable degree.
The Venicia line will be available through kitchen and bath dealers and home stores this summer.
Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.
(c) 2005, Katherine Salant
Distributed by Inman News Features