-- Toilets and sinks clad head to toe in stainless steel are the latest thing in luxury bathrooms. Is this the latest ramification of Martha Stewart's stint in the pokey?
The stainless bath fixtures are shiny showroom darlings, but they're hardly giving porcelain a run for its money.
"We've only sold one toilet and one basin so far -- to the same person," said Tony Shapiro of Dorfman Plumbing in Kansas City, Mo.
But kitchens are another story. Designers say stainless steel is enjoying a huge surge in popularity. Appliances are the most popular application for the shiny, industrial finish, but countertops and backsplashes reminiscent of space age 1950s kitchens are also coming back.
"People are turning to stainless steel instead of committing to a color," said Sallie Kytt Redd, a Lenexa, Kan., interior designer.
Stainless steel has been a fixture in high-end appliances for decades. What's new is the selection of stainless steel models offered by mass manufacturers such as Geneal Electric, Frigidaire and Whirlpool Corp. The stainless steel option in those brands generally costs 15 percent to 20 percent more than standard black, white or bisque finishes. With stainless steel refrigerators and ranges starting about $700, the sleek, high-design look has suddenly become affordable.
When Julie Treacy of Shawnee built her house seven years ago, she went with white appliances in the kitchen because the cost put stainless steel out of her reach. But now, as part of a kitchen remodel, she's replacing them all with stainless steel. "I'm excited. The stainless steel looks great with my granite countertops," Treacy said.
Redd said her clients often think stainless steel is harder to take care of. She believes that is a misconception. Stainless steel is extremely durable, with a life expectancy of 100 years or more. It is also extremely resistant to stains, chips and rust.
Stainless steel does show fingerprints and water drops, which is probably behind the "hard-to-clean" criticism. How much of a problem that is depends on your habits, Redd said. With a refrigerator, she said, "If you tend to use the handle, it's not an issue. But if you push the door closed with your open hand, that is going to show." There are other options: Brushed finishes don't show prints as much as mirrored ones.
While ranges and refrigerators in stainless steel have long been considered glamorous, the same cannot be said of sinks. Porcelain is the material of choice for most homeowners, but Redd said she often recommends stainless steel sinks for people with busy lifestyles.
"Porcelain is china over iron. It has no give to it. If you drop a can in it, it will chip," Redd said. "Today's porcelains seem to be easier to damage than in the past. If you drop a piece of everyday pottery in it, it's going to break" the dish.
Artisan Metalworks in Kansas City, Kan., fabricates architectural elements and decorative accessories out of copper, zinc, galvanized steel and other metals.
Lead artisan Randall Hutchison said the company has "eased into" stainless steel the past year in response to demand from customers. "It's definitely making a comeback," Hutchison said. "It's partially a look -- it's shiny, it's tough, and it lasts forever."
Recently Artisan cut and measured stainless steel backsplashes for a do-it-yourselfer client to install. Another client had a kitchen island made in stainless steel.
One advantage of stainless steel as a countertop choice is that it can be custom cut and fitted like a sleeve over an existing counter, Hutchison said.
The raw material price of stainless steel has nearly doubled in the last two years, due to heavy demand in Asia for the scrap and virgin metals that go into its production. The square-foot price for a stainless steel counter by Artisan is $30 to $60 per square foot; the installed price runs $60 to $75 per square foot.
The company has also made stainless steel handrails for a staircase, speaker box covers and kickplates for a home bar. Perhaps the most unusual job they've done, said Hutchison, was resurfacing a SubZero refrigerator with a sander to give it a more decorative finish.