Look at your refrigerator. Is the door cluttered with magnets holding notes, fliers and coupons? Has the top come to resemble a neglected field of broken-down appliances, stale cookies and dust balls?
Now consider the impact your refrigerator makes on the kitchen decor.
What? Refrigerators as a design element?
Well, sure they come in different colors and some have little compartments for ice and water, but these space-consuming ice monsters have often been viewed as a necessity that must be designed around . . . not incorporated into the decorating scheme.
All that may be changing.
New lines of upscale refrigerators may transform the workhorse into a sleek thoroughbred.
According to Tim Eastman, floor manager for A-1 TV and Home Appliance in Santa Ana, about a third of the company's business involves the sale of refrigerators, and most customers are looking to upgrade their current model.
Today's built-in refrigerators often blend in with cabinetry, other appliances or kitchen decor in general. In fact, most built-ins have panels to match the cabinetry, making the refrigerator virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding woodwork.
"The front panel is simply stainless steel when the customer purchases the refrigerator," Eastman said. "Then a panel is made to match the rest of the kitchen decor. About 90% of our buyers choose a wood panel to match their cabinets, but we've also had customers who liked different looks--black glass to match their other appliances, white-glass fronts, or the traditional porcelain.
"Some people get really carried away and order stained glass fronts or panels with deeply recessed wood. It's whatever you like. The sky's the limit."
Janine Harris, a designer with Dorian Hunter Interiors in Fullerton, agrees. "Many of our clients are remodeling kitchens and bedrooms," Harris said. "They may live in older homes but want to update the look and their appliances. Since cabinetry is a main feature, it makes sense to coordinate built-ins with that."
Built-in refrigerators are recessed so they are flush with kitchen cabinets, instead of protruding several inches past the cupboards. Generally, most free-standing refrigerators have a depth of 29 to 32 inches, whereas a built-in usually is 24 inches deep.
"It doesn't sound like a lot of saved space, but once you see it in a kitchen, it does make a big difference," Eastman said. "It also offers designers more flexibility in placing appliances next to each other. For instance, you can have a built-in refrigerator placed directly around the corner from an oven and still open the oven door without hitting the refrigerator. It makes a kitchen much more space-efficient."
Harris said that people are busier today and require top efficiency. "Built-ins offer more flexibility because they don't interfere with as much space. With free-standing refrigerators, you have to position them carefully to get maximum space utilization," Harris explained.
Yet while organization is important, Harris also believes that her clients are looking for style.
"I think people are more knowledgeable and sophisticated now when it comes to design," she said. "There's been a renaissance in kitchen remodeling and consumers are not only looking for high quality but handsome surroundings. The focus of the kitchen should be on something other than the refrigerator . . . something like an island, granite countertops or quality workmanship in cabinetry."
The most well-known line of built-ins, Sub-Zero, offers a variety of styles.
"Many people believe that Sub-Zero refrigerators are new, but, in fact, they've been around for over 40 years," Eastman said. "And the name does not reflect the temperature inside the unit. Sub-Zero units cool and freeze at the same temperatures as the free-standing models."
Other companies are now joining the market for built-ins. Such familiar names as KitchenAid, Amana, G.E. Monogram and Modern Maid are all introducing new, top-of-the-line refrigerators.
Indeed, Eastman believes that built-ins are the fridges of the future and expects them to become a standard feature in new homes or those with are modeled kitchens.
"If you look in new homes today, you'll see almost every major appliance is built in: ovens, separate range tops, microwaves, dishwashers."
Harris believes that it's only a matter of time before built-in refrigerators become as popular as built-in ranges.
"For buyers in the $300,000 range and up, a built-in is a wonderful addition to a kitchen," Harris said. "Most builders are aware of the features buyers want and as more interest is expressed, there will be a greater demand."
Because the built-ins lose space in depth, they make up for it in height. Most built-ins stand 84 inches high.
"The cubic space is equivalent in both built-in and free-standing refrigerators," Eastman said. "What you gain in height, you lose in depth. However, because most people do need to remove upper cabinets, there are costs to install a built-in."
For this reason, Harris said, most people consider built-ins during a remodeling job. "The same cabinetmaker that builds the kitchen cabinetry should build the front panel (of the refrigerator)," Harris advised. "Of course, if you're matching other appliances or laminate countertops, it may be a little easier to find a match, but our clients have always added a built-in while they're changing the looks of their kitchens."
It also costs more to purchase one. The average cost of built-ins is between $2,500 to $3,000, as compared to their free-standing counterparts with an average price of $1,500. However, built-ins are built to last--often "living" twice or three times as long as the free-standing units.
"Most refrigerators built today are expected to last eight to 10 years," Eastman said. "I can't give you an average life span of a Sub-Zero because we haven't seen enough of them to determine the average life. The earliest unit I've seen replaced was 25 years old. So while built-ins are initially more expensive, in the long run, you save money with them."
Repair work on the built-ins is also easier than on free-standing models. With free-standing models, the refrigerator is usually pulled away from the wall and repairs are made from the rear. With built-ins, two compressors sit on top of the refrigerator. To repair the unit, the front panel covering the compressors is detached so that repairs can be made.
If consumers are interested in a built-in refrigerator, where should they start?
"My recommendation is to go to a place that sells several different makes and check them out for yourself," Eastman suggested. "Since this is a major investment, it makes sense to take your time and choose the model you want and meets your needs . . . because chances are, you're going to have it for a long time."
Built-ins aren't portable in the sense that free-standing units are, so once it's installed, it's best to consider it a permanent part of the kitchen.
But Eastman says that shouldn't be a cause for worry--in fact, it can be a selling point if your home is on the market.
"The fact is, kitchens can really sell a house," he said. "I don't know of any other room where more people congregate or, at the very least, pass through several times a day."