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Monday, September 27, 2021

In the kitchens of the rich, things are not as they seem

“Panel-ready” refrigerators, the facades of which are designed to accommodate (typically via systems of brackets and screws) custom pieces of wood indistinguishable from a kitchen’s built-in cabinetry, have become standard

By: New York Times |
September 2, 2021 10:30:57 pm
kitchenIn an image provided by Stephen Busken, a kitchen with a concealed refrigerator. ÒPanel-readyÓ refrigerators, the facades of which are designed to accommodate custom pieces of wood indistinguishable from a kitchenÕs built-in cabinetry, have become standard in the homes of the wealthy. (Stephen Busken via The New York Times)

Written by Caity Weaver

The kitchens of the wealthy in the United States today are capable of providing a humbling experience to the uninitiated. Attempts to procure ice cubes can transform the most dignified guest into a hapless burglar rummaging through drawers for loose gems.

“I don’t think I’ve had a client that’s wanted to reveal their fridge for a very long time,” said Martyn Lawrence Bullard, an English interior designer whose namesake firm in Los Angeles has evanesced major household appliances for the likes of Cher, Tommy Hilfiger and Kylie Jenner. “In the last five years, everything we’ve done has had a hidden fridge.”

Many things that are immediately identifiable as things in the majority of American kitchens — appliances recognizable from their size, shape and the general appearance they have had since roughly the 1940s — are, in the homes of the wealthy, increasingly being transmogrified into cabinets.

“Panel-ready” refrigerators, the facades of which are designed to accommodate (typically via systems of brackets and screws) custom pieces of wood indistinguishable from a kitchen’s built-in cabinetry, have become standard. Thus, it is not only possible, but usual, to look at a newly built luxury kitchen and be unable to immediately ascertain whether it contains an icebox.

kitchen In an image provided by Stephen Busken, a kitchen with a concealed refrigerator. ÒPanel-readyÓ refrigerators, the facades of which are designed to accommodate custom pieces of wood indistinguishable from a kitchenÕs built-in cabinetry, have become standard in the homes of the wealthy. (Stephen Busken via The New York Times)

“Everyone” is covering their stainless steel with panels, said Shannon Wollack, the founder of Studio Life/Style, an interior design firm in West Hollywood, California. “Everyone,” she repeated. Among the clients whose kitchens Wollack has transformed into sleek cabinet emporia: actress Hilary Duff, whose blue-paneled kitchen does, despite appearances, include a refrigerator.

Au courant refrigerators resemble the imaginary dragons of childhood fantasy in that they are both invisible and enormous. “You’d be shocked how much space” luxury kitchens devote to hidden refrigeration, Wollack said. “A lot of people,” she said, elect to incorporate two refrigerators, side by side.

Can I Get You a Drink?

What are the wealthy manipulating to levels of coldness and freshness — far beyond nature’s intrinsic capacity — in quantities requiring such vast storage?

Drinks, mostly.

“They like to have lots of beverages,” said Wollack, whose clients include many individuals in the entertainment industry. “A lot of it is beverages.” A popular drawer setup, she said, incorporates three small refrigerated partitions: one for wine, one for drinks other than wine and one for fresh produce. Bullard has known clients to use them for storing face creams and beauty products. “A bunch of people put them in their bathrooms now,” he said.

Second fridges are not new to American homes. A 2015 survey by the U.S. Energy Information Administration indicated that 30% of the country — around 35 million households in 2015 — could claim at least two refrigerators “plugged in and turned on” in their residence at all times.

What distinguishes high-end supplemental refrigerators is the prominence of their (concealed) placement: According to the survey, the majority of the nation’s additional refrigerators are banished to basements or garages.

Cabinet camouflage is likewise not a modern innovation: For a short time in the 1950s, General Electric advertising copy boasted of a horizontal refrigeration system built to hang “on the wall like a picture,” available in colors such as “petal pink” and “turquoise green.”

It is expensive to hide top-of-the-line refrigerative technology within one’s kitchen. Many of Wollack’s clients opt for fridges from Sub-Zero, which are equipped with a magnetic gasket around the edge of the inner door that creates a vacuum seal to lock out warm air.

These appliances — which, she said, “can be easily up to $15,000” — are so committed to their task of cooling, they may at times seem to be working in opposition to their owners: Troubleshooting guidance for customers on the Sub-Zero website explains to customers that, although the company’s refrigerators and freezers are not designed to be impenetrable to humans, “depending on the strength of the vacuum, it may seem as if the door is locked.”

But while the wealthy are anxious to chill an ever-increasing volume of perishable items, one thing they are increasingly less inclined to do, per Bullard, is freeze them. “Freezing food is becoming less and less fashionable,” he said. “People want to eat more organically.”

“Most of our clients these days tend to just end up using their freezers for ice and ice cream,” he said.

Likewise out of favor are refrigerators with built-in automatic water and ice dispensers that enable weary fridge owners to procure a drink without stopping to open the unit.

Ice comes now from one of several varieties of squat stand-alone machines dedicated solely to creating ice of a particular shape, texture and clarity. The highest-end panel-ready models of these can cost a few thousand dollars. For those with merely several hundred dollars to spend creating ice, a small unit from GE presents its cache of frozen water as an empyreal glowing mosaic.

An Inside Look

Reality television has served as a venue for average Americans’ exposure to high-end refrigeration since the early 2000s. In MTV’s “Cribs,” a popular documentary-style series in which entertainers — actors, musicians, athletes, the occasional magician — purported to give viewers tours of their private homes, peeks inside refrigerators were a signature element of the show. (Many were stocked primarily with drinks, including, memorably, a supermarket display quantity of Vitaminwater neatly arranged in the refrigerator of 50 Cent.)

“The Real Housewives” franchise has provided another window through which viewers can scrutinize the design choices of America’s elite. Because of the program’s emphasis on lavish domesticity, cast members are frequently filmed in their spotless, sprawling kitchens.

Nene Leakes, of the show’s Atlanta branch, delivered one of the series’ most famous monologues in 2013, on the subject of a refrigerator. In a talking head interview, she appeared distraught as she described the appearance of a hotel in which one of her co-stars was temporarily residing: “It has a white refrigerator!” Leakes wailed, her face a kaleidoscope of pain, horror and disbelief. “I was like ‘Oh hoo! Ooh, not a white refrigerator. Girl, please put your shoes on. Let’s go find you a home, honey!’ ”

The enormous glass closet stocked with baskets of Technicolor-vibrant produce installed in the home of another “Real Housewife,” Yolanda Hadid, also drew attention on the show’s Beverly Hills franchise. While Hadid left the show in 2016, a Twitter account with the handle @YolandasFridge created during her tenure occasionally still tweets in character as her transparent appliance to an audience of more than 14,000 followers.

Despite the visual appeal of Hadid’s lushly stocked fridge, most clients “don’t go with the glass front — as much as they would like to,” Wollack said.

All-glass fridges require a level of maintenance generally incompatible with human life. “You have to be organized and keep your fridge very, very tidy,” Bullard said. “Otherwise it doesn’t look good at all. And they’re very expensive. They’re 15,000, 20,000 dollars.”

Hidden in Plain Sight

Wollack and Bullard both said that the fervor for concealing appliances resulted from kitchens increasingly being used as rooms for casual congregation, rather than as areas dedicated exclusively to the preparation of food.

“Kitchens used to be concealed,” Wollack said. “It had a door. That was where you had all your appliances. It was like the work space. And now, kitchens are more of a lifestyle. You want to make it pretty and seamless.”

These spaces are being furnished “as living rooms,” Bullard said. “We add art. You add expensive lighting. The island becomes sort of the modern-day dining table.” (The real dining table remains confined to a separate, less-used room.)

A spokesperson for Sub-Zero confirmed that panel-ready models of the company’s refrigerators are “especially popular in major metropolitan areas.” Bullard said the fastest way for kitchen trends to spread is through images on social media. In the past few years, he said, Instagram has inspired a blitz of green-colored kitchens.

But some luxury kitchen amenities remain out of reach for even the wealthiest shoppers — amenities including the very fridges they hope to hide.

“At the moment, God knows, you can’t find a fridge anywhere,” Bullard said. “They’re almost as hard to find as a car.” Pandemic-driven disruptions in the global supply chain have made even modest chest freezers scarcely obtainable since last spring. “Things are months and months delayed at the moment,” he said. “And money doesn’t do it these days. You can’t pay more to get it faster because the product’s just not available.”

Bullard was recently tasked with hunting down a catering fridge for a client’s chef. “We could not find it anywhere,” he said. Eventually, he located a pre-owned model. The final price for the used refrigerator: $18,000.

“You do,” he said, “what you must.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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