Yesteryear blends into today’s mix

Whether vintage or new, ‘retro’ appliances are hot

By Maria Puente, USA Today

Recall the 1950s, and placid “Happy Days” springs to mind, along with Eisenhowers in the White House, black-and-white TVs, rotary phones and instant coffee. Few would have expected that dreary decade could go down in history as a design icon – and in home appliances, of all things.

Chalk up some of this new admiration to baby boomer nostalgia.

“The boomers are aging and beginning to reminisce, and I think some of these items remind them of their grandmother’s kitchen or their own kitchen when they were kids,” says Brian Maynard, marketing director for KitchenAid. The company’s stand mixer, whose design dates to 1933, may be the best-selling retro-look product in the market. “We were retro before retro was cool,” Maynard boasts.

For younger consumers, the 1950s may as well be the 1850s; they like the look because it’s novel to them. And it’s the antithesis of the cold, sleek stainless-steel style of some contemporary decor.

AntiqueAppliances.Com has been commissioned by Mr. Gise for restoration of appliances for his vintage home.

“I’m going for a middle-class ’50s feel. Basically, I’m shooting for Better Homes & Gardens circa 1955, because it’s comfortable to me,” says Christopher Gise, 40, who is spending about $1 million to expand and renovate his 1954 Minneapolis house into a frozen-in-time replica of the period, including televisions, telephones, kitchen appliances, bathroom fixtures, Heywood-Wakefield furniture, Margaret Keene’s big-eyed children artwork and even vintage magazines on the ’50s coffee table.

“I’m getting white Formica with gold flecks for the kitchen countertops,” he says. “I found a picture of a bathroom in one of my old magazines, ripped out the page, handed it to the contractor and said, ‘That’s what I want.'”

OK, so maybe he’s a little obsessed, but it seems many consumers are going retro for at least some of their appliances and electronics. How many? No one knows because no one tracks it. And no wonder: More than 65 million major appliances – refrigerators, stoves, dishwashers – are shipped to consumers in the United States every year, along with more than 100 million small appliances, according to the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers.

But even at Frigidaire, where the “professional” stainless-steel look is king, there are concessions to the retro trend, spokesman Tony Evans says. Frigidaire, one of the nation’s largest appliance manufacturers, recently went back to its 1950s-era script-style logo, which appears on every product, and softened the edges of its major appliances, making them appear more retro-rounded.

There are other signs of the retro vogue:

“Stoves and refrigerators that are new but look as if they were made in the ’50s – in colors such as candy red, flamingo pink and buttercup yellow – are big sellers for small specialty companies, such as Elmira Stove Works and Heartland Appliances, both of Ontario, Canada. (There are even companies that make refrigerators that look like turn-of-the-century wooden “ice boxes.”)

“The ’50s are always touted as the good ol’ days, American apple pie and all that,” says Jean Bond, sales manager for Elmira, which next year will introduce a ’50s-look range to go with its popular Northstar “Fab Fifties” refrigerator. Red is the company’s hot seller.

These products are not cheap: Elmira’s refrigerators start at $2,700; Heartland’s products range from $4,000 to $8,000. Yet Heartland’s retro-look line of ranges and fridges has been so successful that it added a Shaker-style line three years ago. “When people spend thousands on a kitchen in a certain style, they want the appliances to fit in,” company president Brad Michael says.

Sales of Aga Ranges, a high-end cast-iron British line whose Swedish design dates from the late 1920s, are inching up in the United States to about 300 a year compared with about 8,000 in the United Kingdon. This despite a price tag that can top $13,000. Then there’s the issue that they’re radically different in how they work: Aga ranges cook by radiant heat, and they’re always on, the way a water heater is always on. But they definitely look antique, with brightly painted enamel on a cast-iron exterior that has changed little in decades.

In January, KitchenAid is introducing a replica of its electric coffee mill, produced from the 1930s through the late 1960s. “The new ones will say on the bottom ‘KitchenAid, Greenville, Ohio,’ just like the originals, even though they’re not made there anymore, and they’ll have the same kind of Mason-jar-type bowl at the top,” Maynard says.

Catalogs with retro-look products abound. Williams-Sonoma features the British-design Dualit toasters in chrome, which have an industrial-retro look. Sur La Table likes the 1950s soda fountain look, with a Hamilton Beach milkshake mixer in chrome and a “Jetsons”-like Waring drink mixer. Restoration Hardware features a CD player and clock radio in cherry red that looks straight out of the I-like-Ike era.

“The original midcentury designs were very good designs, and there’s a whole new age group just becoming familiar with them,” says Peri Wolfman, vice president of Williams-Sonoma product development. “I think it’s really the younger people who are buying, giving and getting them as wedding gifts, thinking they’re really fun and cool and modern with a flair.”

Meanwhile, there’s a whole other subset of the market that wants the real thing – authentic vintage appliances and electronics. Sheelah Stepkin, who runs a cooking school out of her home in a 1902 bank building in Hawley, Pa., has spent thousands of dollars and traveled the country to track down period-piece stoves and refrigerators for her personal and professional kitchens. And she has spent thousands more on restoring them to working condition.

A self-proclaimed “old-appliance freak,” she has scores of mixers and toasters and biscuit cutters and whatnot in her basement, but she’s most proud of her 1932 Magic Chef stove (a much smaller version was on eBay recently for $1,500), a 1913 Garland restaurant stove, and two 1920s-era Frigidaire refrigerators, one of which came out of a brothel in Corpus Christi, Texas. She’s very emotional about her appliances.

“I wanted to create a kitchen that has appliances that say ‘I love food and I love you,’ like your grandmother,” she declares. “I can’t look at a reproduction and have the same feeling. This kitchen makes me feel grounded.”

John Jowers, owner of Antique Appliances in Clayton, Ga., and the man who restored some of Stepkin’s appliances, says he can barely keep up with demand for his services, which can cost up to $18,000. He mostly restores stoves and refrigerators dating from the ’20s through the ’50s. His waiting list is two years.

His Web site gets 1.2 million hits a month, and traffic has been increasing 10 percent a month for 18 months. He gets scores of calls from people who want him to track down a fridge like the one they saw on “Friends “or “Dharma & Greg “or “Nash Bridges,” all of which have featured period appliances in their kitchen sets. He and other restorers say about half their clients are people who inherited their appliances and value them as heirlooms, and the other half are people who got hooked on the ’50s after shopping at a flea market.

“Some people are trying to buy back their childhood, some want to be different or make a fashion statement,” says Mike Arnold, owner of 20th Century Appliance Restorations in Troy, N.Y., who restores mostly TVs and radios up to 1960.

“The biggest reason (for retro popularity) is that consumers are so tired of throwaway everything,” Jowers says. The older appliances “were built in a time when people expected their investment in a stove to last a long time. They were built to be serviced and repaired rather than replaced, so you can maintain them almost forever.”

Not everyone loves the 1950s look; some may prefer to forget the era entirely – such as Christopher Gise’s mother. “I was born in 1961, so I didn’t live through the ’50s,” Christopher says. “But I talked to my mother, and she says she can’t remember any of this stuff!”

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