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Sun, Dec 19, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Are refrigerators turning into a fashion trend?

The latest models include humidifiers for wilted lettuce, separate temperature zones for Brie and a quick-chill device for the Vouvray

By Deborah Baldwin  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Regina Smith noticed an unusual refrigerator in a friend's kitchen in Short Hills, New Jersey. It was more than 2m tall without a freezer -- a sister unit takes care of that -- it is about 1m wide, and Smith couldn't help wondering why her friend had bought something so, well, supersized. "And then I realized," she recalled, "of course the pizza box had to fit."

Viking range, move over. The newest star in the kitchen is the refrigerator. Inspired by the success of prestige brands like Sub-Zero, and determined to make a simple box stand out in a crowd, rivals like General Electric, Electrolux, Jenn-Air and Thermador are introducing solutions that make the ubiquitous ice maker and the garden-variety produce drawer seem quaint.

Manufacturers are rolling out models designed to meet the needs and fantasies of all kinds of households, including the one with the manifesto, "We will eat only healthy food." The latest options include spa-like humidifiers for the wilted lettuce, separate temperature zones for the Brie and the rapidly aging tenderloin, and a quick-chill device for the Vouvray.

For consumers who do a better job of buying baby greens than actually eating them, Fisher & Paykel is promoting a new seal on the old produce bin because, as Bryce Wells, director of American marketing, puts it, "vegetables are not technically dead, and they continue to breathe." From that old standby, GE, come high-tech devices like "dual evaporation" air systems to offset smelly fridge syndrome.

Americans will buy a record 10 million refrigerators this year, and many people are taking home more than one, according to numerous kitchen designers and manufacturers. Prices run from US$450 to US$6,500, and as Consumer Reports points out, they all work pretty well.

But people with means who feel a need to express themselves in the theater of cold cuts and fruit juice are opting for elaborate four-figure cooling complexes with multiple parts and satellite units to flank the main attraction. Refrigerators have become a fashion item.

John Swenson, director of marketing for Electrolux, which introduced a US$2,500 model in the US this year, said that 10 percent of all buyers act on impulse, up from 1 to 2 percent a decade ago, when people bought new refrigerators only to replace a worn-out model or to complete a renovation.

Now a new refrigerator often just makes people feel good. At 47, Susan Vicenti, a book designer in Ipswich, Massachusetts, had never bought an appliance, she said. That was before she looked across a crowded showroom and fell in love with a shiny stainless steel GE Profile, moving it into her condominium.

"You would never think you could get excited about refrigerators, but then you find something that is functional as well as aesthetically pleasing," she said.

Stainless, once a high-end amenity, has become so popular that it is subject to innovation, such as the smudge-resistant finish.

If sticky fingerprints sound like a big issue, General Electric has an explanation: The refrigerator is opened 55 times a day, on average.

Now manufacturers are hard at work on stainless look-alikes that, unlike the real thing, take the all-important magnet.

Like Viking ranges, which helped transform the simple stove of the 1980s into BTU behemoths, the latest generation of refrigerators are attracting people who want to express themselves through their batterie de cuisine. And many new models encourage their owners to customize.

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