Ah, the kitchen—a room so vital to modern life it’s become a fraught battleground. Easily the most expensive renovation you’ll ever oversee, an average “midrange” kitchen remodel costs about $76,000, according to Remodeling Magazine. That cost and stress imbues every design decision with heavy emotion and dread, which is why trends and default design choices are so comforting—and why stainless steel has become so prevalent in our kitchens. You rarely saw stainless in a kitchen prior to the 21st century, but a combination of future-forward thinking and more men doing the cooking made stainless steel the default choice for stylish appliances.
But is stainless steel always the best choice? Depending on your design preferences and personal taste, there’s no reason your finishes must be stainless steel—and while more traditional choices like white or black have become (largely unfairly) associated with “cheap” or “budget,” sometimes they represent a better design decision. Let’s dig into why stainless steel isn’t always your best option.
Stainless steel has pros and cons
OK, before we go too far down the rabbit hole let’s be clear about one thing. Stainless steel is a terrific finish choice for several reasons:
- Durability. Stainless steel is remarkable stuff. It won’t rust, it won’t melt or warp under normal cooking conditions, it’s relatively easy to clean, and minor damage can often be buffed out.
- Appearance. We weren’t all hypnotized in 2001 to love the look of stainless steel—it’s very pretty, evokes professional vibes, and works with almost all design palettes.
- It’s noncontroversial. If you’re not terribly confident in your design wisdom, going with stainless steel is always a safe choice.
But just because stainless steel is typically a good choice doesn’t mean it’s always the best choice, because it does bring some downsides:
- Cleaning. Stainless steel will show every smudge, spill, and crumb in your kitchen. If you have children or pets, it will look like a crime scene with all those finger and paw prints. You’ll be cleaning constantly.
- Expense. Stainless steel isn’t always the most expensive finish, but it often is—and it’s rarely your most affordable option.
- Magnetism. This one might seem minor, but many stainless steel finishes are non-magnetized, meaning you won’t be able to slap takeout menus or holiday cards on the fridge. Considering how much we use our kitchens, minor irritations can eventually drive you insane.
- The illusion of quality. We tend to associate stainless steel with high-end appliances, but just because an appliance has a stainless finish doesn’t mean it’s top-of-the-line. It’s just a finish, after all—what truly matters is the function of the appliance itself. You have to look past the pretty exterior to make sure you’re buying an appliance that will get the job done and last for a long time.
- Design limitations. One of the most-overlooked downsides of stainless steel is how it limits your design choices. While stainless does work with almost all kitchen designs, it’s still a single ingredient that is often repeated over and over again, resulting in a bit of a “monochrome” look.
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There are alternatives to stainless steel
The good news is that this is your kitchen, and you can choose something other than stainless steel if you want to. The alternatives can be pretty terrific:
- White. The classic old-school appliance finish remains an excellent choice. White appliances will show a lot of dirt, it’s true, but they’re also typically easier to clean than stainless steel. They also work well with almost any choice of cabinets, backsplash, and countertop. And, again, they will be the most affordable option without sacrificing function.
- Black. Black appliances can be a bold choice, especially when paired with white cabinets and other light finishes. Black appliances are a growing trend because they give the room a modern, sleek look that sets it apart from other kitchens out there. Plus, black finishes are extremely easy to clean and don’t show day-to-day dirt much, so you don’t have to worry about guests leaving your home whispering about your housekeeping skills.
- Other colors. Did you know you can buy appliances finished in colors other than white, black, or stainless? It’s true! You can find appliances from major brands in just about every color, from red and yellow to brown and, er, beige. And having your appliances in a bold, bright color can be a design home run that will bring joy to your heart every time you walk into the room and make people buzz about your kitchen.
- Other stainless finishes. Stainless steel comes in a range of grains. Most appliance manufacturers offer stainless in a matte, slate, or black form in addition to the shiny version you see most often. You can stick with the comfort of stainless while still adding a unique touch that makes your kitchen stand out.
Mixing and matching appliance finishes
So an all-stainless steel kitchen might not be your best choice if you hate cleaning, have kids or pets, or have a more vibrant design sensibility. But this is not a zero-sum game. You don’t necessarily have to match all of your appliance finishes. The secret superpower of designing a kitchen is that you can choose a different finish or color for each appliance if you’re thoughtful about it.
Why would you mix and match finishes? It’s practical, for one thing. Having a refrigerator that’s not stainless steel while everything else is can eliminate the constant wiping-off of fingerprints while maintaining the durability of a stainless oven. There’s a design factor, too: Giving yourself permission to mix up your appliances can have some pretty spectacular results. Here’s a quick guide to mixing and matching your appliance finishes:
- Exercise restraint. Mixing colors and finishes can go very wrong very quickly. If you have four or five different finishes in your kitchen it won’t look like a revolution in design so much as a garage sale score. A great strategy is to choose one appliance as a “pop” of color—a red oven, for example, or a cool pastel blue fridge can draw the eye and tie everything together.
- Consider longevity. You know the advice about not making your home design decisions too personal because it might negatively impact resale value? That goes triple for kitchens. Think about your color combinations carefully. A bold kitchen with different appliance finishes could be a selling point, but only if the color choices are considered cool five years from now. We’ve all seen those 1970s homes with avocado-green fixtures and wondered what those people were smoking when they chose them. Don’t be that person—unless you know you’re going to die in this house and you want to do you.
- Think of your background. When choosing colors and finishes to mix, consider the walls and cabinets. Are your backsplash and cabinets light in color? Soft, pastel color choices for your appliances will produce a calm, zen kind of look. Bold, bright colors will energize your kitchen, making it into a space where your loud family gathers for meals and arguments. If your cabinets and walls are darker, choosing appliances in deep, darker hues will tie it all together, while brighter colors will probably seem out of place.
- Go for subtlety. Just because you’re mixing finishes doesn’t mean the colors have to be loud and vibrant. A matte black or graphite finish isn’t showy, but it feels luxe and sophisticated. A navy steel finish won’t draw the eye immediately, but it can work subtly with the rest of your design choices to produce a cool, calm effect.
There are literally dozens and dozens of color and finish combinations available, so the main advice here is to take your time. Consult an interior designer if it’s in your budget (or consult a creative friend), or steal ideas from the Internet—but don’t rush. You’ll be living with your kitchen for a long time, so don’t make any avocado-green decisions you will come to regret.