The Future of Appliance Design: A Visit to GE’s Appliance Park

A fantastic open-plan kitchen with a top-notch clean finish all over, including the walls, surfaces and floors.

While stainless steel is still quite popular, consumers may be ready for other design ideas. Take GE’s Slate collection — the appliances come in a slate finish — which the company says has been well received, as much for practicality as for its looks. Photos courtesy of GE.

LOUISVILLE, KY.— Does your dishwasher play a theme song? No? Well, maybe not yet, but soon.

In the kitchen of the very near future, it’s not enough that refrigerators chill, ovens roast and dishwashers scrub.

Indeed, our appliances must manage all of that, but today’s marketplace demands that they do a lot more, according to the industrial designers here at GE’s Appliance Park, a 900-acre manufacturing and design facility where they’re crafting such intriguing features as dishwashers that will send you musical messages as they segue into the rinse cycle.

The emphasis isn’t only on technology: Appliance esthetics increasingly must make the room fit in with the rest of your house, as the notion of the kitchen as “hub of the home” morphs from being a design cliché into a reality, according to Lou Lenzi, GE’s director of industrial design operations.

Lenzi recently led a “trends tour” through part of GE’s massive facility, explaining what’s new for consumers and a few things that are currently just a gleam in a designer’s eye — and why:

A Bit of Detroit in Your Kitchen

Industrial designers may subtly follow the lead of other popular consumer-oriented product designs, which is why the handle on your oven might be vaguely reminiscent of the curvature of your iPhone. Or a bow-fronted refrigerator might have an automotive bent.

“We get input from all sources,” Lenzi said. “We check out the Consumer Electronics Show, we look at what televisions look like, we follow current (apparel) fashions, we go to the Detroit Auto Show and to the furniture market in High Point, N.C.,” he said. Ikea and Target are pacesetters that the appliance industry keeps up with, Lenzi explained.

The popularity of Apple’s recently released gold-toned iPhone, for instance, might translate, eventually, into champagne-toned appliances, he said.

These Days, Your Kitchen is Your Living Room

Newly built homes (and, increasingly, remodeled ones) are eschewing the traditional notion of walls between rooms on the main floor in order to create open floor plans and unobstructed, flowing space. As such, the kitchen in your new home may be on display just as much as the great room: Consumers want it to look less like a work space and more like a living space, Lenzi said. 

In other words, maybe you should think of your fridge as a kind of chilly armoire. “There’s a 
trend away from appliances as a piece of industrial equipment,” said Lenzi. “We believe that the notion of the kitchen as a ‘secondary room’ is no longer valid. It’s about a furniture aesthetic now.”

This explains the rise in so-called “transitional” styling, Lenzi said. Though a firm definition for the look is elusive, designers generally think of it as a cross between modern and traditional; the National Kitchen & Bath Association’s annual designers’ survey said that in 2012, the style clearly surpassed traditional as the nation’s longtime favorite.

Appliances have followed suit, Lenzi said. To be “transitional,” they may be visually integrated with the cabinets, with panelized fronts that match the cabinetry or they may merely compliment the 
clean lines of the cabinets, he explained.

“When you talk about transitional, you simplify the visual design aesthetic,” he said. “The lines are simple, the finishes muted.”

The Great Stainless Debate

Stainless steel appliance finishes began to find a place in the market about 20 years ago and have been immensely popular for the past decade or so. Are they still a consumer favorite?

“Colors and finishes change about every 20 years,” according to GE Appliances spokeswoman Julie Wood.

No one is suggesting that stainless is on its way to becoming the next avocado, but consumers may be ready to entertain other design ideas, according to GE, which about a year ago rolled out a slate finish — cleverly named Slate — that the company says has been well received, as much for practicality as for its looks.

Industrial designers subtly follow the lead of other popular consumer-oriented product designs, which is why the handle on your oven might be vaguely reminiscent of the curvature of your iPhone. Or why a bow-fronted refrigerator might have an automotive bent.

“Young families are tired of cleaning up fingerprints,” Lenzi said, citing a certain amount of “stainless fatigue” in the marketplace. “They want to put magnets back on their refrigerators.”

Slate, as its name would suggest, is a fairly unobtrusive tone in a room, but GE designers are toying with bolder moves. An array of prototype refrigerators — which may never hit the market — were impossible to overlook in the GE facility, decked out as they were in brilliant red, green, and orange doors.

“We always have to ask ourselves, what’s next?” Lenzi said. “Based on input from some consumers, one approach that we might choose is to be very aggressive” with color.

Gesturing toward the wall of lollipop-colored appliances, he said that some consumers had told GE researchers they might go for one pop of color — an oven clad in stop-sign scarlet, perhaps — within an otherwise muted kitchen palette. It’s a drawing-board option that the company is considering, he said.

“Sonic Signatures” and Other Sensory Signals

appliance technology is trying hard to be subtle.

In January 2014, for example, GE will introduce a dishwasher in its Monogram line that can be programmed to play brief snippets of a specially commissioned tune to signal when the machine has been switched on, when it finishes a given cycle, etc. 

It’s the beginning of a broader plan to introduce a “soundtrack” for many GE designs, Lenzi said. Not only does the music notify busy consumers of information they may need to know while they’re otherwise occupied in their kitchens, it’s related to a move among corporations to improve brand recognition via audio clues — one step removed from the traditional notion of a company’s signature jingle.

Appliance companies are also using other sensory cues to help make their products more useful and time-saving, said Shawn Stover, product manager for cooking products at GE. Halogen illumination throughout a refrigerator’s interior, for example, may make it easier to lay hands on that bottle of chile sauce that’s found its way to the very back of the lower shelf. 

Light has a job in other parts of the refrigerator, too, he said. Some GE refrigerator drawers are color-coded to remind you of the temperature you’ve programmed for its particular contents, such as a red glow emanating from a trim piece to signal that the temperature has been set specifically for meat, he said. 

The ambient lighting in the refrigerator door that helps you position a glass while you fill it with water also functions as a nightlight, Stover said. 

These sensory signals aren’t just for fridges: A new oven in the company’s GE and GE Profile series is equipped with a display light that pulses to indicate how far it has progressed toward preheating to the temperature you’ve requested.

“People are used to watching a line that indicates the progress of a download” on their computers, he said, explaining that the pulsating light is a cooking equivalent. Stover said the company added it for the parent who may be sitting across the kitchen and helping the kids with homework while simultaneously getting dinner ready: no need to get up and check the oven and disrupt the multiplication-table drill, he said.

Such features are part of GE’s focus on the “coping cook,” Stover said.

“We tried to understand the challenges consumers face,” he said. “The ‘coping cook’ isn’t a great cook, but wants features that will make them successful. For them, there’s never enough counter space, never enough storage, never enough time.”

The inquiry into what kinds of prepared foods tend to disappoint these cooks led to the re-design of position of the fan and racks in a convection oven, which GE said lessens the variability of the results — and should take the “soggy” out of breaded chicken breasts and oven-cooked French fries that the consumers had bemoaned, he said.

These cooks are less likely to seek gourmet fare than just plain reliable results, Stover said. “They can’t afford to fail because they have a hungry family waiting to eat dinner.

Freelance writer Mary Umberger has covered real estate and home-related products for publications such as The Chicago Tribune, Inman News and other leading print and online publications.

Related Articles

Sign up for the Home of the Week

New Home 101
New eBook Available

Expert Advice on Buying & Building a New Home

The eBook will be delivered to your inbox. We will not share your email address.