How Stainless-Steel Appliances Became a Modern Kitchen Must-Have

See how new technology, TV chefs, and changing gender roles helped make stainless steel the finish of choice for modern kitchens.

Kitchen appliances have always been about more than cooking. They're a lifestyle statement, our tastes embodied in a refrigerator, microwave, or range. In the 2000s, we wanted our kitchens to signal our readiness for the new millennium and affirm our roles as citizens of the shiny new 21st century. So we replaced our '90s-era black appliances with gleaming stainless-steel ones.

"Stainless steel looked futuristic," says Dr. Anna Ruth Gatlin, assistant professor of interior design at Auburn University who teaches a course on the history of interior design. "In the 2000s, we were living in an age of rapid technological advancements, and we wanted that reflected in our homes."

stainless-steel kitchen

The Journey to American Kitchens

Stainless steel was invented in 1913 for use as a corrosion-resistant material for gun barrels. In the 1920s, stainless steel was used in the manufacture of cutlery, tools, and surgical scalpels. In 1934, the SS Queen Mary, flagship of the famed Cunard line, was launched with the first-ever stainless-steel kitchen. Stainless quickly became the gold standard for commercial kitchens on land because it was durable, lighter than steel, and easy to sanitize thanks to its impenetrable surface.

By the 2000s, even with the internet young and many still on dial-up, Americans believed in the positive power of technology. The advent of smartphones and social media represented the beginnings of a techno-utopia. Sleek, metallic appliances brought that belief and aesthetic into the kitchen.

At the same time, changing gender roles also prompted adjustments in kitchen designs. "Women had been in the workforce for a while, so there's been a shift in roles at home," says Gatlin. "The kitchen is no longer a gendered space. Men are now spending more time in the kitchen."

The numbers tell the story of what happened when women started working outside the home. According to a 2013 study published in Nutrition Journal, just over a quarter of American men cooked in the mid-1960s, but by the late 2000s, more than 40% of them did. Similarly, a 2012 report found that Generation X men, which generally includes those born between 1965 and 1980, made an average of eight meals a week.

"Because of this, we see kitchens toned down in the 2000s because we want to make sure it transitions across both people in a relationship," Gatlin says. Kitchens begin to feature stainless-steel appliances paired with neutral beige walls and backsplashes, sometimes with bold pops of black, adding more neutrality to a space historically associated with women.

Another driving factor in the move to stainless-steel everything: Food Network. The cable channel was a cultural game-changer in the 2000s, creating a nation of foodies who wanted to be like the professional chefs they saw on TV. Bobby Flay and Anthony Bourdain made cooking cool—macho, even—with hit shows including BBQ with Bobby Flay and A Cook's Tour, helping to rebrand cooking. In addition to giving rise to the "doodie" (a portmanteau of "dude" and "foodie"), Food Network made having a commercial-style kitchen full of gleaming stainless-steel appliances a goal, even for those without Iron Chef-level cooking skills.

Additionally, loft apartments became popular in urban areas during the 2000s. This introduced an industrial design aesthetic that eventually seeped into the suburbs and further reinforced the stainless-steel trend. The sleek appliances provided an easy way to get a modern, industrial look in your home, even if you lived far from the city. Small appliances like slow cookers became available in stainless steel in the 2000s.

stainless steel kitchen with chartreuse subway tile on walls
Brian Anderson

Stainless Steel's Staying Power

Nearly two generations since taking over American kitchens, stainless-steel appliances remain a popular choice. Yet for every trend, there is an equal and opposite backlash. Some people have tired of the look of cold steel, while others dislike wiping smudgy fingerprints off the shiny material. Some have opted for brightly colored appliances for a happier, retro-looking kitchen or opt to hide appliances completely with the help of wood panels.

While white appliances made a comeback in the 2010s, rolling in with the modern farmhouse trend, stainless steel remains a solid, timeless choice that goes with almost any style and color scheme. And data backs it up: In a recent survey from HomeLight, 75% of real estate agents said stainless-steel appliances were the most in-demand finish with home buyers. The force is strong with stainless.

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