Paneling Is Back in Kitchens Everywhere—Here's How to Get the Built-In Look

Plus, considerations to know before disguising your dishwasher or fridge.

vaulted ceiling kitchen with patterned wall blue cabinets
Photo: David Tsay

Have you ever looked at photos of a beautiful kitchen and wondered where the refrigerator is? While swooning over features like luxe countertops, stand-out lighting, or cabinetry details, it might take a minute to realize the absence of boxy stainless-steel appliances. This is the magic of paneled appliances—a design choice once common in traditional, high-end kitchens that's once again trending.

“Paneled refrigerators used to be associated with a very traditional look. But now a variety of appliances can virtually disappear into their surroundings using matching panels,” says Crystal Hackl, the designer behind Inspired Haven Design. “Paneled appliances are all about luxury and customization, two characteristics that are in high demand in today’s kitchen. They are a departure from the industrial feel of stainless appliances, and allow a more timeless appeal than most other appliance colors.”

What Are Paneled Appliances?

The appliances used to create this look are called integrated appliances, which means they typically sit flush with the cabinetry. But it's the ability to apply decorative panels that distinguish these “panel ready” integrated appliances from stainless steel and other traditional, non-covered built-in appliances. While in some cases you can choose from a selection of available panels from the manufacturer, often the intention is to complete the look with a custom panel matching the rest of the cabinetry, effectively hiding the appliance. 

Refrigerators, freezers, dishwashers, and wine and beverage coolers are common panel-ready appliances, including drawer-style models and even glass-paneled styles. Vent hoods can similarly be concealed by custom covers that match cabinets. “Cooking appliances are typically the ones that cannot be paneled, including cooktops, ranges, ovens, and microwaves,” says Hackl. However, she also notes the range of customization options, from colorful finishes and wraps to tailored knobs and handles, gives many of these appliances more opportunities to blend harmoniously. 

paneled appliance in a kitchen

Emily Followill

Why Paneled Appliances Are Popular Now

“Over the past several years, we’ve really seen an evolution of the kitchen from a purely functional space to an extension of the living space in the home,” says Hackl. A 2023 Design Trends report released by the National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA) highlighted a similar finding, noting “homeowners are looking to open the look and feel of the kitchen while adding elements that hide clutter.”

The NKBA report also predicts that dishwasher drawers and secondary dishwashers will be more prominent in the coming years. Essentially, we’re using more appliances than ever before, while simultaneously looking for ways to make the kitchen feel less like a kitchen. “At the same time, the ability to customize, and the demand for customization, is ever-increasing,” adds Hackl.

The result is a desire to minimize the appearance of appliances. “Appliances tend to consume a lot of visual real estate in a kitchen,” says Hackl, noting that refrigerators alone can occupy 18-35 square feet of wall space. That’s a lot of stainless steel (the most common kitchen appliance finish, according to the NKBA report). Instead, we’re looking to “blend many appliances seamlessly into their surroundings and reduce their visual impact by integrating them, which creates a more harmonious, calm, and luxurious experience in our kitchen living area,” says Hackl.

kitchen with wooden cabinets and dark tiled wall
Kim Cornelison

How to Achieve the Look of Paneled Appliances

For the most visual impact, the appliance should be disguised entirely as cabinetry. An integrated, panel-ready appliance with a matching cabinet panel is critical, but installation is equally important. “A truly integrated look requires more than just a matching panel,” says Hackl. For seamless integration, Hackl explains that the cabinet cutout (the space the appliance fits into) needs to be planned carefully. The face of the appliance should sit flush with the surrounding cabinetry, and it should be placed so the reveals—the visible part of the cabinetry frame, like the gaps between cabinet doors—are spaced the same as the rest of the actual cabinetry. Appliance handles that match cabinet hardware and decorative toe-kicks that match cabinetry details are other examples of the detail required for a total built-in look. 

There are also more budget-friendly or DIY ways to get the built-in appliance look, like building cabinets or cabinet boxes around a paneled refrigerator. Another option is built-in appliances with overlays; these appliances are also panel-ready, but they are not fully integrated within the cabinets. They do not sit flush, so the panels stick out beyond the cabinetry profile. In these instances, the appliance will appear slightly integrated with the cabinet, but things like hinges and gaps for the door swing make the appliance more visible. 

While much of the impetus behind paneled appliances is a desire to disappear, Hackl reminds us that panels can equally be used to create a stand-out style. “Over the past few years at the Kitchen & Bath Industry Show (KBIS), we’ve seen some great examples of innovative uses of panels. At the 2022 show, the team at Monogram showed brushed brass-paneled refrigerators, as well as a freezer and refrigerator column that was paneled to look like wood piles near a fireplace,” says Hackl. 

kitchen with dark green cabinets
Werner Straube

5 Things to Consider Before Choosing Paneled Appliances 

Although they have undeniable personal style with a high-end look, there are some major factors to consider before committing to the built-in look of paneled appliances. 

1. Restricted Appliance Selection

Not every appliance is available in a panel-ready version, and to achieve a fully integrated style, you might have to make some concessions. A totally-hidden style requires forgoing elements that break the illusion of cohesiveness, such as an external water dispenser, a door-mounted touch screen on a refrigerator, or front-mounted controls on a dishwasher.

Appliances that are flush with cabinetry and countertops might also be smaller than their traditional counterparts. A counter-depth refrigerator, for example, will be shallower and may allow for less food storage (though taller and wider models are also available from some brands).

However, you aren’t entirely limited. Panel-ready appliances are common and available from many brands, from KitchenAid and GE to Sub-Zero and Gaggenau, so you can likely find something that suits your needs and budget. Even IKEA even offers a one-stop shop with both panel-ready appliances and cabinetry with their kitchen design services. 

2. It's a Big Project

The best benefits of paneled appliances come from a significant kitchen remodel or a new build—it’s not as easy as simply switching out an existing appliance for a paneled one. The cabinet box and other installation considerations are key when going for a totally seamless look. 

“There are very few models on the market that are designed to be retrofitted into existing cabinetry, but they do exist. Typically, when we are integrating an appliance, it’s part of a larger scale remodel,” says Hackl. “Most flush-inset, or integrated appliances, which are designed to blend in with the surrounding cabinetry, need to be accommodated and planned for early on in the design process.”

Careful planning is needed to account for specifics, like appliance and panel depth, plumbing connections, and door pivot in order to get that seamless look. In addition, you’ll need to coordinate appliance fronts from the cabinet manufacturer or cabinetmaker, too. Keep in mind that this also means replacing damaged panels, or entire appliances, may be more difficult.

3. Experts Are Needed

With the intricacies of cabinet and appliance prep, it’s not surprising that this isn’t an easy DIY project. Professional contractors, kitchen designers, and cabinetmakers with experience creating and installing custom paneled appliances are necessary. Professionals can help with understanding what appliances can be fully integrated, how to shop for them, and which brands can provide what you’re looking for. They can also suggest coordinating looks or clever installations to minimize cooking appliances that can’t be paneled. 

4. Higher Costs

Fully-integrated paneled appliances will cost you more. In addition to the appliance cost, you’ll be paying for the panel cover, and expert planning and installation. 

5. Built-Ins Don't Align with All Design Styles

Sometimes, concealing appliances doesn’t work for your style. Industrial kitchens have an aesthetic that embraces stainless steel finishes. Similarly, the charm and flexibility of an unfitted kitchen, or the personality of colorful and vintage appliances, can be lost with integrated appliances and fully built-in kitchens. 

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