The kitchens of the wealthy in the United States today are capable of providing a humbling experience to the uninitiated. Attempts to obtain ice cubes can turn the most worthy guest into an unlucky burglar who rummages through drawers for loose gems.
“I don’t think I’ve had a client willing to unveil their refrigerator for very long,” says Martyn Lawrence Bullard, an English interior decorator whose eponymous Los Angeles firm has wiped out major home appliances for the likes of Cher, Tommy Hilfiger, and Kylie Jenner. “Over the past five years, everything we’ve done has had a hidden refrigerator.”
Many things that are immediately recognizable as things in most American kitchens—appliances recognizable by their size, shape, and general appearance they’ve had since about the 1940s—are increasingly turned into cabinets in the homes of the wealthy.
“Panel-ready” refrigerators, whose facades are designed to accommodate (usually via systems of brackets and screws) custom pieces of wood indistinguishable from a kitchen’s built-in cabinets, have become standard. For example, it is not only possible, but common to look at a newly built luxury kitchen and not immediately be able to determine whether there is a cool box in it.
“Everyone” is paneling their stainless steel, said Shannon Wollack, the founder of Studio Life/Style, a West Hollywood interior design firm. “Everyone,” she repeated. Among the clients whose kitchens Mrs. Wollack has transformed into austere closet temporia: actress Hilary Duff, whose blue-paneled kitchen, despite appearances, includes a refrigerator.
Au courant refrigerators resemble the imaginary dragons of childhood fantasy in that they are both invisible and huge. “You’d be amazed at how much space” luxury kitchens devote to concealed refrigeration, said Ms. Wollack. “A lot of people,” she said, choose to put two refrigerators side by side.
But the explosion of cluttered storage boxes and drawers that makes a state-of-the-art kitchen resemble the study of a 19th-century pharmacist isn’t just the result of refrigerators becoming cabinets. Closets also become refrigerators.
“Everyone wants their fridge drawers these days,” Mr Bullard said, referring to smaller built-in cabinets, often in kitchen islands, that pull out to reveal additional refrigerated storage areas. “Everyone,” he said, put in at least two. “Most people do four — or possibly six.”
Can I buy you a drink?
What are the rich manipulate to levels of cold and freshness – far beyond nature’s intrinsic capacity – in quantities that require such massive storage?
“They like a lot of drinks,” says Ms. Wollack, whose clientele has many people in the entertainment industry. “A lot of them are drinks.” A popular drawer arrangement, she said, includes three small refrigerated dividers: one for wine, one for drinks other than wine, and one for fresh produce. Mr. Bullard has known customers who used them to store facial creams and beauty products. “A number of people have now put them in their bathrooms,” he said.
Second refrigerators are not new to American homes. A 2015 study by the U.S. Energy Information Administration found that 30 percent of the country — about 35 million households in 2015 — could claim at least two refrigerators “plugged in and turned on” in their homes at all times.
What sets high-quality supplemental refrigerators apart is the prominence of their (hidden) placement: according to the survey, the majority of additional refrigerators in the country have been relegated to basements or garages.
Closet camouflage isn’t a modern innovation either: In the 1950s, General Electric advertising copy boasted briefly of a horizontal cooling system built to “hang on the wall like a painting,” available in colors such as “petal pink” and “turquoise green.”
It is expensive to hide the best refrigeration technology in the kitchen. Many of Ms. Wollack’s customers choose Sub-Zero refrigerators, which are equipped with a magnetic gasket around the inner door edge that creates a vacuum seal to seal out warm air.
These devices — which, she said, “can easily cost up to $15,000” — are so dedicated to their job of cooling, that they sometimes seem to work unlike their owners: Troubleshooting guidelines for customers on the Sub-Zero- website explains to customers that while the company’s refrigerators and freezers are not designed to be impenetrable to humans, “depending on the strength of the vacuum, the door may appear to be locked.”
But while the rich want to refrigerate an increasing number of perishable items, according to Mr. Bullard less and less inclined to freeze them. “Food freezing is becoming less and less fashionable,” he says. “People want more organic food.”
“Most of our customers these days tend to just use their freezers for ice cream and ice cream,” he said.
Also out of favor are refrigerators with built-in automatic water and ice dispensers that allow tired refrigerator owners to buy a drink without stopping to open the unit.
Ice now comes from one of several types of stand-alone squat machines that are solely for making ice with a certain shape, texture and clarity. The most advanced panel-ready models of these can cost several thousand dollars. For those who have only a few hundred dollars to spend making ice, a small unit of GE presents its supply of frozen water like a heavenly glowing mosaic.
Taps for filtered water have been moved to the sink. “The water filtration system from the refrigerator looks rather old-fashioned and never fits well with the built-in drawers,” said Mr Bullard.
“It’s not fashionable,” he said. “We haven’t used things like that for years.”
A look inside
Reality television has served as a venue for the exposure of average Americans to high-performance refrigeration since the early 2000s. In MTV’s “Cribs,” a popular documentary-style series in which entertainers — actors, musicians, athletes, the occasional magician — claimed to give viewers tours of their private homes, peeks into refrigerators were a signature element of the show. (Many were mainly stocked with drinks, including, memorably, a supermarket display of vitamin water neatly arranged in the 50 Cent refrigerator.)
The “The Real Housewives” franchise has opened up a new window for viewers to scrutinize the design choices of America’s elite. Due to the program’s emphasis on lavish domesticity, cast members are often filmed in their immaculate, sprawling kitchens.
Nene Leakes of the show’s Atlanta branch gave one of the series’ most famous monologues about a refrigerator in 2013. In a talking lead interview, she seemed distraught as she described the appearance of a hotel in which one of her co-stars was staying temporarily: “It has a white refrigerator!” Mrs. Leakes whimpered, her face a kaleidoscope of pain, horror, and disbelief. “I was like, ‘Oh hoo! Ooh, no white fridge. Girl, please put on your shoes. Let’s go find you a house, honey!’
The huge glass case filled with baskets of vibrant technicolor products installed in the home of another “real housewife,” Yolanda Hadid, also drew attention to the show’s Beverly Hills franchise. While Ms. Hadid left the show in 2016, a Twitter account with the handle @YolandasFridge still occasionally created tweets in character as her transparent device to an audience of more than 14,000 followers during her tenure.
Despite the visual appeal of Ms. Hadid’s lavishly stocked refrigerator, “most customers don’t opt for the glass front — as much as they’d like,” said Ms. Wollack.
All-glass refrigerators require a level of maintenance that is generally incompatible with human life. “You have to be organized and keep your fridge very, very tidy,” Mr. Bullard said. “Otherwise it doesn’t look good at all. And they are very expensive. They’re $15,000, $20,000.”
For people who want to take note of the contents of their refrigerators without opening them, Mr. Bullard will instead install a refrigerator with a camera in it (“so that you, or your housekeeper in this case, maybe” can check in during a shopping trip to see what’s running out, he said). Some shelf systems will soon be equipped with weight sensors designed to detect how much product is left in a given container, Mr Bullard said.
Hidden in plain sight
Ms. Wollack and Mr. Bullard both said the zeal for concealing appliances was the result of kitchens increasingly being used as rooms for informal congregations, rather than as spaces reserved solely for food preparation.
“Kitchen used to be hidden,” Mrs. Wollack said. “It had a door. There you had all your devices. It was like the workspace. And now kitchens are more of a lifestyle. You want to make it beautiful and seamless.”
These spaces will be set up “like living rooms,” Mr Bullard said. “We add art. You add expensive lighting. The island will become a kind of modern dining table.” (The real dining table is confined to a separate, less-used space.)
A Sub-Zero spokesperson confirmed that panel-ready models of the company’s refrigerators are “particularly popular in major metropolitan areas.” Mr Bullard said the fastest way to spread kitchen trends is through social media images. In recent years, he said, Instagram has inspired a blitz of green-colored kitchens.
But some luxury kitchen essentials remain out of reach for even the wealthiest shoppers — amenities including the refrigerators they hope to hide.
“God knows you can’t find a refrigerator anywhere right now,” Mr. Bullard said. “They’re almost as hard to find as a car.” Pandemic disruptions in the global supply chain have made even modest chest freezers barely available since last spring. “At the moment, things are lagging behind for months and months,” he said. And money doesn’t matter anymore. You can’t pay more to get it faster because the product is just not available.”
mr. Bullard was recently commissioned to track down a catering fridge for a client’s chef. “We couldn’t find it anywhere,” he said. Finally, he found a second-hand model. The final price for the used refrigerator: $18,000.
“You do,” he said, “what you must.”