Most of us don't give too much thought to our refrigerators. It's just that box that we gaze into multiple times a day in search of food. In an age where technology rules and the majority of people look for the latest and greatest when selecting kitchen appliances, vintage refrigerators and other appliances are making a comeback — giving new life in the kitchens of homeowners seeking a dose of retro charm.
If you look at some of the more popular refrigerator lines from the 1950s — an era that has always held a certain fascination in the minds of Americans — you'll notice that many of them resemble the hoods of cars. The reason is that many of the major auto companies of the day also made refrigerators. For example, General Motors owned the classic Frigidaire line, and Kelvinator, which introduced the first side-by-side automatic defrost model, was a division of American Motors. International Harvester, a maker of tractors, also had a line of refrigerators, which they sold mostly to farmers' wives.
Many restored models are painted in candy colors that echo hot rods of the day, making them popular among auto enthusiasts. Others, in popular 1950s pastels like pink and baby blue, add fun, interest and color to vintage-inspired kitchens, offices and businesses.
John Meyer and his girlfriend, Joann Kuehl, own Clean Cut Creations, an auto restoration shop in Rock Hill where, in addition to restoring old cars, they collect vintage refrigerators, metal cabinets and other kitchen items, clean them up and restore them to new glory in classic candy colors.
"Recycling isn't a new concept for me. I've been doing this my whole life," Meyer says. "I'm a repurposer, a picker, a Dumpster diver."
He met his match in Kuehl, who loves to spend free time cruising estate sales and flea markets, hunting for treasures that other people think are junk. She loves vintage kitchen appliances and accessories. When she found a set of retro metal kitchen cabinets, she knew Meyer could use his auto restoration skills and tools to bring it back to its previous luster.
Her weekend hobby soon grew into a side- business for the couple, run out of the auto shop. They have both developed a passion for the restored appliances — and have a few they keep for themselves in the shop and at home. "We have a hard time letting go of them," Kuehl says. "We love this stuff."
They purchase only vintage refrigerators that are currently in good working condition as they don't replace the parts or restore them with modern compressors. Though repair can be difficult, Kuehl says, all of the models they have or have sold run well and they've rarely experienced a problem. They do require defrosting by hand, but some helpful tools and a little patience are all that is needed to do it the old-fashioned way.
True "pickers," Meyer and Kuehl always search for the best deal, usually people who are cleaning out their parents or grandparents' basements or attics and are just trying to get rid of things. "We never pay more than $50 for anything," Kuehl says. "Most people just want them out of their basement or garage. They don't see the beauty in them, and they don't have the means to restore them."
Restored refrigerators, such as a candy-apple red Philco with gold accents currently in their shop, go for about $1,200. Customers can buy one of these beautifully restored models or select a "blank canvas" from the refrigerator collection behind the shop and have it painted in any custom color or pattern they want.
Meyer will also custom paint appliances people already own or purchase elsewhere. Custom paint jobs run about $400-$500.
big market for antique appliances
The "Holy Grail" of retro refrigerators is the elusive Philco V-Handle, which not only resembles the hood of a Cadillac but also has the one and only two-way door that opens from either side depending on which way the V is turned. This model was designed by one of the day's top industrial designers, Harold Van Doren.
Rich Allen, owner of Vintage Appliances in Tucson, Ariz., has bought and sold a few V-Handles in his shop. He is one of the largest and best-known restorers of antique refrigerators and stoves in the world. With more than 800 antique appliances in stock from the 1800s through the 1960s, models he has restored have been featured in period films such as "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," and exhibits such as one at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.
A veteran of the heating and cooling industry, he was going out of business when a friend told him there was a big market for antique appliances. All of the refrigerator models Allen buys are restored and updated with modern compressors so they can be serviced by any repairperson and are self-defrosting. "The antique models are difficult to service and locate parts for," he says.
The 1950s models are the most popular with his customers, but Allen also sells antique "ice boxes" from the turn of the century to people with historic homes. His biggest market is in the East Coast, where the homes are the oldest.
In addition to restored antique models, Vintage Appliances also sells several popular new lines with retro styling. Elmira Stove Works, a maker of antique reproductions, has a line called Northstar styled after 1950s retro appliances and offered in bright 1950s colors such as buttercup yellow, robin's egg blue, flamingo pink and mint green.
"I don't know that retro is making a comeback so much as it is simply providing an alternative to the cold, hard lines and finishes of stainless steel," says Elmira Stove Works vice president Brian Hendrick. "Although the colors and curves of our so-called retro appliances are reminiscent of the '50s, they fit very well into modern and contemporary kitchens as well."
Big Chill, another line, offers new models of matching retro refrigerators, stoves and dishwashers with stamped metal bodies and real chrome trim.
With so many 1950s contemporary and classic homes in St. Louis, many homeowners want to preserve the period details of these houses with appliances that "fit" the era. While purists may go for the true vintage models, these new lines give another option for those wanting to "update" without sacrificing the retro style of their homes.
Some local homes, such as that of writer Scott Sheperd and his wife, Marilyn, a vice president at Fontbonne University, have perfectly preserved time-capsule kitchens complete with brightly painted metal cabinets and matching appliances. The Sheperds live in the Ladue Estates subdivision, a 1950s modern subdivision recently named to the National Register of Historic Places.
The Sheperds' kitchen features bright turquoise metal cabinetry and a rare wall-mounted GE above-counter refrigerator/freezer that blends in with the cabinets for a seamless look. These models are big on style but short on space, although many owners won't give them up until they stop working.
Those looking for inspiration on preserving the vintage look of their kitchens can find it at retrorenovation.com, a website and blog dedicated to "loving the house you're in" and featuring tips and resources for period restoration. Complete the look with vintage kitchen accessories, dishes and utensils from local specialty shops such as The Future Antiques in St. Louis or Re-Designz in Crestwood.