The Nature of Materials, Whatever

Stainless steel is everywhere right now. Except where it belongs.

I sn’t is gorgeous? Sleek, cool, luxurious-looking stainless is the latest thing, and it’s everywhere, at every price point. Designers have lavished it on everything. It looks so elegant, so functional. It almost never is.

As a result, there’s a great lesson in design going on, all around us, a class you can attend every time you shop. The nature of a valuable, useful material is being abused, in the name of fashion. How? A look at the material itself will tell you.

Stainless steel, first called Monel metal, was created as an alloy of steel, chromium and nickel, to give the world something it had never had before- a metal that was highly corrosion-resistant, with a natural bright luster that needed less maintenance than anything found in Nature. It’s been around since the 1920’s, making sinks, flatware, car trim, and lots of other things easier and cheaper to own and care for. So far, so good. When you put stainless to work in designs where corrosion-resistance and durability are important, and where easy washing is needed, it’s obviously an unbeatable material.

There have always been drawbacks to it, as everyone who has a stainless sink knows. It doesn’t corrode very readily, but it holds fingerprints, grease, and other household schmutz like a magnet. Every speck of dust that lands on it stands out like a beacon. So, it makes sense to use stainless where you don’t want rusting, and where you do want durability. It also makes sense to avoid its use where fingers and grease would make it unsightly, right? Yeah, right.

Looking at currently fashionable uses for stainless shows just how little appreciation many of today’s designers have for the nature of the material they’ve worked so hard to sneak past their company’s bean-counters. The biggest trend is to put it on the exterior of major appliances, like refrigerators, and hundreds of thousands of homeowners can tell you what’s wrong with that, because they’ve bought a stainless-fronted box and they wish they hadn’t. The reefer that looks so scrumptiously high-tech in the decorating magazines becomes a scabrous-looking mess when it’s in a house full of kids. Stainless shows every finger mark, and kids sure know how to leave ‘em.

I recently bought a toaster oven whose box screamed “Stainless Steel” in its ad copy. I didn’t buy it for that, I bought it because it was continuous-cleaning inside, and a good thing, too. The stainless on the appliance is confined to the top of the appliance’s outer shell; most of it is actually plastic. Inside, where stainless might actually have contributed something to the longevity of the toaster oven, none is used. The floor of the oven, its drip tray, and its racks are the cheapest grade of chrome-plate possible. An opportunity to give me a better appliance was passed up in favor of the chance to give me a more fashionable one.

I’m bemused by another fashion touch seen in kitchen layouts - the stainless-steel dishrack. This would seem to be a terrific use of stainless, because corrosion resistance is important around wet dishes. No argument there. But the material is hard and unforgiving, and care is needed to prevent chipping of dishes put in such a rack. Responding to this concern, some manufacturers have begun putting plastic tubing on some of the prongs that hold the dishes and glassware. The result is that a job done perfectly well by a Rubbermaid plastic drainer is almost adequately done by a stainless one costing ten times as much. 

Microwave ovens have gotten the stainless treatment, with mixed results. Some have it inside and out, and whatever the drawbacks of the exterior treatment, the stainless inside does make for a very durable unit. But many manufacturers of lower-priced machines obviously feel they can afford to put stainless in only one place, and I have yet to see one opt for putting it on the inside, where it would do their customers some good. 

Stainless trash cans with step-on pedals are hot right now. It must be admitted that they’re very good-looking, as slickly designed as a BMW. But the pail inside is the same plastic that cheap trash cans are made of, just as prone to cracking and splitting. When the pail dies, the outer shell is still beautiful, a worthy addition to the Museum of Modern Junk.

I regret that I’m not going to be around in two thousand years, when archaeologists are digging all this stuff up. They’re going to see, very clearly, just how far off-base our society was, as they dig up refrigerator doors, microwave outer shells, and all sorts of other essentially useless, once-fashionable artifacts from an ancient civilization. If mankind has recovered its respect for the products it wrests from the earth - and if there are to be archaeologists in the year 4003, it had better - heads will shake and tongues will cluck:  What were they thinking? Why didn’t they respect this stuff? Why did they apply a nearly indestructible material to their most ephemeral goods?

There’s hope, though. Today’s low prices for stainless mean that it’s being used for lots of housewares and tools where it really does make a difference, and the designers specifying it for those purposes are to be lauded. A trip to Big Lots recently turned up a stainless watering can worthy of the Bauhaus, one that should last practically forever. It has been a long time since a cheap chrome-plated kitchen utensil left a rusty mark on one of my dish towels. Looking for a soap dish last week, I found a stainless one for $3 from Farberware, of all companies, at Wal-Mart, of all places. A timeless Scandinavian design and a material that resists rust mean that it’s going to live with me a long time. Yes, it shows fingermarks, but a trip through the dishwasher cleans them off in a jiffy.

Try that with a refrigerator. Class dismissed.



The Nature of Materials, Whatever 
Copyright © 2003, 2015 D.A. "Sandy" McLendon and Joe Kunkel, www.jetsetmodern.com Jetset - Designs for Modern Living. All rights reserved worldwide. This article may not be reproduced, reprinted, reposted or rewritten without express permission in writing from the author and publisher. First posted to the Web on September 24, 2003. Republished March 19, 2015.

Looking at currently fashionable uses for stainless shows just how little appreciation many of today’s designers have for the nature of the material they’ve worked so hard to sneak past their company’s bean-counters. The biggest trend is to put it on the exterior of major appliances, like refrigerators, and hundreds of thousands of homeowners can tell you what’s wrong with that, because they’ve bought a stainless-fronted box and they wish they hadn’t. The reefer that looks so scrumptiously high-tech in the decorating magazines becomes a scabrous-looking mess when it’s in a house full of kids. Stainless shows every finger mark, and kids sure know how to leave ‘em.

I recently bought a toaster oven whose box screamed “Stainless Steel” in its ad copy. I didn’t buy it for that, I bought it because it was continuous-cleaning inside, and a good thing, too. The stainless on the appliance is confined to the top of the appliance’s outer shell; most of it is actually plastic. Inside, where stainless might actually have contributed something to the longevity of the toaster oven, none is used. The floor of the oven, its drip tray, and its racks are the cheapest grade of chrome-plate possible. An opportunity to give me a better appliance was passed up in favor of the chance to give me a more fashionable one.

I’m bemused by another fashion touch seen in kitchen layouts - the stainless-steel dishrack. This would seem to be a terrific use of stainless, because corrosion resistance is important around wet dishes. No argument there. But the material is hard and unforgiving, and care is needed to prevent chipping of dishes put in such a rack. Responding to this concern, some manufacturers have begun putting plastic tubing on some of the prongs that hold the dishes and glassware. The result is that a job done perfectly well by a Rubbermaid plastic drainer is almost adequately done by a stainless one costing ten times as much. 

Microwave ovens have gotten the stainless treatment, with mixed results. Some have it inside and out, and whatever the drawbacks of the exterior treatment, the stainless inside does make for a very durable unit. But many manufacturers of lower-priced machines obviously feel they can afford to put stainless in only one place, and I have yet to see one opt for putting it on the inside, where it would do their customers some good. 

Stainless trash cans with step-on pedals are hot right now. It must be admitted that they’re very good-looking, as slickly designed as a BMW. But the pail inside is the same plastic that cheap trash cans are made of, just as prone to cracking and splitting. When the pail dies, the outer shell is still beautiful, a worthy addition to the Museum of Modern Junk.

I regret that I’m not going to be around in two thousand years, when archaeologists are digging all this stuff up. They’re going to see, very clearly, just how far off-base our society was, as they dig up refrigerator doors, microwave outer shells, and all sorts of other essentially useless, once-fashionable artifacts from an ancient civilization. If mankind has recovered its respect for the products it wrests from the earth - and if there are to be archaeologists in the year 4003, it had better - heads will shake and tongues will cluck:  What were they thinking? Why didn’t they respect this stuff? Why did they apply a nearly indestructible material to their most ephemeral goods?

There’s hope, though. Today’s low prices for stainless mean that it’s being used for lots of housewares and tools where it really does make a difference, and the designers specifying it for those purposes are to be lauded. A trip to Big Lots recently turned up a stainless watering can worthy of the Bauhaus, one that should last practically forever. It has been a long time since a cheap chrome-plated kitchen utensil left a rusty mark on one of my dish towels. Looking for a soap dish last week, I found a stainless one for $3 from Farberware, of all companies, at Wal-Mart, of all places. A timeless Scandinavian design and a material that resists rust mean that it’s going to live with me a long time. Yes, it shows fingermarks, but a trip through the dishwasher cleans them off in a jiffy.

Try that with a refrigerator. Class dismissed.



The Nature of Materials, Whatever 
Copyright © 2003, 2015 D.A. "Sandy" McLendon and Joe Kunkel, www.jetsetmodern.com Jetset - Designs for Modern Living. All rights reserved worldwide. This article may not be reproduced, reprinted, reposted or rewritten without express permission in writing from the author and publisher. First posted to the Web on September 24, 2003. Republished March 19, 2015.