The missing microwaves and countertop kitchen appliances on HGTV

In watching a recent episode of something or other on HGTV, I realized something: very few of the renovated homes featured on the channel have visible microwaves or other kitchen appliances on surfaces.

I suspect this is similar to the clean, open concept kitchen that has no mess: the aesthetic is modern and minimalist. Appliances beyond the stove, refrigerator, and dishwasher (which are often emphasized in discussions and visual shots because of their size and finishes) should be out of sight and avoid cluttering the beautiful surfaces. To some degree, this is common when showing houses that are for sale: the thinking is that people do not want to see the clutter of everyday life.

Yet, I would guess that most American kitchens have plenty of countertop appliances that they regularly use. How many home cooks can survive without a toaster or toaster oven, blender, food processor, mixer, coffee makers, crockpot, and so on? And that does not even include the microwave, an indispensable tool for decades.

I suspect that clearing the countertops for the final reveal of homes is akin to the sketchy before and after shots provided by weight loss products. The difference might look substantial but the image is misleading. Is a clear surface that few people can actually live with really desirable versus a kitchen that displays where people can keep some of the stuff they regularly use? The countertops should not be full of junk but a well-placed appliance can both recognize the realities of most American kitchens and hint to the viewer what is possible in the kitchen.

The rise of granite countertops

I’ve written about this before but more people are also interested in this topic: what is behind the rise in popularity of granite countertops?

“What’s interesting is how granite has quickly become the one and only material, across the country and across all price points,” says Ron Cathell, a real estate agent in Northern Virginia. It used to be a high-end thing, back in the 1990s when these countertops began making appearances. It was aspirational. “Then, 12 years ago, the first sort of moderately priced homes started using it. Now, every home has to have granite if you want to sell it. Not just sell it, but rent it. It’s become such a thing. It’s almost — ” he searches for the right metaphor. “It’s almost like trying to sell a house without a toilet.”

As the price has gone down, the popularity has gone up; just look at the graph provided by StoneUpdate.com, a Web site dedicated to the natural stone industry. In 2000, 895,000 metric tons of granite slabs were imported to the United States. In 2011, that number was 1.43 million — and that’s down from a high of 2.64 million a few years ago. The recession slowed granite sales — even cheap granite, which can be bought for as low as about $30 a square foot. Less cheap can go for $80, or however much you’re willing to spend, really. The backsplash is the limit.

“Let’s get deep, let’s get psychological,” says Anthony Carino. Carino is the co-host of “Kitchen Cousins,” a renovation show on HGTV, the network that taught the world about recessed lighting and radiant heating, that democratized the stainless steel appliance so it could be enjoyed by New Yorkers and North Dakotans alike. HGTV is the land that viewers visit when they are trying to cultivate a personal design aesthetic by spying on what everyone else is doing. “People wanting granite countertops is people wanting to sound like they know what they’re talking about,” Carino says. “It’s like listening to two guys talk about hot-rod cars.”

I would argue that this is not psychological – it is sociological. Granite countertops are in for three big reasons:

1. It signals something about its owners. Perhaps it is that they have the money (a marker of social class). Perhaps it is because they have the right taste (though whether it is about aesthetics or being functional would be interesting to look at). Perhaps it is because they are smart enough to get behind the latest trend (#2 on this list).

2. It is what is popular now, thanks to HGTV and other outlets. People want what is popular, partly because they don’t want to be left behind (like having Harvest Gold appliances) and partly because of #3.

3. It helps a home sell. Add stainless steel appliances and decent cabinets and you have a kitchen that is ready to help sell the house.

People internalize these important factors and then make a decision whether to purchase granite countertops or not.

A few other things intrigue me:

1. Are granite countertops “green” or “sustainable”? Does it matter?

2. I’ve seen a few references here and there to a backlash against people who buy this. One referred to purchasers as the “granite and stainless set.” Will this grow into a bigger movement and/or how long will the granite countertop popularity last?

3. Is part of the appeal the natural nature of granite? Although one could argue that it is strange to bring a big slab of rock into your gleaming kitchen…it makes for an odd mix of modern machines and prehistoric rock.

4. How do people sell other countertop surfaces these days if granite is so popular? Besides price, what is the sales pitch for something else?

Also, Megan McArdle recent wondered why people purchase stainless steel appliances.

h/t Instapundit