Designed by: Jennifer Gilmer; pictured: a hot-rolled steel kitchen island
Metal—especially stainless steel—has been a popular kitchen accent for decades, for everything from ranges to sinks to countertops. Now its cousin, hot-rolled steel, is making the leap from industrial material to decorative kitchen accent. Designer Jennifer Gilmer, CKD, fills us in on its origins—and why she thinks it's here to stay.
Kitchen materials have come a long way in my 30 years in the business—take metal, for instance. When I first started designing kitchens, stainless steel was considered a commercial product and used strictly for commericial ranges, refrigerators and sinks. In the residential market, it was only exposed where absolutely necessary for function—for example, around and under burners, or on hinges or handles on the refrigerator. Otherwise, stainless steel appliances were only available in whatever paint finishes were popular at the time. Range hoods were likewise often painted to match the range.
The first stainless products for residential use were sinks, which eventually overtook cast iron/porcelain sinks and are now the norm. By the late '80s, homeowners were becoming enamored with more powerful ranges, and it was vogue to use a commercial range in the home. Because these ranges were designed for commercial kitchens where everything is stainless, insulation was minimal, and the heat they gave off was too dangerous when placed next to a wooden cabinet (yikes!). I remember the many modifications we had to create in order to safely integrate commercial ranges into home kitchens.
As more and more kitchens were designed using these ranges, manufacturers caught on (Viking was the first to adapt its commercial ranges for residential applications), and many more options became available. Soon, stainless refrigerators and dishwashers started to hit the market, followed by countertops and even stainless steel cabinets. Stainless steel has been a popular trend for more than a decade now, and it's starting to run its course. But metal is still an eye-catching and practical material for the kitchen—so how do you incorporate it in a way that's interesting and unique?
The answer: hot-rolled steel.
I had a client come in recently with a picture of dark grey/blue mottled metal cabinets, but it wasn't a metal I recognized. After some research, I discovered that these cabinets were made from hot-rolled steel. The process of making hot-rolled steel was invented in the late 1600s in Belgium, and was mainly used to make barrel straps. Various metals—iron, plus other elements like carbon, manganese, chromium, vanadium and tungsten—are heated, mixed together and then put through rollers that are gauged to the desired thickness. During the heating process, the metals undergo chemical reactions that create a blotched appearance, almost like water marks. As the metal cools, these indelible marks are left behind on the surface, creating a very organic appearance.
Photo: Courtesy of Cole Thompson
Hot-rolled steel is typically used for structural components that aren't seen, like car and truck frames, railroad parts and wheel rims. It's a very industrial metal that has traditionally been considered purely functional and not aesthetically pleasing. But as people are looking for alternatives to stainless steel, they've started to give hot-rolled steel another look. Although it has an industrial undercurrent, its organic nature lends an artistic flair to the kitchen that stainless can't. Plus, it's an example of handmade craftsmanship, which is key to creating a custom look.
In the case of my clients, they wanted to design a genuine "Belgian" kitchen that mixed old and new. The walls and hood were finished using authentic plaster for an Old World look; the hood apron is simply detailed and painted. Meanwhile, hot-rolled steel used for the cabinets and on the island brought in something new, but with vintage roots and a refined, hand-painted look. The end result is magnificent. Since then, we've used hot-rolled steel for hoods, backsplashes and cabinets on more of our projects.
Photo: Cole Thompson
Photo: Cole Thompson
So how can you get the look in your own home? Hot-rolled steel is still a new material in the realm of kitchen design, so your best bet is to go through an interior or kitchen designer. Some professionals may not have heard of it yet, but if a client requests it, they can find a resource. You could go directly to the fabricator, but you'd need to give him direction, which may be difficult to do. This particular metal fabrication is a real art—not just any metal shop can do it. Metal cabinets are installed like regular cabinets, but for proper execution, call on a professional cabinet installer.