1925: All-white enameled ranges, like this Hotpoint model, become widespread.
1950s:KitchenAid dishwasher. Petal pink, canary yellow and turquoise were kitchen hits.
1960s:Nature-inspired finishes such as avocado, harvest-gold and 'coppertone,' are popular as kitchen appliances continue to be a color source.
1976:Softer shades, including almond, coffee and 'fresh avocado,' appear.
1980s: Viking Range Corp. launches its iconic stainless-steel open-burner range in 1987, a pioneer among expensive, high-performance 'trophy' appliances.


Stainless-steel's popularity surges, as foodie culture takes off and consumers aspire to cook like the pros.
Mainstream manufacturers continue to experiment with alternatives to stainless steel, whose elegance and versatility are proving hard to beat.

The new appliances reflect, in part, the kitchen's changing role in the home. In an open floor plan, the kitchen functions as the hub of relaxing and entertaining—a return to its historic role as the center of family life.

"Until the industrial age, the kitchen was central to the home," says Victoria Matranga, an industrial-design historian and program coordinator for the International Housewares Association. It lost that role as kids went to their second-floor bedrooms with their own TV, she says, adding "Now there's a movement to get people together again, in the kitchen."

Patrick Schiavone, Whirlpool's vice president of global consumer design, spent two decades as a car and truck designer. Before joining Whirlpool in 2010. In the midst of house-hunting near Whirlpool headquarters in Benton Harbor, Mich., he is set against stainless steel for his kitchen appliances. "I'm over it," he says.

Mr. Schiavone's first big U.S. project at Whirlpool was the development of the company's Ice Collection, which aims to remake what Mr. Schiavone saw as the outdated look of black and white appliances on the market. "We wanted to make them as beautiful as stainless steel," he says. "We want it to feel more like it was meant to be in the space, rather than be some futurist styling of machinery."

Consumers typically buy a new appliance when an old one breaks after a decade or two of use. They often mix different brands. Mr. Schiavone wants the Ice Collection's distinctive look to push people to splurge on the whole collection. "We were careful to make a suite that people lusted after," he says.

The appliance industry needs a boost after several years in which the housing market slump has dampened appliance sales. Manufacturer discounts have eaten into profits.

GE is betting on a metallic matte finish it calls "slate." Figuring that cost-conscious consumers aren't likely to replace all their appliances at once, GE revised the new finish several times, making it warmer so as to complement the stainless steel, white or black appliances already found in consumers' kitchens.

"Not every consumer is ready to completely change out their kitchen appliances," says Lou Lenzi, director of industrial design for GE Appliances. "They don't see the need to swap that expensive range they bought a year ago."

There is a 12- to 15-year life span for an appliance finish to build momentum, peak and decline, Mr. Lenzi says. "For stainless steel to have such a strong run is remarkable." Still, he says he detects "stainless fatigue" in the market. "Living-room aesthetics are appearing in the kitchen's cabinetry and flooring," he says. "Then you have this big piece of industrial steel staring at you. Clearly there is a disconnect."

Slate's development was veiled in secrecy. Mr. Lenzi's team used code names like "Dorian Gray" and "Earl Grey." The team noted that countertops were becoming less polished and figured a matte appliance finish would complement them better. A muted surface shine also makes appliances resemble the flat-screen TVs and iPads that are increasingly at home in the kitchen.

At the high end, Viking Range Corp., whose iconic open-burner stainless-steel range was one of the first to bring pro-kitchen styling into homes, offers 23 color alternatives to stainless steel, including Cinnamon, Wasabi, Kettle Black and Dijon, launched this spring. Still, stainless steel dominates. "I'd say 80% of our sales are still stainless steel," says Brent Bailey, design director at Viking Range. "I could add another 100 colors and the percentage wouldn't change much."

Wolf, part of Sub-Zero Inc., chose highly reflective black glass for its new E Series line. "Glass is becoming more popular in our society in general, and in architecture the buildings coming up are glass," says Michele Bedard, vice president of marketing. There won't be a white counterpart, though. "It's been debated, but white doesn't have that lasting power," Ms. Bedard says. "We test our appliances to last 20 years."