Call it prison chic. Toilets and sinks clad head to toe in stainless steel are the latest thing in luxury bathrooms. Is this the latest...

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Call it prison chic. Toilets and sinks clad head to toe in stainless steel are the latest thing in luxury bathrooms. Is this the latest ramification of Martha Stewart’s stint in the pokey?

The stainless bath fixtures are shiny showroom darlings, but they’re hardly giving porcelain a run for its money.

“We’ve only sold one toilet and one basin so far — to the same person,” said Tony Shapiro of Dorfman Plumbing in Kansas City, Mo. “They’re very hot on both coasts, but this area is pretty conservative.”

But kitchens are another story. Designers say stainless steel is enjoying a surge in popularity. Appliances are the most popular application for the shiny, industrial finish, but countertops and backsplashes reminiscent of space-age ’50s kitchens also are coming back.

“People are turning to stainless steel instead of committing to a color,” said Sallie Kytt Redd, a Lenexa, Kan., interior designer.

Stainless steel has been a fixture in high-end appliances for decades. What’s new is the selection of stainless-steel models offered by mass manufacturers such as GE, Frigidaire and Whirlpool.

The stainless-steel option in those brands generally costs 15 to 20 percent more than standard black, white or bisque finishes. With stainless steel refrigerators and ranges starting at about $700, the sleek, high-design look suddenly has become affordable.

But now, as part of a kitchen remodel, she’s replacing them all with stainless steel. “I’m excited. The stainless steel looks great with my granite countertops,” Treacy said.

Cleaning tips

Three ways to clean stainless steel:

• Pour some club soda on a soft cloth and buff.

• Sprinkle all-purpose flour on the surface and buff with a soft cloth.

• To remove stains: Mix three parts cream of tartar with one part hydrogen peroxide. Dip a damp cloth in the mixture and massage the stain. Let dry, then wipe with a damp cloth.


Redd said her clients often think stainless steel is harder to take care of. She believes that is a misconception.

Stainless steel is extremely durable, with a life expectancy of 100 years or more. It also is extremely resistant to stains, chips and rust.

When Julie Treacy, of Shawnee, Kan., built her house seven years ago, she went with white appliances in the kitchen because the cost put stainless steel out of her reach.

Stainless steel does show fingerprints and water drops, which is probably behind the “hard-to-clean” rap. How much of a problem that is depends on your habits, Redd says.

With a refrigerator, she said, “If you tend to use the handle, it’s not an issue. But if you push the door closed with your open hand, that is going to show.”

Metal-shop talk

Stainless steel: A general term for low-carbon steel that contains at least 10 percent chromium. The chromium prevents corrosion by reacting with oxygen to form a protective chromium oxide film on the surface. Food or water sitting on the surface for prolonged periods can prevent oxygen contact and promote corrosion. Bleach and ammonia also can damage corrosion resistance.

Austenitic: The most commonly used class of stainless steel in kitchen applications; has a substantial nickel content and is usually non-magnetic.

Ferritic: The second-largest class of stainless steel, with no significant nickel content; often used in architectural trim.

Grades: Different grades have varying content of alloying elements such as nickel, molybdenum, titanium and others. Type 304 and Type 316 are the most commonly used austenitic grades; Type 409 and Type 430 are widely used ferritic grades.

Finishes: Mill finishes, the least expensive, are created by passing the stainless steel through rolls or dyes; their reflectivity ranges from dull to mirror-like. Polished finishes use mechanical abrasion or rolling for a more highly mirrored finish. Special finishes, made by non-directional scratching, circular grinding or embossing, are used for aesthetic reasons and to minimize the appearance of fingerprints.

Sources: Specialty Steel Industry of North America,; Fantes Kitchen Ware Shop,

There are options even for the all-over touchers: Brushed finishes don’t show prints as much as mirrored ones.

While ranges and refrigerators in stainless steel long have been considered glamorous, the same cannot be said of sinks. Porcelain is the material of choice for most homeowners, but Redd said she often recommends stainless-steel sinks for people with busy lifestyles.

“Porcelain is china over iron. It has no give to it. If you drop a can in it, it will chip,” Redd said. “Today’s porcelains seem to be easier to damage than in the past.”

Artisan Metalworks in Kansas City, Kan., fabricates architectural elements and decorative accessories out of copper, zinc, galvanized steel and other metals.

Lead artisan Randall Hutchison said the company has “eased into” stainless steel the past year in response to demand from customers. “It’s definitely making a comeback,” Hutchison said. “It’s partially a look — it’s shiny, it’s tough and it lasts forever.”

Recently Artisan cut and measured stainless-steel backsplashes for a do-it-yourselfer client to install. Another client had a kitchen island made in stainless steel.

One advantage of stainless steel as a countertop choice is that it can be custom cut and fitted like a sleeve over an existing counter, Hutchison said.

The company also has made stainless-steel handrails for a staircase, speaker-box covers and kickplates for a home bar. Perhaps the most unusual job they’ve done, said Hutchison, was resurfacing a SubZero refrigerator with a sander to give it a more decorative finish.

The raw material price of stainless steel has nearly doubled in the last two years, due to heavy demand in Asia for the metals that go into its production.