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Appliances: Lifting the Hood

Travis Neighbor Ward

Range hoods perform the unglamorous but necessary task of sucking smoke, odors, and grease out of the kitchen. That does not mean they have to look ugly, however. A few designers have raised the creation of this functional feature to a work of art.

“The range hood is the first thing you encounter at eye level when you enter the kitchen,” says Fu-Tung Cheng, whose California-based architecture design firm produces its own line of sculptural hoods that cost as much as $14,000. “That makes it a very strong visual element in the house that must be treated as part of the design of the entire environment.”

Cooking has been around forever, but high-end range hoods are relatively new. The first American manufacturer to offer a hood with “any design element,” as Cheng puts it, was Abbaka. In the late 1980s, it began selling the Modulaire, a minimalist, almost severe boxlike design composed of four sections welded together. You could customize the hood by mixing metals and colored enamels. “We [used] the kitchen hood as a focal point of kitchen design rather than a necessary evil,” says Frank Paone, vice president of marketing for Abbaka. “And people were buying it.”

Around the same time, a home trend emerged that gained momentum during the 1990s. The American kitchen was transformed from a functional area to a social space where you could show off the prizes of success: restaurant-style ranges, cooktops, indoor grills, gas woks, and deep fryers. The equipment was beautiful, but brawny enough to require an extra-powerful—and extra-large—range hood. The new equipment changed the way many designers approached kitchens. “Designers began to build the kitchen around the way the hood looked,” says Alex Siow, vice president of Zephyr, a high-end range hood manufacturer based in San Francisco.

Only a few companies manufacture kitchen range hoods that can truly be considered sculptural. Cheng began creating sculptural range hoods in the early 1990s to match houses he designed. The hand-welded hoods are meant to stand alone in the room, unflanked by cabinets. The cylindrical, stainless steel flue of Zephyr’s Torino range hood rises from a UFO-like, handblown frosted glass canopy. “We thought it was out of this world, that it would only serve to get us media attention,” says Siow. “But we’ve sold 50 to 60 of them every month since it was introduced in spring 1999, mostly to people who live in lofts in California and New York.”

The designers believe that the loft-dwellers and other kitchen connoisseurs understand the message behind sculptural range hoods. As Cheng says, “A strictly functional hood may do the job 100 percent of the time, but if you hate looking at it 90 percent of the time, what good is it?”

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