31″ steel sink base — including a drainboard sink (!), legs and pulls — just $173 [+ shipping]
Watch out, Ikea: Bertolini Steel Kitchens, which has been manufacturing metal kitchen cabinets for 45 years in Brazil, is making its move on the U.S. market. Offering affordable, ready-to-assemble steel kitchens with seven door styles, Bertolini has signed six dealers in Florida, with more in the works.
Steel kitchen cabinets were immensely popular in midcentury America following World War II — we’ve identified more than 70 vintage brands. Considering that Americans are now comfortable with the idea of ready-to-assembly [thanks, Ikea!] AND considering the renewed popularity of retro style AND considering that, according our price comparison, Bertolini’s steel cabinets appear to be competitively priced vs. Ikea’s fiber- and particleboard cabinets, the question now is: Can Bertolini win over a new generation of buyers in the U.S., the world’s largest market for cabinets, to the value, benefits and aesthetics of metal kitchen cabinets?
Luis Garcia, director, Bertolini Steel Kitchens USA, is leading the effort to set up distribution and sales here. In a phone interview, he told me that as Bertolini has become increasingly efficient, it’s been able to grow into new markets. The company today sells $300 million (USD) worth of steel kitchen cabinets globally. Latin America as a region accounts for the majority of sales. Bertolini cabinets are sold in Walmart in Mexico! Sales in South Africa also are strong.
In a news release earlier this month, the company said, “their entry into the U.S. market marks their intentions to extend the availability of their exclusive DIY modular steel kitchen cabinets to the entire North American region.” Stay tuned, Canada!
Allegra in Ivory – a special-order color
Driving the decision to enter the U.S. market, Garcia said, “is that they’re a bigger company, have grown more internationally, with sales in the millions. This growth has allowed them to drive down cost and improve quality, packaging and marketing materials. They continue to make changes to product according to new markets in term of sizes, colors and styles.
And, he said, “Finally, my belief is that the time was right now, and that consumers are more willing to assemble and use affordable steel kitchen cabinets.”
Full-width, integral stainless steel drainboards sinks are included in the price of all the sink bases.
Indeed, Garcia told me that Bertolini had looked at entering the U.S. market ten or 12 years ago, but a research firm advising the company expressed concern that consumers in the U.S. were not yet familiar enough the “knockdown” (KD) concept. That’s industry speak for assemble-it-yourself. Today, though, Ikea kitchen cabinets have taken the mystery out of the idea and in fact, those Ikea cabinets arguably have a cult following — at least at that price point in the market.
Bertolini seems to offer several benefits at similarly competitive prices. Not only does Bertolini make steel cabinets, but its KD sets are ready to rock and roll — they include legs, cabinets pulls, the laminate countertop and — get this — on sink bases, you get a stainless steel drainboard sink. I priced out a basic 30″(ish) sink base + sink + countertop at both. According to my comparison, Bertolini’s current list price [we’ll see if that holds up as the products are rolled out] is less — even so, they are made of steel — like Superman! Note, there are a few product differences in my price comparison, though: Bertolini’s standard cabinets are about 3.5″ less deep than Ikea’s, and Bertolini’s larger drawers are wire bins. And, there is the issue of shipping. I am not Consumer Reports, though! There may be other pros and cons — on both sides — that we can assess when Bertolini’s cabinets can be placed side-by-side with Ikea’s and when consumer feedback about Bertolini’s entire value proposition — design + quality + price + ease of assembly + purchase experience — starts rolling in.
Winning back U.S. customers’ affection for steel kitchen cabinets
Garcia acknowledged that a challenge in the U.S. will be reintroducing consumers to the benefits of steel kitchen cabinets. Here, everyone is now accustomed to wood — even though we may have memories of these cabinets. Luis himself remembers steel kitchen cabinets from his childhood — they were avocado green, and he thinks that his mother bought them from Sears.
Why did steel kitchen cabinets — once so popular — “aspirational”, even — fall out of favor in the U.S. I’ve written about this before — see my entire [Epic] history — but will repeat it in short:
- Introduced in the 1920s or 1930s — very upscale — “hygenic” with the ability to fight spread of germs because mice and other vermin could not chomp through or on them
- During World War II, massive build-up of steel production for armaments meant that after the war, the U.S. had all kinds of capacity to make steel — which then got poured into products. One of the main products: Steel cabinets
- Popularity raged for 15 t0 20 years, into the early 1960s. Then, I hypothesize, a few things happened to change preferences:
- 1) It’s possible steel prices increased, making steel kitchen cabinets less affordable.
- 2) The one key downside of steel kitchen cabinets — that you cannot repaint them at will, easily — started to bother homeowners. With care, that painted enamel finish never wears off. You will get sick of it before it wears off.
- 3) Marketeers — especially marketeers in the wood cabinet industry — pushed new doors styles not easily replicated in steel. The new styles had lots of molding on the front, much more decorative. Plus, they were just — new! Wood marketeers also pushed re-paintability as a feature. And yes, there is a “warmth” factor in wood, and it was likely symbiotic with the changing times.
- The last steel kitchen cabinet company left standing was St. Charles, which was very upmarket, always the creme-de-la-creme. They stopped production in the early 2000s. The Viking Range company bought the brand and reintroduced steel cabinets in Dec. 2007, but they discontinued sales in Aug. 2012.
I love steel kitchen cabinets. Steel kitchen cabinets were the catalyst for my starting this blog. They definitely have benefits.
Bertolini points out: “Apart from the fact that they are Ready-to-Assemble (RTA), the cabinets are affordable and very easy to maintain, largely due to the mere fact that they are made of steel. The inherent properties of steel are passed on to the customer and maintained in the finished end-product line, such as being recyclable, non-toxic and harboring the ability to withstand harsh outdoor elements.”
As another example of a benefit, Garcia told me that they just finished a project outfitting 35 kitchens in St. Croix. St. Croix has a terrible termite problem, so the property owners wanted steel cabinets.
Some details about the Bertolini cabinet sets, from my research:
- Entry level — no one is suggesting these are high-end cabinets. [I don’t think anyone suggests Ikea are high-end either, hence I felt comfortable using that comp.] That said: Continue reading, and you will see reader Gert’s reaction to the Bertolinis that he just purchased and assembled: He called the doors “rather sturdy.”
- You will not be able to order them online. You will need to order via a dealer. To find a dealer in your area, contact Bertolini directly.
- Prices are the same for six of the door styles; Evidence [the flat slab door] is priced higher.
- Measurements are in millimeters. See the catalog for the dimensions and then go online to translate. I am sure, that as Bertolini gets its distribution network in place, these will be converted to inches in the marketing materials.
- Standard depth for base cabinets is 520 mm, which is 20.4724 inches; all the main styles offer an optional 600 mm depth, which is 23.622″, closer to the current U.S. standard of 24″ depths.
- Note: A 20.7″ cabinet depth would be good for a bathroom! Can you say: Welcome backs, Lavanettes and Lavanities!
- Similarly, standard wall cabinet sizes are a bit more dimunitive than current American standards — but upsizing is possible on a number of units.
- Sinks are shallower than what we’re accustomed to in the U.S. They are about six or seven inches deep, Garcia said. Note: I looked and Ikea has the same issue with some of their sinks.
- Cabinet pulls are a plastic with a laminated finish when you order the six standard door styles. With Evidence you get aluminum pulls. You can order the aluminum pulls for other door styles as an upcharge.
- There are rounded what-not shelves.
- There are wide little undercabinets with sliding glass doors in the vein of of GE Cabinettes.
- There are optional chrome legs.
- Filler pieces are available.
To make them look more retro — ditch the legs:
- Ditch those legs — too contemporary. Build a plinth to set them on (plinth = kickplate thingy underneath base cabinets), be sure everything is level, install the base cabinets on it, and cover the toe board with molding painted black. Or: Install them on the legs, then put a plinth cover over them. Ikea makes plinth covers, maybe they would work.
Seven Bertolini Steel Kitchens door styles:
Bertolini Steel Kitchens “Allegra” door style:
There is something really likeable about Allegra. For a midcentury modest — or modern — kitchen, the curvy pressed metal under the door and drawer pulls soften the contemporary edge imposed by those long cabinet pulls. That is: Modern — but not eschewing all ornamentation. The whole look reminds me of the earliest Genevas, with their plastic recessed handles. A few other early steel cabinet designs also had reminiscent curves. For the dampering effects of these Goldilocks curves on the contemporary pulls, Allegra is my favorite door style.
Coinkadinkally, we had a reader — Gert Berntsson in Sweden — post his Allegras on our Facebook page earlier this month. You can see their shape much better in his photos than in the CAD marketing images:
Gert told me via email, “I always check out the local hardware stores when travelling, and years ago I found the steel cabinets.” I guess he then was able to obtain them locally, although I did not pursue those details.
Anticipating that I would ask about his impression of the quality, Gert said that he hasn’t handled a vintage steel kitchen cabinet, so could not make the comparison. He said that the sides feel “a bit thin/flexible — but I haven’t yet fixed them to the wall and floor. I will have them on plinths. The paint work is good, handles are plastic but acceptable. The doors/fronts are double skin and rather sturdy, some small dents can be found, probably from production rather than transport.”
Gert also told me that this color is not white — it is ivory — and while it is not shown in the catalog, is available on demand.
THANK YOU, Gert!!!!
Yes, I asked Luis Garcia of Bertolini, and he confirmed you can order ivory — and beige, here in the U.S. He sent me these photos:
Discontinued “Personale” door style. But you can still get this color.
I LOVE that ivory! I think that it makes the cabinets even more retro-looking [rather than contemporary]. In general, my eyes can’t take bright white anymore. I would probably not pair it with white appliances, though. I’d go for stainless, or a color if I had the dough-re-mi.
The value-priced “Pratica” package combines pre-selected options from Allegra:
“Pratica” is the name for Bertolini’s value-priced package of pre-selected Allegra cabinets, all boxed up and ready to go. Perfect for a small kitchen where a no-muss, no-fuss, low-priced installation is desired. There are a couple of different options, you can see them in this snip from the Bertolini-Brasil catalog:
Two choices of sink base… matched with four choices of the other three cabinets combined… and boom, out it goes. If you want to add pieces later, choose from the Allegra line to do so.
Bertolini Steel Kitchens’ “Classica” door style:
In this CAD image, we get a sense of how the cabinets would look if they were set on a plinth, rather than on legs.
Not a CAD image — Classica as photographed in the showroom.
Another photo of Classica in the showroom – [I think the pulls are not the standard aluminum pulls]
Classica has slab doors, which is what we see most on vintage steel kitchen cabinets. It is the only door style that comes with metal pulls — these are aluminum [you may special order them for other cabinets at an upcharge.] And, it also is the only door style that costs more than the others.
With the long, chunky aluminum cabinet pulls, I see these cabinets entering Dwell-contemporary [rather than Retro Renovation retro] mode. For that reason, I would hesitate to put these in a midcentury modest kitchen.
Bertolini Steel Kitchens “Gourmet” door style:
I also like the look of the Gourmet door style for a midcentury kitchen — either modest or modern. Dig that glass!!!
“Gourmet” kitchen cabinets photographed in the showroom
I love the glass in Gourmet!
Bertolini Steel Kitchens “Evidence” door style:
Some additional curves go into Evidence, you get different glass, and the white pulls:
Bertolini Steel Kitchens “Ideal” door style:
These steel doors are pressed to look like cottage beadboard. Knowing what I do about historical steel kitchen cabinets, this style gives me cognitive dissonance, but here you go:
Ideal as photographed in the showroom (not a CAD image)
Bertolini Steel Kitchens “Luna” door style:
If I were to tie this to any decades, I’d say 1980s and early 1990s. Ditto the cognitive dissonance:
Pantry cabinet kits:
All the door styles can be made up into pantry cabinet kits, too.
Choosing cabinet pulls:
- Most of the styles come with cabinet pulls that are some sort of plastic laminated with a metal-look finish. Classica comes with aluminum pulls — you can order up to these, if you like.
- You could also looks for replacements elsewhere. Center-to-center measurements are in millimeters, I don’t know how tough it’s going to be to find these sizes in the U.S.:
- 40cm door: 192mm/ or (7-9/16”) inches
- 60cm door: 256mm/ = (10-5/64) inches
Choosing a countertop:
All of the base units include a choice of laminate countertop in the price. To get as close to an historical look, I’d go with the Carrara. The way I understand the modularity of these kitchens is that: If you are screwing several units together, you are going to have the laminate countertop edges butting up one against another. In this case, if you can afford it, order your Bertolinis sans the countertops, then go to Home Depot or Lowe’s or another big box store, and order custom laminate countertops there. Or, check out Heffron’s for special-order retro laminates. See all of our research on kitchen countertops by clicking here.
Links to more information about Bertolini Steel Kitchen cabinets:
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