“What refrigerator should I get?” is one of the most common questions from readers undertaking retro renovations. I struggled with the issue, too… did a lot of research and tortured over the decision.

In the end, I went with Sub-Zero, and I think it was an investment well worth it. A great part of my decision was based on the need for a fridge that was 84″ high — right up to the soffit. I wanted a clean, built-in look. Other counter-depth fridges simply did not give me the height – I would have had to bring the soffit down. I also liked the handle – a very built-in classic forever look (vs. honkin’ on most other styles today). And a third reason — I could get plain doors with no exterior ice maker, although there are fancy schmantzy ice cubes inside the freezer.

The Sub-Zero image above is from 1966, and you can still get a fridge in this exact same style. Mine is a 42″ side-by-side (pictured below), with the same old-fashioned grille up top, and “appliance white” panels also from Sub-Zero. I really truly love it. It was the big splurge of the kitchen – the bits and pieces of everything else were not too expensive, although the labor was dear. (Another example of “you get what you pay for.)

To be honest, the only other fridge style that I really like for a retro renovation is a counter-depth side-by-side or french-door style with freezer on the bottom. The Fisher Paykel also seems like a good choice. But, I tend to like the way a side-by-side is more visually broken up — not one big wall of metal. The problem is, with any these, you have to figure out what goes above the fridge, because they are only 70″ high or so. If you can do it with matching cabinets – perfect. But if you have to jimmy something — that’s where I start to lose interest. The built-in look is what distinguishes the postwar kitchen! This is rule #1 for your renovations, renovators. And in the kingdom of Pam, built-in means surrounded by cabinets, or tucked nicely into finished drywall, preferably wallpapered.

Sorry, I am not really a fan of the Elmira Northstars or the Big Chills. I like the look, but they are so big – so deep. If you can recess them to get them counter-depth, that might be better. Also – these are not cheap, either. That said, I’ve seen some kitchens were they were incorporated nicely.

Vintage – scare me. The defrosting part. I actually bought a vintage fridge a few years back and had it delivered as far as the garage. My husband about threw a fit. The line got drawn in the sand – between him and the fridge. The marriage won out — and for the best.

However: I DO like vintage 70s and 80s side-by-sides. They were smaller scale. Watch for these and save a bundle!

In the end, I think that it would be better to … buy a cheaper car or wait another year or two (or three) ’til trade-in … and put the extra money, toward a Sub-Zero. I maintain an open mind – and keep an eagle eye out for other appropriate fridges.

And click here to see my other refrigerators identified as good possibilities for a Retro Renovation kitchen.

  1. Paul says:

    Pam, I agree about the Sub-Zeros, but I disagree about vintage. I’m running a 1947 Frigidaire in my kitchen and it’s a piece of cake to defrost. The key is to do it before it becomes very frosty. Once a month, turn the switch to defrost and go to bed. Food stays cold enough, but the frost melts away into the catch tray. Toughest part? Walking the tray to the sink!

    Don’t let defrosting scare you away. The scale of the vintage fridge is perfect for older and smaller kitchens. After replacing the modern unit in my kitchen, I was amazed at how much more open the space felt.

  2. Cory says:

    Don’t be scared of the older fridges, in fact a lot of “retro” enthusiasts are busy restoring and running ’em as we speak (I’m guilty of saving a couple gorgeous ones!). Sure, you have to defrost once or twice a year, but the energy you save by not running “frost-free” heating elements in the new models more than makes up for it.

    It was those crazy 60’s when the insulation and fridge walls got thin, coils moved under the fridge to reduce depth (don’t forget heat rises) and fans were added for circulation. That’s where the “old fridges are energy hogs” stereotype comes from.

    Plus a few extra bucks a month is surely worth the looks : )

    1. Paul says:

      So true, Cory. Although my ’47 Frigidaire has coils underneath, it’s still quite well made and efficient. I defrost more regularly to keep it quick and easy. I was lucky enough to find a fridge in very nice unrestored shape, but I’d be more inclined to pay for vintage than one of the replicas. At that point, I think Pam’s plan is better – go Sub-Zero, which can fit 1960ish and up, or “disappear” in a well-designed older space.

  3. Madison says:

    The Samsung 18.8 cubic foot bottom freezer is not only counter depth (not advertised as such but is) but also slightly rounded in the front like the F-P. Best of all (for me at least) it’s $899 at Best Buy. I’m buying one for the 1953 modern-ranch house I just bought in Dallas. Love your site!

  4. hallie says:

    I’ve aways wondered about the energy efficiency of those behemoths are they decent? They sure do look good – but I’ve always assumed they were the suvs of the kitchen.
    anyway – you’ve got great taste.

  5. Jason says:

    What did you do with that vintage fridge, Pam? You could always use it somewhere in the house for storage. A fridge closet? I’ve seen it done.

  6. Kitschy Kimberly says:

    How cute is that Smeg fridge?! I am just a sucker for anything retro and pink(or green or blue or yellow or…).

  7. Amy says:

    We got a fridge for our small kitchen that is just a bit smaller than the Fisher & Paykel. Ours is a Sears Kenmore! It still has the nice curves and a smooth finish; I don’t like the handles, but they get the job done. We’ve been very pleased with the fridge and it got good reviews on Consumer Reports.

    If that link doesn’t work, here is the item number: Sears item# 04667952000 Mfr. model# 67952

  8. Jane says:

    I’m with you both on the Fisher & Paykel. It was the ONLY counter-depth stainless fridge that would fit our limited height: we couldn’t afford to lose the cabinet above.

    This fridge has worked out so much better than we imagined! I worried about the limited capacity, but it turns out you actually use the space better (and don’t lose those leftovers in the back for a month), because everything is so accessible. And the finish matched our lovely original Thermidor wall oven.

    It’s one of the best decisions we made.


  9. madison sarah says:

    Hi Pam,

    I have the Fisher Paykel in my current (1916) house and like it a lot. The freezer on the bottom is great, especially with kids. The lines are so simple that it could work with a variety of kitchen styles.

    For my new house (crossing my fingers), which has the original 1940s wood cabinets painted white, I am thinking about a colorful SMEG to spice things up. They’re small, but so is my kitchen. Check these out:


    The colors are awesome!


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