1946 Merillat kitchen on display at 2014 Kitchen and Bath Industry Show (KBIS)

merillat kitchenHere’s another company using its mid-century roots to underscore its brand longevity: At this year’s big Kitchen & Bath Industry Show (KBIS), Merillat assembled a (company)-historic 1946 Merillat kitchen on site. Seems like it was a big hit — I heard about it from several readers and friends. So I chased down the photos, and here they are — a happy sunny vintage Merillat kitchen, classic Americana complete with original counter top and dinette and period-correct flooring and appliances. 

merillat kitchen

1940s birch kitchen made for the parents of one of Merillat’s first employees

The kitchen has a nice story: The company says that this was one of the first kitchens that founder Orville Merillat built — by hand, no factory yet! — when he launched Merillat in 1946. His wife Ruth Merillat stained and finished the kitchen. (I tend to believe the original finish was all wood — that is, the cabinet boxes were stained, not painted. The company is trying to confirm this for me.)

Retro Yellow-KitchenOrville and Ruth built the kitchen, made from birch, for the parents of the company’s first employee. It remained in its original home — located in Adrian, Mich., where Merillat was founded — for decades. In 1996, as the company was approaching its 50th anniversary, Merillat employees located the kitchen, purchased it from the homeowners, removed it, and gave the homeowners new Merillat cabinets. They then reassembled the 1946 kitchen and presented it to Orville and Ruth as an anniversary gift.

merillat kitchen 1940s
Don’t get (too) excited. This appears to be a DIFFERENT Merillat kitchen — but of the same, very early era. Spotted on Merillat’s Facebook page.

The company says the appliances are all from the same time period, but that they can’t confirm whether they are from the original kitchen. The counter tops are original, but are missing the original metal edging.

merrilat cabinetsIt seems like the kitchen was a big success at KBIS — lots of happy picture-taking going on, in this cheery sunshine-y kitchen. Seriously — you can keep your breakfast-bar-style seating — I will choose a kitchen with a dinette plopped in the middle over the island any day.

merrilat 1946 kitchen


A peek at Merillat history:

  • 1940s — During World War II, Orville Merillat enlists in the Coast Guard as a carpenter. He sends $150 from each paycheck to his wife Ruth and keeps $1. This money, along with the sale of Ruth’s 1938 Chevrolet, was used to start Merillat Woodworking.

    original merillat logo 1946
    original Merillat logo, circa 1946
  • 1946 — Orville and Ruth Merillat start the Merillat Woodworking Company in a 2,400 square foot workshop in Adrian, Michigan. Fueled by an incredible work ethic and a post-war building boom, the business grows steadily.
  • 1950s — Drawing from manufacturing practices popularized in automotive plants, Merillat standardizes its cabinets to facilitate assembly line production. It becomes the first company to use exclusive Formica laminates on cabinetry. Sales break the $1,000,000 mark.
  • 1960s — The Adrian plant expands to over 290,000 sq. ft. with a manufacturing capacity of 270 kitchens per day. By the end of the 1960s, Merillat was manufacturing 1,500 kitchens a day, the company says.  In 1962, Merillat says, it introduced a patented hinge that allowed cabinet doors to be easily opened and closed quietly with a gentle push, replacing the standard magnetic latch of the time. The company also received a U.S. patent for its injection molding Romance cabinetry line.

    The company was first to put Formica-brand laminate directly on to kitchen cabinet doors, it says.
  • 1970s — Merillat grows to eight strategically located manufacturing/assembly plants. The ability to control materials and manufacturing processes gives Merillat a competitive edge in production and delivery. Merillat becomes the nation’s largest cabinet manufacturer (although on Facebook, the company says it hit this #1 milestone in 1985.)
  • 1980s — The successful cabinet business joins Masco Corporation, an industry leader in home improvement and building products. Orville and Ruth Merillat retire.
  • 1990s — Merillat pioneers the development of new door styles, including raised panel vinyl clad doors, and the use of premium woods. The company also begins assembling cabinets a kitchen-at-a-time, a manufacturing model which remains in practice today.
  • 2010 — The company became part of Masco Cabinetry, which also includes the KraftMaid, QualityCabinets and DeNova brands. The group is based in Ann Arbor, Mich. Today, Merillat remains the #1 selling kitchen cabinet brand in the U.S., the company told me.

Many thanks to Merillat for the photos and for rockin’ the retro at KBIS 2014! And thanks, too, to our reader-tipsters!

  1. lynda says:

    What a nice story. Darling kitchen. I think the white boxes look rather nice with the wood doors. Thank you for this interesting look at history.

  2. Chris says:

    I want to show up with a giant semi-truck, sneak in all dressed in black – like a cat-burglar, and STEAL that kitchen! Love the appliances!

  3. Mary Elizabeth says:

    Love the look of this kitchen. We achieved the same sort of paint/stain combination kitchen after a fire in our former 1978 condo created a lot of smoke damage to the original cabinets. It’s easy to take off doors to sand and refinish them, but we decided stripping and staining cabinets in place would be too difficult, and the way they were installed, taking them out would ruin both cabinets and walls. It’s likely the same decision was made at some point with this kitchen. We ended up loving the look and living with it for about 20 years.

    I have to say that one of the things I love about this kitchen is the number of drawers. I count ten of them! It’s a very advanced design for its age. Even high-end built-in-place small kitchens from the forties and fifties usually had only a few drawers. We converted some of our 1959 knotty pine cabinets with doors to drawers with full extension slides.

  4. Mary Elizabeth says:

    Oh, and we had a table in that little kitchen for a family of five. It could be called cozy or cramped. Take a look at the layout. Mom has to sit in the chair with her back to the counters so she doesn’t have to constantly ask Dad, Junior and Sis to pull in a little bit so she can get to the sink. Also, she has to reach over and pick up the receiver on that black phone so she can tell the boy at the other end that Sis is eating dinner and he should know better than to call at 6 PM. He should call back later and make it short, so as not to tie up the party line. 🙂

  5. JKM says:

    My grandparent’s 1940’s Texas kitchen was similar to the one pictured – simple cabinetry with a sink in the middle, refrigerator, freestanding range, and dinette pushed up against the wall. The end. Nothing big or fancy but, wow, the wonderful food that was prepared in that simple setup is something I’ve never forgotten.

  6. midmichigan says:

    My parents bought a new tract home in Lansing, Michigan in 1955. I have a color photo of the kitchen at that time showing what I believe to be Merillat kitchen cabinets. The boxes are painted white with stained and finished doors. They have round brass knobs and exposed hinges for hardware.

  7. Robin, NV says:

    I love that people tend to gravitate towards vintage kitchens, probably because they’re so warm and inviting. I’m sure there’s some nostalgia wrapped up in there too. But you just don’t see the same kind of smiles on the people looking at modern high end kitchens.

    I’ve always wondered who made my cabinets. I’ve never been able to find a maker’s mark. Occasionally there are stickers on the inside of drawers that say something like “treat these cabinets like fine furniture, clean and oil periodically.” The original owners certainly treated them well and so do I.

  8. Anne-Marie says:

    I adore this kitchen. I like the way the white boxes look with the brown wood doors and drawers. I wonder if I could pull that off in my 1969 kitchen? Unlikely. But, I am tempted. Currently, we have boxes that are slightly different than our cabinets and it drives me crazy to look at them. We have 3 or 4 different phases of re-muddle represented in this kitchen.

    I am also really interested in the black and white photo showing the curved and extending counter top. It JUST occurred to me that my kitchen must have had something like that because there is an odd empty space at one end of the cabinets. it only took me 3.5 years to figure this out!

    Great post!! Thanks for sharing and inspiring.

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