My Retro Refrigerator Buying Guide — 9 Ways to Get the Fridge of your Dreams!

retro refrigerator in a remodeled kitchen
Kara used a white Big Chill refrigerator when renovated her awesome kitchen, which won our 2015 “The Hard Way” award.

A retro refrigerator can be the absolute centerpiece of your kitchen, and over the past few years as interest in mid century design has boomed, many more options have become available. But this also means that if you’re in shopping mode, your head can quickly start to spin. So, I did the research and created this roundup, as complete as I could make it. In all, I give you nine sources or ideas to consider to get a retro refrigerator.

Nine serious options to get a retro refrigerator

To make this a one-stop shopping guide, I worked hard to deep dive into the real contenders — this is a long story, not cursory. On this blog, finding products and resources to help you renovate, remodel and decorate your home in appropriate retro style is is my sole focus. So, I hunkered down to pull this buying guide together — to make your hunt that much easier.

If you want to buy a retro refrigerator for your kitchen, there are eight different companies or ways to get the look: 

  1. Sub-Zero [or another retro-looking-enough refrigerator that takes a custom color panel)
  2. Big Chill
  3. North Star
  4. Smeg
  5. Unique Appliances
  6. Chambers
  7. Vintage
  8. Paint your own
  9. Wrap your fridge in vinyl
    or…
  10. Settle for a proxy to save money

1. Sub-Zero refrigerator – spec it right to get the longtime historic look

1966 Sub-Zero refrigeratorMy first possibility for a retro-style refrigerator will likely surprise you, but barring buying vintage, it is hands down, the most authentic choice: Sub-Zero. That’s because Sub-Zero is not an interpretation of mid century refrigerators — it actually has been around for decades.

The key to get the “authentic” retro version, though, is to specify it correctly That is: 

  1. Choose a “Panel Ready” design — buy the panels directly from Sub-Zero or have them custom made by your cabinet maker — the panels then will be “Framed” in metal like the photo to the right.
  2. Choose the “Classic Louvered Insert” grille ala the photo on the right.
  3. And, choose the “Full-Length Standard” handles — these tuck beneath the Panels.

“Fitted kitchen” defined

Note, all Sub-Zeros are counter-depth, so they nestle right into your cabinetry for that fitted kitchen look so important in the post-war era. [Wow, look at the vintage Revco refrigerators from back in the day, which epitomized this idea too!]

About size and capacity:

  • Sub-Zeros come in a lot of different sizes, and they are all counter-depth. Using the exact specification listed above, I used a 42″ side-by-side Sub-Zero refrigerator-freezer in my kitchen, adding White Enamel panels for the front and for the sides. The place I ordered from had not taken an order like mine in years, but once I made myself clear, they understood — and got it right. Note, Sub-Zero’s website is not helpful in specifying “my” classic configuration. Use my instructions and be (with kindness and patience) insistent.
  • Sizes typically used back in the day: I am sure the 42″ side-by-side has been around a long while. The image  shown here is from a 1966 ad, and I would say that’s a 36″ wide refrigerator with small freezer on the bottom. Really, I think you could go with any size and be retro-appropriate. Final note: Sub-Zeros come with ice makers inside. Exterior ice makers are not appropriate for a retro refrigerator until you get into… the 1970s, I’d say.

For more in information on Sub-Zero refrigerators:

And note re this approach: There are other companies that make refrigerators that take custom color panels. You could look for one of these too.

2. Big Chill — two mid century fridge designs including one counter-depth

retro refrigerator by big chillBig Chill is, arguably, the biggest name among homeowners looking for a retro refrigerator. And deservedly so: I think that they have done a really nice job with the design of their appliances. The lines are curvy and attractive, but not overwrought, not cartoonish. Nice.

Big Chill has two different designs that speak to the postwar era — the Original, which has a 1940s into 1950s look … and the Retropolitan, which evokes the 1960s and 1970s. I also show the New Classic, if your aim is to channel iceboxes of the 19th century and early 20th Century.

Sizes and capacities:

Some key factoids about size and capacity of Big Chill refrigerators:

  • Storage for the retro refrigerator / freezer combinations: From 13 cu.ft … to 18.2 cu.ft … to 20.6 cu.ft … to 24.1 cu.ft.
  • Widths from about 25″ … to 28″ … to 31″… to 33″
  • Heights from 57″… to 65″… to 69″
  • Depths of the “boxes” (not counting the protrusion of the door or handle) are 28″, except for the Slim Fridge, whose box sits counter-depth.

Big Chill’s designs come in up to nine stock colors. Or, the company can paint your refrigerator a custom color at additional cost. What’s also great about this company is that they have a complementary line of retro ranges and stoves, cooktops, dishwashers, a microwave, and even range top hoods that are designed to help create a complete kitchen with a cohesive look.

For more information on Big Chill retro and vintage-style refrigerators:

3. North Star — three vintage-style refrigerator designs including one counter-depth 

retro refrigerator by northstarNorth Star, which is a brand of Elmira Stove Works, has a nicely designed retro refrigerator available in three configurations in the U.S. (Two additional slimmer models are also available in Canada.) These fridges come in nine standard colors, all retro lovely. And custom painting is possible, too.

One of the things I like about these single-door refrigerators is that they are not enormous — they are 18.2 or 18.5 cu.ft. Refrigerators back in the day were not as big as today!

That said, North Star also has two French Door models with a retro look, and one of them offers more space. The other French Door model has less interior space — but it is counter-depth, a nice option if you want your refrigerator to tuck nicely into your cabinetry. 

North Star also has stoves in matching colors.

Sizes and capacities:

Some key factoids about sizes and capacities of North Star refrigerators:

  • Storage for the retro refrigerator / freezer combinations: From about 18 cu.ft. … to 20 cu.ft. … to 25 cu.ft.
  • Height: From approx. 69″ … to 72″
  • Width: From approx. 30″ … to 36″
  • Depth without doors: From approx. 28″ … to 29″… and the 1959 is counter-depth at 24-5/8″ 

More info on North Star retro refrigerators:

4. Smeg — two cute refrigerator designs, both counter-depth

smeg refrigerators with kate
Kate with the Smegs at the big Kitchen and Bath Show in Las Vegas a few years ago..

I admit my head starts to spin when I look at the lineup of Smeg refrigerators on their website. They show something like 56 different models depending on the direction the door swings and the color.

That said, there appear to be two basic designs: (1) A 57″ high fridge with an interior freezer compartment, and (2) a 75″ high refrigerator with a freezer on the bottom. They both are 24″ wide. So fundamentally, these are small-capacity refrigerators.

I count 17 colors or exterior patterns (like flags) in the Smeg lineup. And, like some of the other companies on this page, Smeg offers some other products in coordinated colors so that you can have matchy matchy appliances throughout — dishwashers, ranges and hoods, dishwashers, toasters, tea kettles, blenders, and more.

Sizes and capacities:

Info on sizes and capacities of Smeg’s two refrigerator designs:

  • Single door Smegs hold 9.22 cu.ft. They are 57.5″ high … 23.5″ wide … and the boxes (sans doors) are 20-7/8″ deep.
  • The fridge/freezer combos spec out at 11.7 cu.ft. They are 75”13/16 high …  23-39/64″ wide … and the boxes (sans doors) are 21-21/64″ inches deep. 
  • Note, Smeg also sells even smaller undercounter fridges that are also cutie petuties. 

More info on Smeg refrigerators:

5. Unique Appliances

retro refrigerators unique appliancesUnique Appliances has retro-style refrigerators in two sizes and five colors + white. This company also has matching 24″ convection gas ranges in several of the colorways.

6. Chambers slim refrigerators — two designs new to the market

chambers retro refrigeratorsMore info to come! Reader Taylor alerted me to Chambers retro refrigerators, which currently come in two designs — (1) a refrigerator/freezer design and (2) refrigerator only. Yes: Chambers, as in the name brand of the famous maker of antique stoves. It appears like this revived name brand for appliances has been on the market about a year and more are coming. Thank you, Taylor, for the tip!

chambers retro refrigerator single doorDimensions and details:

  • Refrigerator/freezer:
    • 11.7 cu.ft. total volume for refrigerator/freezer combined
    • Counter-depth, about 76″ high, 24″ wide
    • Four colors
  • Single door refrigerator (shown right):  
    • Counter-depth, about 59″ high, about 24″ wide. 
    • Five colors 

More info on Chambers retro refrigerators:

7. Buy a vintage refrigerator or have an expert restore your find

1941 refrigerator in constant operation
Built to last: This vintage Westinghouse refrigerator that has been in constant use among one family since 1941!

Over the 12+ years of writing this blog, I’ve met a number of readers who are happily living with vintage refrigerators. There are companies that specialize in repairing and/or restoring old refrigerators (and stoves). Be aware: Old products can contain vintage hazards — I am not an expert, so get with a properly licensed professional to assess what you are dealing with so that you can make informed decisions. Professionals also can advise you on energy use issues.

Find a professional to help:

Here are some thoughts on where you might start to find professionals to help you:

8. Paint your own refrigerator a retro color

spray paint in retro colors from rustoleumPainting an existing refrigerator a retro color can help you get the look at a potentially or relatively low cost. When I wrote about where to find red refrigerators, I talked about painting ideas and also got direct feedback from Rust-Oleum, a leader in paints. I again encourage awareness: If you’re sanding/or stripping/or painting, be sure to consider hazards possible in the layers – Be Safe/Renovate Safe.

Ideas for painting:

  • Take your plain-Jane refrigerator to an auto body shop or industrial painting place — Professional painting companies exist in virtually every town of size and can consult online paint color guides to match or help get you the color you want. Some advantages of professional painting include (1) they have access to very durable paints, (2) they will or should use environmentally safe practices, (3) they likely use dust-free booths to avoid itsy bitsies ruining your smooth glossy finish, and (4) someone else does it. 

    DIY painting advice from Rustoleum: 

  • Spray paint your existing fridge yourself. Rustoleum has an epoxy spray paint specifically for appliances, but alas, it does not come in color colors. So, I asked Rustoleum about using their basic Painter’s Touch to do a fridge, either metal or vinyl/plastic. Here is what they said: “Painter’s Touch would work fine on the fridge.  We also have a spray paint called Painter’s Touch Ultra Cover 2X that also comes in [a variety of colors]. The real advantage of using Ultra Cover 2X is that it offers twice the coverage of general purpose spray paints.  It also has distribution at The Home Depot and many hardware and paint stores, so it’s easy to buy anywhere in the US. According to our brand management team, before painting the vinyl/plastic parts of the fridge, prime them with Specialty Plastic Primer.  For metal, you can prime with a Stops Rust Clean Metal primer for added durability. You could use Painters Touch Ultra Cover 2X Clear over the [paint color], but priming would be the most important step. If you topcoat with the Clear, apply it within 1 hour after painting or after 48 hours.” 
  • Rustoleum Painter’s Touch 2X Ultra Cover in high gloss

9. Wrap your existing refrigerator in vinyl

I heard recently from a reader-couple who had their existing refrigerator wrapped in vinyl by a company that does vinyl wraps for cars and the like. I’m working on a story and will add that link when it’s up, but meanwhile, here’s another possibility. Get with professionals to assess this approach. 

10. Find a less expensive proxy that channels the retro look and scale

My last idea is to hunt for a refrigerator or refrigerator-freezer from another manufacturer that approximates the look of those shown above. Although it will not be intentionally retro as the designs I’ve spotlighted above, this route could yield a less-costly but “close enough” option. Search terms I suggest you focus on to look for a proxy:

  • Counter depth refrigerator panel ready
  • Counter depth refrigerator white 

One key consideration, I’d say, is that many mid century kitchens were fairly small. Choosing a smaller refrigerator — including a counter-depth refrigerator — could make a lot of sense in terms of getting an aesthetically pleasing, suitable proportion. That said: Back in the day, I think folks shopped more frequently (grocery stores did home delivery!), so a small fridge was fine, functionally. Fundamentally, a refrigerator is a machine for living, so of course, make the choice that makes sense for you!

Which retro refrigerator is your favorite?
Be sure to let me know if you discover others new to the market!

More useful stories, perhaps:

  1. Garance says:

    I picked up a Kitchenaid fridge, counter depth, white with stainless steel handles and it fits my vintage kitchen so well that multiple people have assumed it was original to the house! Granted the french door style is modern, but it has an internal ice/water option and plenty of space. The kitchen has Murray steel cabinets and tile on the walls AND ceiling so it needed something with vintage styling as a fridge, but I couldn’t drop the money for a Big Chill. I found this option as a floor model and am very happy with it.

      1. Garance says:

        It’s part of the reason we got the house :). The tiles are yellow on the ceiling and half way down the walls, then it switches to black and gray. The cabinets were originally white, and then they painted them yellow at some point, which is now unfortunately peeling so refinishing is in their future. It’s not a very big set and we’re missing one of the drawers so I’ve been stalking e-bay and craigslist for replacements for the handles, which are large and chrome and not easy to duplicate but I do love the look of them! The cabinets are nice because they have these pull out wire “drawers” for the very bottom shelves, make it easier to grab things when you can just pull out the shelf rather then hunkering down and trying to grab stuff.

  2. Toni says:

    The Chambers brand hasn’t seemed to infiltrate the U.S. very far. Probably saved myself a bunch of money just because it isn’t available.

      1. Check out Vintage55Restorations.com or our instagram @vintage55restorations! We get and restore fridges and freezers all the time (along with all your other vintage kitchen needs)!

  3. Sharon says:

    Maybe refrigerators were also smaller as many homes had coolers. A cabinet that was open to the basement or crawl space and screened on the bottom. The shelves tended to be slatted or not full depth so the cooler air could circulate. A good place for eggs, produce, or anything that did not need to be quite as cold.

  4. Cherie says:

    Would have liked some pricing information with your perspective on value for money. I’ve priced these before and for the average homeowner, all of the options are pretty expensive.

    1. Pam Kueber says:

      Hi Cherie, I understand what you are saying. I usually don’t list pricing, in particular because it changes, and so many of my stories are “evergreen” in nature. I also generally don’t try to tackle “value” because… (1) I am not an expert on the quality of most products — personally, I am a fan of Consumer Reports, because they do independent testing… and (2) when it comes to factors other than durability — like aesthetics — well, “value” is in the eye (and pocketbook, of course!) of the beholder. Some folks are willing to pay more for “a look” than others are. Finally, I am super aware that folks are looking for products at different price points. That’s why the last few suggestions relate to potentially lower-costs alternatives like painting or finding a proxy fridge that has the look close-enough but costs less (check out the comments, readers already piped in with a few!) Alas, those GE Artistrys had “the look” at a lower price point — but they were not on the market a long time. Thanks for your comment, I appreciate the opportunity explain.

  5. linoleummy says:

    I guess it’s rare for the doors to have the hinges on the left? The way Big Chill does their left-hand hinge …meh, not a fan. Thanks for the timely article, Pam. The fridge is next on my hit list. Been having to disassemble the freezer to get all the ice out every couple years. I’m really considering getting a new one and having it painted at a body shop and seeing if I can fashion some shiny metal trim to it in a convincing way…

  6. Colleen says:

    Hot Damn! on the Chambers!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I have a 1952 Chambers in copper finish that I had restored, it’s a wonder and a show stopper! If I knew about the fridge,,…. darn it I just got a new one a year ago… But next time!

  7. Wendi Dunlap says:

    Hi, Pam — there’s one other option out there, which is a lot cheaper — the Galanz red retro fridge which is sometimes available from Home Depot. I have that one in my turquoise/red kitchen. It is small by modern standards, but actually just about perfect for a single person like me. I’ve been using mine for more than a year and I’m very happy with it.

    Galanz also has some smaller ones in retro styling, one of which I saw recently at Target. Availability of these fridges seems to be kind of touch and go, though.

    http://homedepot.com/p/Galanz-7-6-cu-ft-Mini-Retro-Refrigerator-in-Red-BCD-215V-62H/302754338

  8. Miki says:

    Try bestapplianceskins.com instead of painting. There are other sources for skins but I have never seen this crazy a selection. Not only do they have ready made skins, but thousands of images to choose from to customize a wrap.

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