The Man Behind a Kitchen Revolution

Meet designer Jerome Caruso, creator of the Sub-Zero fridge/freezer and modern status symbol, plus an array of other innovations

The man behind the iconic Sub-Zero refrigerator/freezer, Jerome Caruso, is poised for the launch of his newest product -- the Cella Chair. Unveiled in June at the top interior design industry show in Chicago, where it took home the Best of NeoCon award, the innovative Cella will make its market debut in September. And if history is any guide, Caruso's latest creation could be yet another ground-breaking hit for a man with a long list of winning designs.

For starters, the rise of showcase gourmand kitchens in American homes owes much to the mild-mannered industrial designer from Lake Forest, Ill. Sub-Zero's quiet design force, Caruso transformed a bulky, uninspired household appliance into a cleanly sculpted masterpiece of modern food preservation.


  Sub-Zero Freezer Company, the Madison (Wis.)-based manufacturer, had pioneered the built-in refrigerator 60 years ago. And for decades it relied on its engineers to propel the line forward, drawing a discriminating clientele that appreciated the products' technological innovations and seamless blend into the surrounding cabinetry. But in the mid-1980's, other manufacturers were beginning to offer similar features, and the company tapped Caruso to inject some cool into its product line.

A seemingly unlikely choice, Caruso's portfolio up until then had included designing Motorola's LCD watch modules, a LCD desk calculator for Rockwell International, and an injection-molded, plastic pedestal chair base for Shepherd Industries. But at the time, Sub-Zero's CEO had seen an architectural photograph of the modern Lake Forest house that Caruso designed, with its unique brick roof, and wanted to meet the man behind it.

It turned out to be design kismet. The association between Caruso and private, family-held Sub-Zero redefined the refrigerator, transformed kitchen design, inspired multiple imitations and knock-offs, and turned the refrigerator into a luxury status symbol.


  Today, Caruso, 67, works outside the Windy City in his one-man shop, Jerome Caruso Design. His studio annex is located in the contemporary, open-space house that he designed and built in 1995. Born in Chicago, Caruso was raised in Oak Park, Ill., home of such famous design residents as Frank Lloyd Wright, who developed the "Prairie Style" of architecture when he lived and worked there. Unlike many designers who concentrate on one area, Caruso has managed to master several categories nearly simultaneously.

The designer refined his philosophy in the 1960s, when he studied under Danish masters at the University of Copenhagen and at the Bernadotte and Bjorn design studio. He later established his own studio, also named Jerome Caruso Design Inc. in Brussels. Furniture as a decorative art form was influencing the world, and Denmark was at the center. "Danish modern was all the rage," he says.

In Europe, he learned to focus on quality, detail, concept, and pure lines. "My primary inspirations are ergonomic and to invent something that is both a good concept and outstanding aesthetic."


  Caruso's European sensibility is on display in his Sub-Zero designs. At a Manhattan showroom, the designer proudly demonstrates his work opening and closing stainless steel freezers and cherry-wood refrigerators with expensive decorative handles.

Caruso broke with the standard blueprint. He removed the metal shelving and compartments and created an all white and glass interior. "I asked women what they thought," he says. "I didn't know if they'd like it, but they said it was so much easier to clean." And he installed a fully lit ceiling that supplies even illumination. His internal hinge pulls the door out two and half inches before swinging open, preventing it from touching or scraping any other cabinetry or appliance.

Drawing upon the company's dual refrigeration system (two separate cooling compressors for the refrigerator and freezer), Caruso built roomy and sealed compartments for dairy and vegetables, with independent temperature controls. His adjustable shelves are drip-proof. Moreover, he designed the customized units to be flexible. There are side-by-side refrigerator/freezers and refrigerators with pull out freezers below the waist for easy access. "What we've done," he explains, "is to create kitchen furniture."


  About 10 years ago, Caruso invented the award-winning 700 series, a line of refrigerator and freezer cabinets and drawers that he says "literally took the refrigerator out of the box." The units can be integrated with the main system, placed under or over countertops, or installed in any room in the house. Other innovations include an automatic icemaker on the refrigerator-side door that produces crescent shape ice that doesn't stick to the side of the glass.

In 1998, Caruso introduced wine storage that can be built into counter tops or stand alone. The modern take on the old wine cellar has two independent adjustable temperature zones to perfectly chill white or red vintages, an electronic monitoring system, and a specially treated glass door that keeps out oxidizing ultraviolet light. More recently, he introduced a line of stylish, stainless steel framed refrigerators with transparent glass doors.

While Sub-Zero's price tags are considerable (about $1,100 for an undercounter refrigerator to $13,000 for a limited edition PRO 48, a 48-inch side-by-side refrigerator/freezer), it hasn't slowed down the company's business. Besides helping to spur six-figure kitchen remodellings across the nation, the product line has added nicely to Sub-Zero's bottom line.


  Indeed, having a Sub-Zero in one's kitchen is not unlike having a Ferrari in your driveway. Real estate brokers regularly highlight a "Sub-Zero kitchen" in their listings. Jamie Drake, the head of Drake Design Associates in New York who renovated the official New York City mayoral residence, Gracie Mansion, in 2002, likens Sub-Zero to "an incredibly engineered car." Drake says the product lines "created a whole new concept to design and plan a kitchen" and have "redefined luxury refrigeration."

Three years ago, when Sub-Zero acquired Wolf Stove, the company dispatched Caruso to come up with a line of 25 different appliances. He created built-in ovens in polished stainless steel, with cobalt blue interiors and rotating control panels that can be hidden away from view. He also designed radiant, flat-touch stove-tops, oven racks that pull out and rest on the door, and warming drawers. His distinctive work for Wolf has helped propel the company, like Sub-Zero before it, to a praiseworthy spot in the luxury design pantheon.

Caruso, who likes to work solo -- even making his own prototypes -- is incredibly versatile. In 1998 he designed Reaction, a line of reasonably priced, ergonomic task chairs for furniture giant Herman Miller. It was in some ways a return to his earlier work. One of his initial product designs after returning to the U.S. was the first mass-produced, machine-made stack chair, in which the frame was held together by two bolts. Used by President Jimmy Carter during his inauguration in 1977, the Bi-Cast chair sits in the permanent collection at the Art Institute of Chicago.


  A few years ago Caruso approached Herman Miller with the concept for a new chair surface. "I wanted to make a seat that was more flexible, had more variations, and had an outstanding design," he says. Caruso worked on it for two years and brought a prototype to the Zeeland (Mich.) furniture manufacturer.

The result is the Cella, which has 1,578 cells, or discs, joined by six loop springs in varying lengths covering the chair seat and back. It's designed to respond to the specific needs of the lower, middle, upper back, and lumbar regions of the body and costs between $564 and $984. "I call this intelligent seating," he says.

Although at a stage in his career where others might slow down or simply refine their existing designs, Caruso is on to new concepts. Next up: He is working on a line of office furniture, storage space, bookcases, and new ideas in seating. Looking back, the man who in April the Chicago Tribune dubbed "the King of Cool" says he has one regret. "I wish I was where I am at now, earlier. That way I'd have more time to do more things."

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