As a young man with an idea for a new kind of business, you could do a lot worse than having Frank Lloyd Wright give you your first big break.

That’s what happened to Westye Bakke in the 1930s. Wright, a fellow Wisconsin native, had heard of Westye’s aptitude for designing refrigeration systems. He hired the young man as a consultant to help create uniquely sized refrigerators for the architect’s residential projects.

By 1943, despite the materials shortages brought on by World War II, in classic entrepreneurial style, Westye had turned the basement of his Madison home into a product development lab and was planning to launch a new company. Working alone, he used scrap metal and other salvaged materials to fashion the prototype for a new kind of freezer, more reliable than any that had come before and able to store its contents at stable, exceptionally low temperatures – literally sub-zero.

If Frank Lloyd Wright provided the early aesthetic inspiration for Westye, more personal motivations spurred him to push through the technical limitations and supply shortages of the day to pioneer high-performance refrigeration for the home: His young son, Bud, had juvenile diabetes. The lack of reliable home refrigeration meant frequent trips to the drugstore for insulin. Under those circumstances, getting snowed in by a Wisconsin blizzard could be more than just inconvenient. In his basement lab, Westye worked with urgency.

“All of our design and engineering are aimed at meaningful innovations that contribute to the life of the home.”

Jim Bakke—President and CEO, Sub-Zero

In the summer of 1945, with the war in Europe over and the Pacific war soon to end, he founded Sub-Zero Freezer Company, making his tiny enterprise one of the first new companies in the giant postwar boom in home technology and design. Seventy years later, that little Midwestern startup – now a household name worldwide – is still in the Bakke family, still drawing inspiration from leading figures in the design and architecture communities and still pioneering technical innovations that are ahead of their time.

“We’ve never pushed gimmicks or chased passing fads. All of our design and engineering are aimed at meaningful innovations that contribute to the life of the home,” says Jim Bakke, Westye’s grandson and president and CEO of the company. “There’s a phrase we use inside the company to describe what we’re trying to create through our products - moments worth savouring in the home. Those moments come through enjoying better food, from living in a space that’s designed exactly the way you want it and from owning nice things that keep serving you well for many, many years. We’ve never compromised on quality. My grandfather said that Sub-Zero would build only the highest-quality products and that as long as we did, we’d always have customers.”

But would Sub-Zero always have enough customers? That was a question many were asking when Jim Bakke took the reins of the company in 1989.

Certainly Sub-Zero had remained innovative. Jim’s father, Bud (who became the company’s second CEO), was an early advocate of the “total kitchen” concept promoted by cabinet companies in the 1950s. Refrigeration, he recognised, could be built into not only kitchen cabinets but also credenzas, end tables, and bar counters. Under his leadership, Sub-Zero became, in “All of our design and engineering are aimed at mean ingful innovations that contribute to the life of the home.” SUB-ZERO AT {7700 } MARCH 2015 RETAILOBSERVER.COM 11 essence, a category of one – the brand of built-in refrigeration and synonymous with luxury home design.

In the 1990s, as designers asked for products to help them break from conventional kitchen layouts, Sub-Zero introduced integrated refrigeration — refrigerator and freezer drawers and cabinets that could be installed anywhere from a kitchen island to a breakfast nook. It transcended the idea of storing food all in one unit and blended principal and satellite refrigeration units into the décor. Integrated refrigeration helped further cement Sub-Zero’s place as the go-to brand for designers and architects.

But if the design community and homeowners sat up and took notice of each new development at Sub-Zero, so did the appliance industry. More and more appliance makers were rushing to market with built-ins modeled after Sub-Zero. Growth at Sub-Zero was showing signs of stagnation. There was talk among insiders of selling the company.

Enter Jim Bakke. After graduating from college, he had begun his career not with the family business but with Oscar Mayer, learning how that iconic company achieved long-term success. After returning to Sub-Zero, he worked his way up from assembler to customer service rep to regional sales manager to plant manager to national sales manager and eventually to executive vice president.

Now, as president and CEO, he saw Sub-Zero’s future not in selling the brand outside the family but in a bolder direction: diversifying. He reasoned that if the company could be synonymous with design and performance in one facet of the kitchen, food preservation, then it could do the same in another facet, food preparation. He and his team began the search for an existing brand as renowned for cooking great meals as Sub-Zero was for keeping food fresh.



They found it 2,000 miles west of Madison in Los Angeles. There, in the 1930s, while Westye Bakke was building refrigeration for America’s greatest architect, brothers Al and Hyman Wolf were building ranges for America’s greatest chefs. Their company would eventually become famous for performance and durability in the most demanding commercial kitchens. In its origins and philosophy, Wolf was very much like Sub-Zero. It was, however, virtually unknown as a consumer brand.

In 2000, Jim Bakke negotiated the sale of Wolf’s consumer line to Sub-Zero and set out to make the Wolf name famous among designers and homeowners for the same reasons Sub-Zero was famous, only at the opposite end of the temperature spectrum. Built in a new, state-of-the-art factory on the outskirts of Madison – its nearest neighbour is an organic farm – Wolf took the kitchen-design and cooking worlds by storm, winning rave reviews and gobbling up market share.

Wolf’s growth and Sub-Zero’s renewed vigor were aided by yet another audacious strategy: reducing, not expanding, the brands’ distribution. “Designers, architects, builders, specialty retailers – those were always our best partners,” Jim Bakke said. “They get who we are and what we stand for.” The company pulled out of mass retail channels, cultivated relationships with trade professionals and specialty stores, and built elaborate showrooms to support the trade.

Then came 2008. As the global recession suppressed consumers’ appetite for new appliances, Jim again led Sub-Zero and Wolf on an aggressive course. Instead of pulling back and pinching pennies, the company invested heavily in innovation. Like his grandfather, who had anticipated demand for refrigeration after the war, Jim anticipated hunger for innovative new appliances in the housing recovery.

When the turnaround came, Sub-Zero was ready. The company launched more than 70 new products in three years as part of its new generation. For the Sub-Zero brand, they include a reimagined built-in line, unique new sizes of integrated refrigeration, and redesigned wine storage. Meanwhile, Wolf introduced its sleekest, most advanced built-in ovens yet, gas and induction cooktops with major design and performance upgrades, a convection steam oven whose recipe capabilities border on the uncanny and a built-in automatic coffee system with a drink repertoire rivaling that of a veteran barista.

It all makes this venerable company’s 70th birthday, as Jim Bakke might say, a moment worth savouring in its own right.



Sub-Zero, the industry leader in premium refrigeration and wine storage, marks its 70th anniversary in 2015. The third-generation, family-owned company is based in Madison, Wisconsin. Sub-Zero has specialised in the beauty and performance of refrigeration for seven decades. Because of its innovation and dedication, Sub-Zero continues to be a category frontrunner and engineer of the most desired products in high-end kitchens.


Westye F. Bakke built the first freestanding freezer prototype out of salvaged scrap metal in his basement. Bakke bent the unit’s coils barehanded and improvised whatever materials were lacking because supplies were scarce during World War II.


Bakke founded Sub-Zero Freezer Company. The Sub-Zero name was chosen because its freezers were the first to meet the strict quality standards for below-zero safety in freezing food. 1955


Sub-Zero introduced dual refrigeration,originally called “Tu-Temp.” Dual refrigeration(separate, sealed systems for the refrigerator and freezer) ensures optimum preservation conditions for each type of food.

Late 1950s

Sub-Zero pioneered the built-in refrigeration category by introducing the first-ever cabinet-flush unit. The company also modified builtin design to allow for recessed fronts. This enabled the complete customisation of each unit to match the kitchen’s overall décor. The refrigerator, once considered the least attractive appliance in kitchens,ow becomes elegant and beautiful – yet a workhorse.


The entirely new concept of integrated refrigeration was unveiled through the 700 Series of modular units. The 700 Series represented “point of use” refrigeration that blended seamlessly into any décor. The series included the new concept of refrigerator and freezer drawer units, transcending the idea that all food must be stored in one place within


The 400 Series of wine storage units as launched. Much more than basic wine coolers, Sub-Zero’s wine storage units have two separate refrigeration compartments with independent temperature zones and varying capacity, providing ultimate flexibility to the wine enthusiast.


Sub-Zero formed Wolf Appliance Co. from the residential side of a company known for its ranges and cooktops, with more than 75 years of experience in commercial kitchens. In doing so, they created the ideal corporate companion and kitchen soul mate for Sub-Zero.


Sub-Zero unveiled PRO 48 professional- style refrigeration. The PRO 48 has stainless steel inside and out, and consumes less energy than a 100-watt bulb over the course of one year.


An antimicrobial air purification system based on NASA technology was introduced. The technology scrubs the air of ethylene gas as well as mould, viruses, and bacteria.


Sub-Zero and Wolf started the introduction of its new generation, a series of products featuring more than 70 appliances engineered to excel in both performance and design. This product rollout is the largest in the company’s 70-year history. The new generation of Sub-Zero products includes even more advanced preservation features and sizes in the integrated refrigeration line up. They co-ordinate seamlessly with Wolf’s new products, which feature new exterior styles and refinements in performance.


To celebrate Sub-Zero & Wolf’s seven decades of pioneering design, innovation and customer service, we held a party for over 200 guests at Dartmouth House in Mayfair. Guests from all over the UK, France and Spain helped us celebrate in style, enjoying live jazz, dancing, drinks and a delicious barbeque at this elegant venue. Click on the images below to enlarge each one.