Consumerisim in Your Kitchen


There was once one room that cultivated all the actions that took place in the basic American home. These three actions sum up to the American existence; biological consumption, economic consumption & aesthetic conveniences all take place in the kitchen Steven Gdula an establish columnist in Washington D.C. has coined it the ‘warmest room in the house.’ The kitchen has become the hub or the heart of the home. So what could be a better place for the golden age’s designers to enter the American home with full force? “When [Industrial Designers] tried to introduce their new designs into the sacred American living room, they were rebuffed at the front door. But they persisted and finally gained entrance through the back door. Their first achievements were in the kitchen, the bathroom, and the laundry, where utility transcended tradition” (Dreyfuss 76). This was the beginning of American Industrial Design, as we know it today. The kitchen was the designer’s new playground. And we the consumers still to this day play in their playground.

After WWI the kitchen became the heart of the American home. No longer was this considered the servants’ arena or even an unwelcoming room. The Kitchen became the heart of the American home. So by the end of the Great Depression obviously manufactures knew this was a ripe market and began to fill American Kitchens with objects. Some object actually fulfilled a need and some did not. Still, this market became a staple of the American economy, by the early 1980s; miscellaneous appliance makers in the United States were shipping over $1.5 billion worth of goods each year. By the late 1990s, industry shipments were valued at $3.7 billion, and that number slowly continues to climb about 3% every year. The Kitchen became a less labor-intensive room, a room where family began to gather, a cleaner place. The kitchen of the previous centuries was dependent on coal or steam. Then in the late 1930’s electric appliances were finally becoming something that the average American could indulge in. And after WWII the American economy was booming and war factories turned the focus to household objects. Irene Weed a writer for House Beautiful said “Let us make our homes fit into the new order of things! And where better can we begin than in the heart of those homes-the kitchen [?]”  (Gdula 28).

Architecturally speaking the dream home of post-war America was an open plan two story colonial “which emphasized the display of domestic gadgetry.” In the early 1930’s it was never fashionable to host parties in your kitchen. Food preparation was something your guest never saw no less participated in. Post-war Many families would host parties just to show off their new toasters and electric griddles. The kitchen was seen as a barrier between guest and host. One room was for making the food the other for serving it. But no longer the two were becoming one. It was so that you could show off your brand new fridge, smart stove, or convenient kitchen do-dads. “The Kitchen replaced the parlor as the showplace of the home and the ‘Kitchen of Tomorrow’ promised a cornucopia of glamorous hardware” (Vololato 97). After WWI Americans saw the kitchen as a place of expression. It no longer was a place for work but a place for hobbies, parties, and pleasures. Perfect example of this, during the late 1940’s kitchen islands appeared in more American kitchens because it became a pedestal to show off the newest gadget you had. It also catered more toward hosting parties (Plante 269).  But what started all of this? Factor in four things; first the End of the Great Depression & the eventual end of WWII which frees up lots of money & resources. Secondly, The late 1930’s marked the beginning of the TV entering the American home. And the American public was bombarded with ads that told us we needed the next best, qualitative, improved, terrific, fresh, luxurious product. And it would improve out life ten fold.  Third, include the massive amount of consumers come home from war ready to buy. Thanks to the GI Bill, veterans enjoyed access to low-interest housing loans and assistance with down payments. Lastly, add the perfected system of the assembly line process. You have got the makings for an economic boom that would result with a nations consumer pattern.

The Great Depression was triumphed thanks to WWII. That same war in turn boosted America’s GDP, meaning economic expansion. Essentially meant more money in the pockets of many Americans who dreamed of owning a home. America’s female work force had pumped out war machines like cakes.  Then when the war was over many factories were left over or released out of their government contracts so they turned to making things for the public. These factories were polished versions of Henry Ford’s model of the production process. Henry Ford, a pioneer in mass scale production didn’t intend for his system to be abused in the way it has been for the last 100 years. His 1908 Ford T model was built to last and did last into the 1930’s. Once the cultured changed from thrift to material so did the products. Manufactures realized that people had money to spend and were willing to spend it. So they accommodated consumers’ desires to buy. Then rather than the consumer controlling the market, the Manufactures now controlled what we were able to buy. They realized ‘we can make so many so fast, so we want you to buy a new one every few months or weeks rather than just buying one every few years. Stride Gum makes a parody sketch in their ads based around this thought. They are advertising how long their flavor last, but in the commercials they express how it’s halting their production because people won’t spit out their first piece. Their tagline say it all “Spit out you stride gum and chew another piece, already! Or we’ll find you.” (Stride Gum) All of this eventually led the way for product obsolescence or planned obsolescence. Mass Production specifically the assembly line became the main proponent of product obsolescence, which then expanded out into different types of obsolescence.

Designers for the first time in American history would play a crucial role in American culture.  Designers of this period were more like dressers or fitters of products. They were there to make things appealing. J. Gordon Lippincott said in his book Design for Business “There is only one reason for hiring and Industrial Designer, and that is to increase the sales of a product” (Whiteley 6). It was his belief and many other critiques of the day that, good design was determined by the mass acceptance of the public. The designer’s job was sort of defined for him. In Gregory Votolato’s book American Design in the 20th Century the term tasted is introduced to describe what the masses wanted. And it was the designer’s job to twist ad manipulate people’s taste through the aesthetic of a product. Citizens now defined themselves through their products. Snobbishness, based on family history was a thing of the past. “Position [was] derived from personal accomplishments [and acquisitions.]” Taste became a whole industry unto itself. The function of designers was to create the demand for new products. Design became the vehicle that manufactures advertised their products. (Vololato 26-28). This idea was applied to cars, appliances, furniture, etc. New styles would be created to market to specific buyers, Hence the introduction of targeted audience marketing. However this is just a ploy to attract buyers to specific brands or types even though the products are technically and technologically the same. The focus of designers shifted from product to brand, the reliability of the product was secondary to the branding. Consumers began to identify themselves through their brands. Taking the idea of taste to the next level and renaming it as identity (Vololato 42). As far as manufactures were concerned citizens now were labeled as full time consumers. The 1956 President of NBC, Robert Sarnoff was quoted saying, “The reason we have such standard of living is because advertising has created an American frame of mind that makes people wan more things, better things, newer things” (qtd. in Vololato 48). ­­ Television became the platform to promote branding in a new way. Television gave advertisers a way visually create the desire and coherence consumers into purchasing the product (Vololato 50).

This economical and political environment was perfect for the golden age of the kitchen. However, politics in the 1960’s was radically different from the previous decades. The few tragic years of America’s Royal family Kennedys and the messy years of Lyndon B. Johnson were the focus of every American. We were waging two wars one in Vietnam and a domestic war against civil injustice. Past were the years of the domestic homemaker. Even the pop culture of the day was telling the youth to rebel against the norms. What was the norm? Well the product ‘placement’ filled home their parents had grown up in during 1940’ and 50’s was the norm. That period was full of things that were to assist with the woman’s role in the home. But with the grass roots of the feminist movement rising, the homemaker image was being torn down. In it place was a woman who still cooked and cleaned but wasn’t kept in captivity buy the products she used.

During this period the kitchen began to take on the restaurant look.  To give the impression of a quality meal, and was it a coincidence that this was the beginning of microwavable foods and food of that nature. The 1960’s Kitchen was a less intrusive place. The colors were more muted, colors such as mustard, copper, avocado, that horrible brownish color. Even the materials were less flashy. In a 1960’s kitchen you saw more wood than chrome. So if the consumer changed the market would have to change with them. Instead of offering 100 pretty products to get one meal on the table, there were products that did more than one thing at a time. Appliances were designed to look like furniture and accessories that had multi functions. In order to cut down on clutter and mess, because nobody had time for that. (Plante 274-75). Products like self-cleaning ovens and dishwashers became a standard in most American kitchens. The kitchen was moving from a display room to a social room where the family was able to take time to meet. But life was faster than it was in the 50’s. Pre-prepare meals were taking over the dinner menu. The kitchen was just supposed to be a clean pristine kitchen only used when cooking. Pass through doorways became larger, shutters were being phased out, the architecture of the kitchen was becoming more like a large hallway. With less and less time being spent in the kitchen how would appliance manufactures keep loyal customers. The average American family of the 1970’s had two working parents and both knew how to cook. But neither had the time, so quick meals like Hamburger Helper and Manwich entered the kitchen. None of these meals require much cook time, space, or accessories.

“The Kitchen adapted to the woman of the 1970’s leaving the house and going to work outside the home” (Gdula 142). Just as the roles of mom and dad were changing so were the functions of the kitchen. Things such as homework, entertaining, office work, household chores were taking place in the kitchen. Well since the kitchen was being used less and less to cook it was made to be more acceptable to other task. Now that the kitchen is essentially open to the whole house you don’t want everyone to see your outdated appliances. You’ll need to update them.  Once again manufactures had an opportunity to redefine what the kitchen was supposed to look like. Designers were getting back to the more ‘natural’ materials but with innovative tech. Instead of natural wood, a wood veneer face would be place on cabinets and wood trim would line all the appliances. Since the oven or the fire of the stove was no longer on all day the feelings of warmth and security had to come from other sources. “With warm colors, you’re re-creating the new notion of home” (Gdula 143). Through new colors and finishes designers were trying to fill the void mother left in the kitchen.

In the 1980’s and 90’s the kitchen was no longer being dictated. By this time so many styles had been established. Some people were going retro chic, restaurant modern, contemporary classic; it was anybodies game. That period was really undefined as to what was a necessity in the kitchen. Entire television networks had been created around the concept of kitchen décor. Magazines such as Better Homes, HOME, This Old House, Architectural Digest and many more offered 1000 different ways to style your kitchen. The kitchen had literally become an extension of the homeowners. The kitchen had transformed from a platform to show case your cooking accessories and appliances to becoming the accessory itself. It said more about you than any other room in your house. Then within the last 10 years a new trend began which manufactures have jumped onto but not the right reasons. The environmental movement that blipped in the 70’s has taken over the whole radar. Every major kitchen appliance manufacture, G&E, Whirlpool, Kitchen Aid, LG, Colman, Maytag, Electrolux, and others, all offer and energy efficient version of multiple models. And the newest trend in color is silver but only because it looks professional. White was a constant throughout every decade because it matched everything and it looks clean. But the new ‘clean’ is ‘sterile.’ But that whole mindset is ridiculous because the professional kitchen is a horrible dirty place.  Unless it’s like a 5 star French restaurant but even then it’s ‘iffy’. Just goes to show you that designers, whether they want to admit it or not, are the engines of desire. If we can make it sleeker, more precise, rounder, squarer, taller, skinnier, bigger, smaller, people will buy it.

Thomas Jefferson said, “If you really want to know a culture you have to look into the people’s pots and eat their bread” (qtd. in Gdula xi). Jefferson argued that you could understand a person economic, religious, ethic, political and geographical influences all through their kitchen. Now he said that 18th century, if that was true then it most certainly is true now. Kitchens are more that places that we cook and eat they are communal hubs in our homes and our neighborhoods. They serve as the entry point of most commercial goods. Every week or two weeks we bring in commercial consumables. They are the markets entry point into out homes. It is how designers entered our homes in the first place. The object we put in them and how we build them are a reflection of us. I would argue that consumer culture most affects us through our kitchens. It is the most transitional room in the home even more so than our bedrooms.  But what is in store for our kitchens is anyone’s guess. The next thing you know we won’t need a kitchen. Instead of an entire room for food prep there will be only a dining room with a small ‘replicator station’ like in Star Trek. You walk up and say Banana pancakes please. And out of some light appears your meal. But whatever it is the designer will always be at the wheel steering the consumer toward which replicator to pick.

Sources

Dreyfuss, Henry. Designing for people. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955.

Gdula, Steven. The Warmest Room in the House. New York: Bloomsbury, 2008.

HighBeam Business Research . 2009. The Gale Group, Inc. 13 Dec. 2009. http://business.highbeam.com/industry-reports/equipment/household-appliances-not-elsewhere-classified

Plante, Ellen M. The American Kitchen 1700 to the Present. New York: Fact on File Inc, 1995.

Stride Gum. “Office Park.” 2009. Online video clip. StrideGum.com. 11 Dec. 2009. <http://www.stridegum.com/#/advertising/&gt;

Vololato, Gregory. American Design in the Twentieth Century. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998.

Whiteley, Nigel. “Toward a Throw-Away Culture. Consumerism, ‘Style Obsolescence’ and Cultural Theory in the 1950s and 1960s.” The Oxford Art Journal. Vol. 10. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1987

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