Title: Hire and fire in the kitchen
Pages: 48 - 50
Author: Michael Farr
Text: Hire and fire in the kitchen
by Michael Farr
Do built-in kitchens have built-in disadvantages? The author argues that a new approach to the marketing of appliances could lead to greater flexibility in kitchen planning and the more rapid introduction of technical innovations. He describes one project for a system, called 'Kitkit', which he is concerned in developing, and his article is followed by a report on another approach to flexibility in the kitchen.
Probably more design effort has been expended on the kitchen than on any other part of the house. For over 40 years there has been a growing desire to possess a built-in kitchen, even if its realisation has been the privilege of comparatively few people. Given a free hand inside the house, the architect or interior designer will attempt to integrate all his client's kitchen equipment by cutting and fitting the cabinets to accommodate the various shapes and sizes of appliance. His aim is to achieve long, uninterrupted stretches of working surface at one fixed height: the greater the area of flat top, the better the kitchen - so runs the argument.
Falsely, I think- although it is an argument accepted by most manufacturers of kitchen furniture whose object is to sell not by the unit but by the complete installation. They are further aided by the majority of firms making powered appliances in designs with rectangular corners. In their sales leaflets, these companies stress the built-in look. While there would be some justification for the present practice if appliance manufacturers in each industry all agreed to confine their products to one or perhaps two standard sizes, the result would arbitrarily restrict technical development and design. Such an agreement might save the customer's money, because kitchen furniture firms would have no need to stock fittings tailored to the size of each oven or hotplate. But even a partial move towards uniformity, like that expressed in the recent British Standard*, has met with an almost wholly unco-operative response from designers and industry. The BS recommends different heights for sink tops, work surfaces and tops of appliances, and so could disrupt the 'ideal' neatness of the built-in kitchen.
The completely built-in kitchen, with each appliance in its allotted place, is relatively expensive in the context of any house. Although not often truly built-in, it becomes virtually part of the structure of the house or flat, and cannot be altered.
The same is true of the 'heart units' that have so far been announced. Each is designed as an integral part of an industrialised building system and, once installed, can take only a limited range of kitchen appliances and storage units. Can the designers of these heart units accurately predict the needs of kitchen users 30 years from now (to take only half the average life span of a house) and also
[*BS3705:1964, Provision of Space for Domestic Kitchen Equipment]
assume that the equipment they have designed for will be indefinitely renewable ?
The long-lasting fashion for built-in kitchens pays scant regard to the changing needs of the original owners or their successors each time a house is sold. It ties up the house-owner's capital, and forces him to face inconvenient and expensive alterations each time he has to meet his wife's desire for a more modern, labour-saving appliance. And, as a final irony, he finds that the displaced appliance for which he paid perhaps £80 seven years ago can only fetch £5 on an almost non-existent second hand market. Although obsolete in its original setting, it is by no means worn out, and if properly re-installed elsewhere could serve for a further 10 years and more. Manufacturers are fond of advertising kitchen appliances to last a lifetime. The fact that many of them do explains partially the slow demand for new designs from second generation users.
It also seems fair to comment on the way in which built-in kitchens tend to inhibit the introduction of technical improvements. Just as the changing requirements of users are frustrated by fixed appliances, so is the manufacturer's opportunity to introduce radically better ways of doing things stultified.
But a much commoner reason for slowing down technical change is the trend toward huge appliances, whether built-in or freestanding. Cooker manufacturers, for example, each year have to postpone technical improvements. Naturally, their design development departments are always studying new and improved methods for roasting, baking, boiling, frying, grilling, etc. But when one of these developments reaches fruition it is unlikely, in itself, to be sufficiently important to persuade the manufacturer to scrap the tools of the monolithic cooker he has on the market and introduce a new one for the sake of, say, an improved method of baking. Hence a trading opportunity is lost and a new, potential user need remains unsatisfied.
The fact that few people complain about the unreality of the 'dream' built-in kitchen is no reason for supposing that the existing fashion should survive unchanged. It clearly ignores the differences in housewives' stature, psychology, performance and taste. It is also clear that free standing monolithic kitchen appliances are too expensive to change, too awkward to replace or both. So people....
[These sketches give a general indication of how the racking system would work in practice. Each row shows three walls of the same kitchen. The top row suggests a range of equipment suitable for a young married couple with no child rent The middle and bottom rows suggest how additional equipment could be incorporated as the family grows and becomes more prosperous. In each case the kitchen includes standard equipment already available on the market. The racking system is suggested by the vertical red lines - broken lines for powered racks and unbroken lines for non-powered racks used only for supports.
drawing by Martin Roberts]
....are not as well served as they might be, and the kitchen appliance industries are stuck with a self- deadening market.
Hire and fire
There is an alternative. Currently, kitchen appliances are possessions which are hard to get rid of. What if they were rented ? The idea of hiring (not hire-purchasing) domestic appliances is not new, but it is not widely practised. Renting puts the responsibility for the efficiency of the appliance on the hire company and gives the hirer the opportunity to change what he has got for something new. He pays for both privileges, but not by tying up his capital. At present the telephone receiver is the most ubiquitous example of a hired appliance. The rented television set is now commonplace, and more and more companies are renting suites of office furniture.
Both hired television receivers and rented office suites indicate a trend in the deployment of income that could radically affect the kitchen. Both are subject to changing conditions, the first largely as a result of technological innovations, the second because of the fluctuating requirements of business activity.
Kitchens have both characteristics, for in their own way they are potentially susceptible to pent-up technical developments, and they should also be much more adaptable to changing user needs.
To take advantage of the greater adaptability of the renting idea, there is a need for a much more flexible approach to kitchen planning. What is required is a simple plug-in system which, unlike current ranges of built-in equipment, would be 'open' - that is, it would be capable of accommodating an adequate number of branded appliances already on the market without requiring them to be drastically modified.
One way of doing this would be for the renting company to supply, 'free', a series of adjustable wall-hung and floor-mounted racks which would be the only permanent elements in the kitchen. Such a system could have appliance-supporting structures and incorporate the electricity supply. Kitchen equipment and appliances would be suspended on the racks and supplied with power in a manner similar to a buzz-bar system. By this means, the powered equipment could be positioned and plugged in where it is wanted. It could also be replaced or re-located quickly without disturbing nearby appliances. continued
Apart from water plumbing, which would where possible use flexible plastics pipes, this type of system would be very flexible within the context of any kitchen. Space in the majority of houses is an expensive asset and it needs to be efficiently used. If properly designed, the system could be fitted in kitchens of all shapes and sizes and, if necessary, be installed piecemeal to carry only two or three appliances. The illustrations on the previous page give some idea of its versatility.
It could also allow each appliance to be arranged at the most suitable working height for the individual housewife. And she could change her mind and have them moved into new positions if the first arrangement did not work.
So, in order to get mobility, shall we have to put up with kitchen walls disfigured by buzz-bars like a Lilliputian power station ? It surely depends on how well the system is designed. An installation could look terrible, but there is no reason why it should. Indeed, the racks need be no more obtrusive than well designed modular domestic shelving. The different finishes for in filling panels and bar-facing strips should suit a variety of tastes in kitchen decor.
Paying for novelty
To make the system viable, the renting company would form contracts in each area of the country with a number of households at different levels of income. The contracts would be made for two year, five year or longer periods. To take a simple case, a household installing brand new appliances could change one or all of them annually for a rent proportionately higher than that paid by the second household. This second household could have some or all of its equipment replaced by refurbished one year old substitutes. And so on, down the scale of affluence.
The procedure at once creates a fresh demand for new kitchen equipment - a demand that is not only new but also predictably expansile: a market condition so far never enjoyed by the appliance industries. The renting company might prefer to earn a return on its investment over long rentals where the hired equipment remains installed and relatively static - apart from occasional servicing and the replacement of defective units. But the appliance manufacturers wouId almost certainIy counter this by competing for public attention with technical improvements and stylistic innovations.
And if public demand is to be satisfied, the renting company will have to include the new lines in its range. But, as the hire business depends wholly on the worth of the equipment it handles, the renting company will favour the new appliance only when it is demonstrably well made for a long life. Gimmicky styles could lose out to new designs that look different because functionally they are different.
In return for the 'gift' of a bigger market - and in order to exploit its peculiar conditions effectively -the appliance manufacturers are most likely to encourage the development of smaller appliances, each with its own function. This would lead to the 'atomisation' of the monolithic cooker, for example; its many functions being broken down into separate units for separate sale to the renting company. Already in some ranges the hotplate has been split from the oven, and rotisseries are occasionally separate from the main body of the cooker. The trend would continue in concert with the system so that grills, boilers and plate warmers also became separate units. As each function was improved by design development, it could be marketed without affecting the other functions that once were associated with it in a normal cooker. The same tendency can to a lesser extent be foreseen for other large, multi-function kitchen appliances. The various operations performed by a refrigerator would offer scope for separate re-developments. The system could be the progenitor of smaller and more specialised appliances, each one expressing its own function unrestrained by any predetermined overall dimensions. Efficiency and good appearance would be the sole criteria for public acceptance. Renting depends for its continued success on good service. This is a two-way process, for it not only keeps the hirer happy if everything in the kitchen works every time; it also allows the renting company to watch over its property. It is worth asking whether servicing can be expected to do more than this. A properly briefed service engineer could observe product performance in its actual working contexts, and through his company's connection with the appliance firm concerned his comments could reach the designer. The information that is fed back in this way to the designer would not only tell him how his product measures up to competition but, skilfully analysed, it could indicate any significant trends in user behaviour. Such an opportunity for communicating with designers opens up exciting prospects*.
Change in the kitchen
Should housewives be encouraged to keep their kitchens up-to-date? This is the core of the argument. If the answer is 'yes, in order to develop a buoyant appliance market', and 'yes, in order to satisfy user needs', then the built-in fashion is over. BS 3705 is already redundant. The system should be based on the 10 cm module which takes any appliance yet foreseen. So designers would be free to establish the most suitable dimensions for each appliance and, if they and the user desire, arrange all of them in one long, flat expanse of working surface. The rack system would be the basic unit, and a huge variety of appliances could be clipped on and off as needed. Is human satisfaction to be derived more from possession or from use ? If the latter is the main motivation, as I believe it is today, then such a system will fit the future demand for better and better equipment: uniquely, it could provide the opportunity to make changes at will and without waste.
Michael Farr(Design Integration) Ltd
[See the author's chapter on design in Discrimination and Popular Culture, Penguin, 1964]