The design and history behind a few popular household items

The design and history behind a few popular household items
A Tulip Table, one of many household items designed to withstand the passing of time. Courtesy Flickr Commons.
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Spending time at home, we’ve become more acquainted with the household items that surround us than every. We’ve decided to look at the history and design of a couple of household items to look at how they came to be. Chances are, you’ve got one or a couple of them in your own home, or something that has clearly taken some inspiration from their forefathers of design.

The Kitchen Aid mixer
The Kitchen Aid mixer as we know it today. Via Maker Stories.

A staple well-known to every home baker, the Kitchen Aid mixer is among the best mixers and they can be found in kitchens around the world. They weren’t always so easy to sell, though, but once they found their stride, they’ve barely changed in more than 80 years. The Kitchen Aid’s roots go back to 1914 when Herbert Johnson was working as an engineer for the Hobart Corporation in Ohio.

After watching a baker make bread, Johnson was inspired to create a kitchen appliance that would make the process easier. From that, the first Kitchen Aid was born, although it was a 80-quart industrial mixer called the H5. In the coming years, every ship in the US Navy had one in their galley. By 1920, Hobart released a 5-quart consumer model of the mixer. Its name supposedly came from a Hobart executive’s wife, who tested one of the smaller models before it had a name. After trying it, she said “I don’t care what you call it; all I know is it’s the best kitchen aid I’ve ever had,” and the name stuck.

While the product was great, it was expensive. At the time, it went for $200 (roughly $2,700 in today’s money), so, in 1937, the company hired Egmont Arens, a man known for making products marketable. Arens transformed the Kitchen Aid into the streamlined item we know today. In the decades since Arens stepped in, the Kitchen Aid has been tweaked slightly, but it largely remains the same. The most notable addition to the product came in the 1950s when the Kitchen Aid was released in different colours.

The Tulip Table
A Tulip Table accompanied by an Eames Chair. Courtesy Flickr Commons.

“The undercarriage of chairs and tables in a typical interior makes an ugly, confusing, unrestful world,” said Eero Saarinen, designer of the Tulip Table. “I wanted to clear up the slum of legs. I wanted to make the chair all one thing again.” And clear up he did.

The Tulip Table took common gripes with a kitchen table – pushing all the chairs in at once, kicking the leg of the table as you walk by, and clutter – and made them disappear. The result was a streamlined, minimalistic table with a singular central leg that resembles a stem that blossoms into the table top that suited Saarinen’s vision for a less cluttered space. The table and its accompanying Tulip Chairs, which makes a statement while taking up hardly any space, were an instant success and became a signature piece during the 20th century.

Saarinen was a Finish American industrial designer and architect who grew up immersed in design. His father, Eliel Saarinen, was an architect and the director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. After his studies, Saarinen returned to teach at Cranbrook, which is when he met Charles Eames. In 1940, the duo worked together to create a series of moulded plywood chairs for the Organic Design in Home Furnishings competition presented by the MoMA. Their entries came in first, catapulting them both to the forefront of Modernist design.

Through Cranbrook, Saarinen also met Florence Schust, an architect, interior designer, and furniture designer. Remaining good friends with Saarinen, Schust married Hans Knoll, and the couple developed Knoll Inc., a major US producer of furniture by well-known designers including Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Maya Lin, and Frank Gehry. Saarinen went onto work with Knoll Inc. to develop a number of collections alongside the Tulip Table, which debuted in 1958. Today, a Knoll Tulip Table will set you back no less than $2,000, but you won’t have to worry about snagging your finger between a chair and table leg.

The Whistling Bird Teakettle
The Whistling Bird Teakettle (left) with other Alessi tools. Courtesy Flickr Commons.

With the new home-office set-up you might be making more trips to the kettle than ever before. The 9093 kettle, better known as the Alessi Whistling Bird Teakettle, designed by Michael Graves, has been one of the Alessi company’s best sellers for 35 years.

In an interview with Dezeen, Alberto Alessi, owner of Alessi, said “design is the son of architecture,” and a few decades ago, the company wanted to prove that. So, in the late 70s, Alessi invited 11 traditional architects, who had never worked in the field of industrial design, to create their own version of a tea and coffee service and Graves was among them. The best designed sets were produced in sterling silver limited editions, exhibited in art galleries and museum shops, and had an extra shiny price tag as well. Graves’ submission, one of the winning bids, was a funky, Art Deco-esque, kind of square take on a tea and coffee service complete with ivory and baby blue accents.

Off the back of the competition, Graves continued to collaborate with Alessi and in the 1985, he created the 9093 kettle, which became his first mass-produced item. Its wide bottom meant water boiled faster and the whistling bird that alerts users to a boiled kettle was meant to bring joy. The design stuck and for 15 years, it was the top seller for Alessi and it continues to make the top 10 items most sold today. In all, more than two million Whistling Bird Teakettles have been purchased, bringing joy to tea-drinkers everywhere.

Today, the kettles come as traditional hob kettles, or, as an electric version of the kettle, either of which will set you back nearly £100 – at least. In 2015, Alessi released a limited edition model to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Graves’ design that replaced the iconic bird with a little dragon, selected by Graves (who continued on primarily as an architect), to represent the “evolution” of the bird.

While you might not have a a Tulip Table of your own at home, take a look around and think about the design of your coffee table or desk. Sure, it might just be a humble IKEA MALM, but do a little research and you might be surprised at the design and inspiration behind the household items, furniture, appliances, and even lighting in your own home.