Designers have a thing about toasters. I have often wondered why, given that I have written about them so many times. Now Steven Bayley of the Guardian looks at the issue of How toasters found a special warm place in our hearts.
It starts as a story of how toasters are being banned in the British city of Bradford, and how it turns into a tale of ideological conflict.
Officials, in thrall to the Stalinist protocols of health and safety, are threatening to ban the Conservative councillors’ toaster, which occupies an altar-like position in the shrine that is their town hall kitchen. The stated reason is fire risk, although some may suspect that an emasculation of toast-loving Tory alpha males is a more likely rationale.Then it becomes a tale of transformation, which is why I think designers like them so much.
Maybe because the creation of toast is such a meaningful transformation in itself, the toaster has acquired a special relevance and inspired in us an affection we do not feel for, say, a microwave. Radiant heat applied to fresh bread becomes a miracle of transformed colour, texture and meaning which deserves to be an ironic addendum to Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
The chemical process by which toast turns brown may be complex, but the electrical process is relatively simple: push electricity through a wire. Or so I thought.
Over the years I have used the toaster was a metaphor. Thomas Thwaites, who built a toaster from scratch and wrote a book about it that "brought into sharp focus the amount of history, struggle, thought, energy and material that goes into something as mundane as an electric toaster. Even if we still don't have to directly pay what it costs, we can at least value what it is worth." You can watch Thomas in a toaster Ted Talk here.
In what I think was the best series we ever did on TreeHugger, our Minus Oil posts, I compared the cheap toasters that Thwaites tried to recreate to my mom's Toastmaster, which has lasted over fifty years. The ad for it from the sixties called it "a combination of classic beauty, perfect product performance and remarkable time-defying endurance", none of which can be said for the ten buck toasters they sell at Walmart today. Showing a number of designer toaster concepts, I noted:
Whether you are talking about a toaster or an iPhone or an office building, the same principles apply. We have to look at the whole picture: how much energy went into the things we make, how much energy it takes to run them, how appropriate is the energy source for the purpose, how long it lasts, and what happens at the end of its useful life. More technically, we have to look at its embodied energy, its operating energy, its exergy and its durability, and wrap it all together in a life cycle assessment.
What is the Definition of Good Green Design? Two Brave Little Toasters Demonstrate Two Different Approaches
Here, I compared Thwaites' toaster, which was supposed to work, with another designer's creation, which looked good but clearly would never work. A clear case of style over substance. It became a discussion about the meaning of design.
Zaffran's toaster isn't ugly, it's beautiful. It uses materials at hand. But It is a model and not a reality; you can't turn reinforcing bar into a heating element unless you own your own generating plant....The heart of good design is that it's gotta work.
TreeHugger loves multifunction furniture and devices that take up less space, but the radio toaster is a example of everything wrong about the idea. Here is a multi-tasker that defies logic; They use different voltages, the radio has to be insulated, it is just silly. There was only one good thing I could say about it:
I suppose there is a relationship between toast and music; they both have jam sessions. But that is about it for this one
Again, toaster as metaphor. We love minimalist clean design, and the Salvé Bagel Toaster is as minimalist as you can get, a sort of record player of a toaster that spins the bagel under the toaster element. "When happy with the color of the freshly toasted bagel, simply remove and enjoy." But it only does bagels, you can't even put a round english muffin in it. It's what we call a uni-tasker, " single-function thingies that are rarely used and take up so much space that kitchens have ballooned in size to accommodate them all." Except it is really elegantly designed and one of the first really original toasting ideas I had seen. However If the toaster radio tried to do too much, the Salvé Bagel Toaster does too little.
The transformation of toast is visible. It is something we understand. I wrote:
When we push the lever down on our toaster or turn the ignition of our car, we really have no idea of the power of what Bucky Fuller called "Energy slaves", when he calculated in 1944 that every American uses the energy equivalent of 39 people to do their bidding. According to author Andrew Nikiforuk, in his book "The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude," we probably use ten times as much today.
When you watch cyclist Robert Förstemann almost kill himself trying to generate enough electricity to cook one piece of toast, you realize how much work we actually get from our energy slaves.
In the end we find that it takes 1 Robert to toast a slice of bread, 180 Roberts to power a car and 43,000 Roberts to power an airplane. It's a demonstration of how valuable our energy resources really are, and I think how extravagant our dependence on the automobile is, comparable to being towed by 180 Roberts.
Finally, I circle back to the lesson of Thomas Thwaites and his attempt to build a toaster, a good message for this season:
My attempt to make a toaster has shown me just how reliant we all are on everyone else in the world. Though there is a romance in that idea of self-sufficiency and living off the land, there's also absurdity. There is no turning back the clock to simpler times.