The meaning of home appliances

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Francesco Trabucco,  professor of  Industrial Design at the Milan Polytechnic, takes us through the main stages of the evolution of major and small domestic appliances. And, therefore, through the most significant moments of modernity

Francesco Trabucco

By Lara Colombi

Washing machines but also blenders, hair dryers or coffee machines, together with the other great archetypes of modernity, such as automobile and, subsequently, computer, represent one of the great places within which the great change, that characterizes our century, occurred.
Architect Francesco Trabucco tells it. He is an international authority in the field of design, professor of Industrial Design at the Milan Polytechnic, where he manages the Design Engineering and Innovation and the Design for Architecture masters.

In your book “White Design” you tell the story of the world of White Goods.  What are the steps and products that more than others have contributed to the evolution of the sector? “White Design” was published in 2001, practically prehistoric times, and many things should be rethought, but some basic concepts are still valid: household appliances, especially those so-called White Goods, characterize the history of modern society, not only because they have changed the status of women in the industrialized world but also because they were a sign and symbol of a modernity that seemed to promise, through the development of technology and industry, welfare, leisure, social redemption and happiness.
In the Eighties, the appliances became commodities, diffused to a wider and wider part of the population, thanks to the huge investments in process technologies that enabled to cut costs.
The proportion of the event is this: in that book I remembered that, when in 1972 I bought my first car, a very cheap Fiat 500, it cost only between three and four times more than the washing machine that I had bought in those months too. Today a middle level washing machine costs, more or less, one thirtieth of the new Fiat 500. The cost of the cars compared to that time has increased a bit, but that of household appliances has collapsed.

The fall of the average price has widened the market but with what consequences?
Maybe it is a good thing that it went this way, but this certainly created a situation of dramatic competition among companies forced to colossal investments in process technology and to a very large mass production to amortize them. But, as a result, it did not allow enough investments in innovation.
Companies became industrial giants, multinational groups arose and, in few years, not only in Italy, absorbed most of the national companies responding to delocalized interests and strategies. The tail of that process continues today: recently in Italy the economic and labor news have been monopolized by the shutting of the ex Indesit’s plants by Whirlpool.

But are products today equal to those of that time?
Of course it is not true that the washing machine I bought in 1970 is the same as today’s, only cheaper. In fact that washing machine has undergone a long process of incremental innovation, due partly to contain its costs, and partly to allow an adjustment to new process and product technologies, I think mainly to digital technologies.

Throughout the history of the small appliance, what have been the main innovations of products and processes?
You’re asking me to tell the story of an entire industry  sector…rather I would concentrate on the present time. The need to reduce energy consumption, and the waste of water and especially of food, is changing most of the design logic of new appliances both major and small ones. The widespread use of smart materials, the adoption of digital technologies and network connections to get new effects of interaction with the user are creating products able to interfacing in an interactive and intelligent way.
I saw the experimental project of a mirror that recognizes you in the morning, greets you, reads the signs of fatigue and rest, analyzes the temperature and the color, the skin transparency, the speed and fluidity of your movements, deduces your health conditions and your mood.  It is also able to read your emails, the answering machine messages and agenda. It gives you the weather forecasts and, if you want, it books a plane for you, a restaurant or a theater. All this is not fiction.

How did the evolution of these products follow that of Italian society?
My new book “Design” is just arrived in bookstores. It is published by Bollati Boringhieri in the Sampietrini series. In its pages I try to give answers to these questions. I try to say how we cannot talk of “Italian society” about phenomena that take place, instead, on the global level of societies with a high rate of technological evolution.

What do you mean?
All communities, not only the national ones but also that of towns or of a condominium, have their peculiarities, but the evolution of industrial products involves the global system of what is widely called “liquid society”.
The companies of the household appliances sector, I think, understood it a long time ago. In fact, they are essentially globalized without renouncing to interpret specifics characteristics of the local demand. For example, in the United States, market offers ‘extra large’ ovens serving almost only to cook the traditional turkey of the thanksgiving day. It seems irrational but it is not so much, in Italy we buy large fridges with small freezer, because we prefer fresh food.

What has it changed in the design of small appliances, why have they been transformed in status symbols?
Many large multinational companies of major household appliances have invested in recent years in the field of small appliances, stimulated partly by a growing interest of the international public in cuisine, partly conditioned by a basically saturated market. Certainly in this decision there is also the idea of ​​finding turnover margins that, for a long time, seemed to be left to less global businesses. It is natural that the sum of these two evidences have urged companies to invest much in research and construction of prestigious brands with highly qualified and high-end products. In this trend design has played a very important role: the types of small appliances are less frozen, less static. It is natural that design has produced objects formally more characterizing and sometimes innovative, that have become status symbols.