The great kitchen debate, its really about the shelf

The modern kitchen is a 20th century invention, evolving inexorably from the utilitarian to the extravagant. Until very recently, the same evolution has not taken place with most household products, often hidden embarrassingly, deep within in its cabinets.

It started with simple things like water, electricity, and gas. And then evolved quickly into a space with built-in appliances, convenient gadgets, and integrated storage. Now, as part of the “Greatroom” it has morphed into the center of the modern household.

The photo above shows two rows of images. In the top row are objects that are part of a current show at the MOMA called, Counter Space, Design and the Modern Kitchen. It reviews the evolution of the kitchen and a myriad of objects designed for it. As the MOMA site points out,

“Previously hidden from view in a basement or annex, the kitchen became a bridgehead of modern thinking in the domestic sphere—a testing ground for new materials, technologies, and power sources, and a spring board for the rational reorganization of space and domestic labor within the home . . . kitchens have continued to articulate, and at times actively challenge, our relationship to the food we eat, popular attitudes toward the domestic role of women, family life, consumerism,”

In most contemporary floor plans, the kitchen is celebrated, not hidden. With its gleaming surfaces of granite and stainless steel, it has become a trophy of the modern home.

Along the way our cousins, the industrial designers, have taken an integral role in this evolution, refining the concept and developing the experience, in much the same way they did with the automobile. What was a smoky, slow, exhausting experience in 1910 (both for the car and the kitchen) has evolved a century later into a supremely refined, and for most, even pleasant environment.

The same cannot be said for the household products, used in and around those kitchens. Most look like they are still being designed for the “basement or annex”. To call most of these brand identities utilitarian would be a compliment. And consumers have gotten used to numbly holding their nose and hiding their eyes when using them. Unlike the tableware, cookware, and small appliances that are proudly displayed in most kitchens, our work his hidden in disdain.

The Culprit
The need for strong retail display, at the exclusion of all other elements of a product lifecycle, has been the culprit. And the rabid belief that shelf impact is the only measure of a package and a brand’s success. But times are changing. Marketers are realizing that consumer relationships with their brands are built one moment and one experience at a time, and they need to “fit” within all moments of a person’s lifestyle.

It has taken most consumer product companies a long time to figure out how to design packages that are relevant for all phases of that relationship, not just sitting boldly on the shelf.

The bottom row of images shows just a quick sample of some household products, starting with a Borax soapbox from 1910 and ends with a method soap bottle from 2010.

It seems to me that most product designers, who created objects for the kitchen, got the concept very early. They knew instinctively they were building and supporting a lifestyle, and an evolving experience in the kitchen, as evidenced by the images on the top row spanning the same period of time.

Throughout most of the 20th century, package designers, and the marketers they served, were holding doggedly to the notion that shelf presence equaled brand value.

The Solution
Now brand value is being measured in radical new ways, and marketers and package designers are using tools and technologies never before available to look at these new relationships.

Simply stated, what our clients are finding, and what the method bottle demonstrates so well, is that a brand must complement a person’s view of their whole lifestyle, on the shelf at home, not just on the shelf at Stop & Shop.

The top row of the picture above contains images from the MOMA collection, and are as follows,
Peter Behrens, Electric Kettle, 1909
Theodor Bogler, Kitchen storage Pot, 1923
Corning Glass Works, Frying Pan, 1942
Kenneth Brozen, Serving Bowl, 1963
Smart Design, Good Grips Peeler, 1989


About Richard Shear

designer, husband, teacher, blogger, father, athlete, author, historian Richard has over 25 years of brand identity and package design experience, with a wide range of clients such as Ahold, Coca-Cola, Hasbro, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Pernod Ricard and Procter & Gamble. He began his career working with the legendary advertising art director, and AIGA Medalist, George Lois and the British design manager Clive Chajet. In his next design management position at Lippincott & Margulies, he worked with Walter Margulies learning the complex skills of global corporate identity. He then became Creative Director and Partner at Peterson & Blyth, one of the premier brand identity and package design firms of the time. He is a founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding Program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He publishes the blog The Package Unseen, and has been a guest lecturer at colleges including FIT, Trinity College and Tyler School of Art. He is a graduate of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Richard is a Board member of the AIGA MetroNorth Chapter, past President of AIGA‘s Brand Design Association, President of the Package Design Council and a member of its Board of Directors. He is a member of USA Cycling and US Rowing, a nationally ranked masters bicycle racer, and a member of The Saugatuck Rowing Club, the 2010 Masters Club National Champion.
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