Hugh Pearman: New idiot-proof design

Why are all our domestic appliances getting bigger? Hugh Pearman asks if the need to build safe, foolproof products is overriding efficient product design

Let us consider, as a near-ubiquitous domestic gadget, the toaster. Not for its primitive technology – toasting bread is not the most challenging task for a machine. Not for its styling – curvy or square, and that’s about it, apart from agonising over whether to finish it in chrome, stainless steel, or colour. No, let’s consider the one truly astonishing thing in the evolution of the toaster: its size.

Toasters are now huge, and it is not immediately clear why. Bread has not got bigger – though some varieties have got thicker. But the standard gauge of a bread product has remained the same for years. Once the ‘thick ‘n’ thin’ mechanism was perfected years ago, there was nowhere much else for toasters to go. Except outwards. So they did that.

This fascinates me, as my old toaster – a Seymour Powell design for Tefal, back when it was doing rectilinear things rather than curvy things – has packed up again. I’ve had it repaired in the past, but I’ve noticed that the cost of repairing a toaster is close to the cost of buying a new one. So that’s what I’m going to do. If I can find one small enough.

Try it yourself. Go to John Lewis, Curry’s, anywhere. Look for what you expect to be a handbag-sized object, then jump back with amazement as you realise someone has put toasters on steroids. They are the size of your old computer monitor – the one you thankfully replaced with an LCD flat screen just as soon as the price fell low enough. Mobile phones may now be no larger than anchovies, palmtop computers need cocktail sticks to operate the tiny keys, but nobody told toasters that things were getting smaller. Toasters just grew.

What else has done this? Cars have. They’ve got bigger and bigger. Do not be fooled by over-designerly exercises such as the Smart car. The Smart car has only two seats, and no boot. The new Mini is more like it – a hulking thing, compared to the original created by Sir Alec Issigonis. Or any of the latest multi-purpose vehicles – which are astonishingly inefficient spacewise compared to the original Volkswagen microbus. Take the biggest, bulkiest MPV of all, the Chrysler Grand Voyager and weep at its wanton disregard of basic packaging skills. It’s the size of a tennis court, it consumes as much fuel as the Ark Royal, and you can just about squeeze in seven people if they’re not carrying much.

I know what you’re going to say: ‘It’s safety’. The original Mini and Microbus were tin cans on wheels. They had no crumple zones, side impact bars or airbags – nothing that may help you survive a shunt. And basic seats. So how is it that, given today’s regulations, it is still possible for Giorgetto Giugiaro to produce such a miracle of automotive packaging as the tiny Daewoo Matiz – a five-door five-seater the size of a little mouse or topolino, as the Italians say? It’s not allowed to be unsafe. Yet it is both tiny and capacious. So it must be well designed.

This brings me back to toasters. Again, it’s easy to ascribe some of their bulk to safety requirements. Toasters these days are ‘coolwall’ toasters. This means they do not burn you if you touch their flanks. Of course, when toasters used to get hot all over, you took care not to touch them in the wrong places, ditto kettles and irons. But this active safety business – call it common sense – will no longer do. We must have passive safety. We must all be presumed to be dangerous idiots. Have you noticed, by the way, how massive irons have become?

I don’t believe the safety excuse. I’m sure they don’t have to be this bulky. Toasters are in a price-competitive market. To make toasters genuinely better would make them cost more, and that – away from the value-added ‘designer’ end of the market – would never do. This is also why toasters, though now enormous, are so egregiously flimsy. They join all the other steadily paunchier worktop electrical goods – ever-beefier blenders, colossal cappuccino machines, ginormous juicers – which mean there will soon be no top left to work.

Yet, somewhere out there must be toast’s equivalent of Giugiaro. Someone who can package the thing right, use some interesting materials, try some less bulky components, achieve coolness by means other than double-skinned bulk, generally think from the inside out. Actually, I have seen just such a thing: a compact, clever, hi-tech, functional prototype. It was at the Royal College of Art degree show a couple of years back. Later, I called to ask what had become of the designer in question. I was told he had gone to work for a Mr James Dyson.

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