The missing microwaves and countertop kitchen appliances on HGTV

In watching a recent episode of something or other on HGTV, I realized something: very few of the renovated homes featured on the channel have visible microwaves or other kitchen appliances on surfaces.

I suspect this is similar to the clean, open concept kitchen that has no mess: the aesthetic is modern and minimalist. Appliances beyond the stove, refrigerator, and dishwasher (which are often emphasized in discussions and visual shots because of their size and finishes) should be out of sight and avoid cluttering the beautiful surfaces. To some degree, this is common when showing houses that are for sale: the thinking is that people do not want to see the clutter of everyday life.

Yet, I would guess that most American kitchens have plenty of countertop appliances that they regularly use. How many home cooks can survive without a toaster or toaster oven, blender, food processor, mixer, coffee makers, crockpot, and so on? And that does not even include the microwave, an indispensable tool for decades.

I suspect that clearing the countertops for the final reveal of homes is akin to the sketchy before and after shots provided by weight loss products. The difference might look substantial but the image is misleading. Is a clear surface that few people can actually live with really desirable versus a kitchen that displays where people can keep some of the stuff they regularly use? The countertops should not be full of junk but a well-placed appliance can both recognize the realities of most American kitchens and hint to the viewer what is possible in the kitchen.

The popular colors coming to your home: green (it’s healthy), blue (it’s comfortable), grey (fits with stainless steel appliances)

The president of the Color Marketing Group discusses what colors are popular for homes today:

A small example: A while back we looked at the emerging interest (in the United States) in herb gardening, as it moved from suburban yards into urban areas. (We thought consumers) would find themselves relating closer and closer to herbal green colors in general. And yes, there has been an uptick in attraction toward this “healthy” green in the past few years. People find themselves saying, that would be a nice hue for my home.

About a year ago, CMG predicted that blue would dominate color movement for the next several years. This can show up in clothing fairly quickly, but in some industries, such as the auto industry, that can take a few years.

We picked blue to grow because people perceive it as stable and comfortable, reflecting how they’re more likely looking at their world these days. However, tastes in blue are moving away from denim and indigo: The actual CMG color of the year was a midrange one we called Re-Blued, which works with lots of colors of the palette, from warm to cool…

Seriously, though, gray is coming because so many of us have stainless-steel appliances in our kitchens. That has led to a gray movement in the kitchen. It’s in paint, but we see it in cabinets in stains over wood or in painted gray finishes. Or it shows up in accent colors — people look at driftwood gray and say, that’s a color I can live with for a long time. Europeans may change their kitchens every two or three years, but Americans live with their kitchens a lot longer.

Plus, gray is new — it’s a color that’s not anything that a generation before has seen in kitchens.

This is a good reminder of how while homeowners might think their furnishings and design choices are an expression of their individual tastes, choices are often shaped by an industry that wants to sell products and what these products mean. Colors and design choices run in cycles – remember those harvest gold appliances? – but consumers may not be behind much of this.

It is interesting to see green pick up steam because it is perceived as healthy. I wonder of how much this is related to it being natural as well: plants, trees, vegetables, healthy walls.

Why Americans have the world’s largest refrigerators

Move over McMansions, hello world’s largest refrigerators:

Americans have the biggest refrigerators in the world — 17.5 cubic feet of volume on average. The size of our refrigerators is followed closely by Canadians while the rest of the world lags far behind. Since our refrigerators run day and night, they use more energy than any other household appliance, which means their size has ramifications for the planet’s rate of global warming. However, the enormous popularity of refrigerators in the United States is an indicator of the value of refrigeration both for preserving the food we buy and for the convenience that comes when such huge machines are stocked. The fact that we put perishable food in the refrigerator (even sometimes when it doesn’t belong there) suggests that we still remember refrigeration’s most basic advantage: to prevent food from spoiling before we consume it.

While the usefulness of refrigerators explains their prevalence, it does not explain their size. Most people would agree that fresh food tastes better than anything that’s been kept in a refrigerator for even a short amount of time. So why then would anyone want a weeks’ worth of perishable food stored in their kitchen at one time? Are Americans slaves to convenience? While our large refrigerators do limit the number of shopping trips we have to take, they also make it possible for us to consume a much greater variety of foods than we ever did without them in our kitchens…

Because the average American family goes grocery shopping once a week, a gigantic refrigerator is required to keep all the perishables they acquire on that trip. Household refrigerators differ greatly from country to country because the characteristics that citizens in different countries want in their refrigerators are reflections of their cultures so at this point in history once weekly shopping trips is an almost uniquely American habit. While Americans and Canadians want storage capacity, European countries are generally more concerned with energy efficiency or the cost of their operation. Since Americans have always had abundant natural resources (like food), a large refrigerator has become closely identified around the world with the American way of life.

While large refrigerators are a recent development, ice and refrigeration have actually played an oversized role in American culture for a very long time. Before refrigerators, American iceboxes kept our food cold, at least as long as nobody opened them too often. “Who ever heard of an American without an icebox?,” wrote the British travel writer Winifred James in 1914. “It is his country’s emblem. It asserts his nationality as conclusively as the Stars and Stripes afloat from his roof-tree, besides being much more useful in keeping his butter cool.” “The Hard Times Refrigerator,” sold by the Boston Scientific Refrigerator in 1877 for people who were facing difficult economic circumstances was nothing but a wooden chest big enough to store fifty pounds of ice.

It sounds like decisions in American about other areas in life – priority on convenience and having food already at hand, food centers distant from concentrations of population and innovations in transporting cold foods, the suburbs and driving (?) – led to these large refrigerators. I’m not quite sure what prompted this: “Americans had an early collective desire for cold things.” This could be a new rallying cry: “American Exceptionalism: the biggest refrigerators!”

There seems to be a pattern here, especially when compared to the rest of the world: big refrigerators, big houses, big SUVs, Big Gulps, big land mass, big box stores…

The home of the future will be controlled by your smartphone?

A report from CES 2013 suggests the smartphone could unlock the potential of the wired home of the future:

There will be some 24 billion connected devices by 2020. That figure certainly doesn’t seem beyond reach given the number of smartphones out there (300 million shipped in the first half of 2012, according to Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs) and the number of connected devices and appliances seen at CES 2013. The theme of LG’s entire booth, for example, was “Touch the Smart Life.” The Korean company had 20,000 square feet of space dedicated to showing people how appliances that can communicate with the web, and one another, will transform their lives for the better. Dozens, if not hundreds, of other booths stretched across the North and South halls of CES showed how this “world of tomorrow” technology is here now, in everything from web-connected TVs to vacuum cleaners…

Your smartphone or tablet is perhaps the best, most capable and feature-filled TV remote control on the market, if you don’t mind that it doesn’t have easily tappable gummy buttons…

For home appliances, a mix of apps and proximity-based technologies like NFC will let you start your washing machine remotely, give you vital stats about what’s going bad inside your fridge and even check on that roast in the oven…

And whether you’re focused on energy efficiency or just want to set the right mood, your smartphone can take the place of light switches and thermostat buttons — and then some.

In my mind, this seems like a shortcut to the wired home of the future promised decades ago. The best way to do this would seem to be to have everything hardwired: lights, security, sound, etc. Of course, this is best done at the construction of the home as it is cost prohibitive later. This goes a different route: every device has to be wired and then controlled by a central hub. Alas, no indication here about the cost for these upgraded home items or what happens if you lose your smartphone.

I see the benefits of some of these devices. On the other hand, some seem quite frivolous. A vacuum cleaner controllable from your phone? Do consumers need a refrigerator that tells them when food is bad as opposed to being able to look through the refrigerator? In the long run, would these devices save time on housework or give a householder more to keep track of? This was the promise decades ago with new appliances but time spent on housework has not been reduced dramatically.


Mixing genres with Sears’ “Connecting Flight” commercial

The Sears TV commercial running right now titled “Connecting Flights” turns a holiday romantic comedy trailer into an appliance advertisement. Watch here.

My Culture, Media, and Society class recently discussed genres and how they help structure narratives. If you have seen a holiday romantic comedy movie trailer or commercial, you have seen the opening part of this particular advertisement. Two people are trapped at an airport after their flights have been canceled. They meet and start enjoying each other’s company in the airport. Yet, when they finally find flights out, they realize they want to stay together and start running toward each other.

This is where the genre falls apart. Instead of running the arms of the other, each crashes into a stainless steel refrigerator. And it turns into a clear advertisement for Sears. On one hand, it is a smart use of an existing type of cultural work. On the other hand, the ending is so different than the beginning that I wonder how many people like Sears at the end. It is a bait and switch: what happened to the cheesy, feel-good romantic comedy?

In the end, Sears uses an existing narrative form to try to provide a new perspective on appliances, one of the few things Sears now has going for it. But, the contrast in genres, switching so abruptly from holiday romantic comedy to selling home appliances, is jarring.

Home buyers looking for McMansion features

I’ve highlighted the trend toward granite countertops and stainless steel appliances and here is some more evidence of home buyers looking for McMansion features, this time in the Philadelphia area:

Two couples I know are trying to sell city houses they have owned for more than three decades. The houses are historic, and conventional wisdom when they bought them as shells was to restore them without compromising their architectural integrity.

They bought them when they were young, raised their families in them, and now they are ready to move on.

One couple have had their house on the market since April. One of the owners told me prospective buyers seem to want marble bathrooms and gourmet kitchens, which are more suburban McMansion phenomena than urban trends.

“They can go to the home center and get those things,” she said, blaming TV reality shows for the attitude.

Today’s numbers reflect an impasse: Few people are buying, and those who do are paying bottom dollar; most sellers aren’t willing to take less.

Buyers want the best features but want the cheaper price while home sellers have to wrestle with not spending too much money to update in a down market when housing values have dropped.

Can we solely blame TV reality shows for this phenomenon? Here are three other reasons this might be happening:

1. Tastes have gone up and people expect better features in their home. This isn’t just from reality TV: advertising plays a role (similar pitches from the 1950s to today) as do reference groups.

2. More than in the past, home owners don’t have the home repair skills or will to do these repairs. Therefore, they want the sellers to have done this work for them and then don’t want to have to deal with it for a while.

3. It is a buyer’s market and so buyers tend to ask for everything. Many home sellers don’t have much leverage.