Seeing kitchens of the future on TV and in movies

A look at the evolution of modern kitchens in the middle of the 20th century includes one paragraph on how the new kitchens ended up in the media:

Midcentury movies, TV shows, and cartoons are loaded with examples of Rube Goldberg–like futuristic kitchens that automated cooking and cleaning tasks, sometimes to an absurd degree. The Hanna-Barbera cartoon The Jetsons debuted on ABC in 1962, portraying a nuclear family living in mid-twenty-first-century Orbit City. The Jetson family—husband and wife George and Jane, son and daughter Elroy and Judy—lived as a typical early 1960s family would have. Jane was a housewife, and George worked (just a few hours per week, it’s noted) for a company called Spacely Space Sprockets. The Jetsons had a robot maid named Rosey, who wore an old-fashioned black-and-white maid’s uniform, and zipped around the Jetson household on a set of wheels. The Jetsons’ kitchen was like a futuristic version of the Horn and Hardart Automat, where customers could select meals and desserts from behind little glass doors. A device called the Food-a-Rac-a-Cycle offered tried and true dishes like Irish stew, beef Stroganoff, prime rib, pizza, and fried chicken on demand.

Perhaps the book says more about the mass media depictions of kitchens around this time – there is certainly no shortage of scholarly work on the TV shows and films of the postwar era, the time when more and more Americans moved to the suburbs and encountered new kitchens as well as new ideals about how kitchens should look and be used.

But, this paragraph does not give us the full picture of what kitchens looked like on television and in movies. Instead, we hear about lots of examples and one specific example from The Jetsons. Just how many depicted kitchens at the time actually had “futuristic kitchens”? And were these futuristic kitchens popular (part of popular television shows and movies) or influential (tastes changed because of the depictions)? This is less clear.

Indeed, as I suspect this book would argue, how exactly the modern kitchen evolved is a complex tale. This is true for many social phenomena as rarely can one firm or design or product upend everything. And accounting for changing tastes is quite difficult.

“The New Elitists” are cultural omnivores

A sociologist writes an op-ed in the New York Times discussing one of the more interesting findings in cultural sociology from the last two decades: upper-class people tend to be cultural omnivores.

You can tell a lot about people by looking at their music collections. Some have narrow tastes, mostly owning single genres like rap or heavy metal. Others are far more eclectic, their collections filled with hip-hop and jazz, country and classical, blues and rock. We often think of such differences as a matter of individual choice and expression. But to a great degree, they are explained by social background. Poorer people are likely to have singular or “limited” tastes. The rich have the most expansive.

We see a similar pattern in other kinds of consumption. Think of the restaurants cherished by very wealthy New Yorkers. Masa, where a meal for two can cost $1,500, is on the list, but so is a cheap Sichuan spot in Queens, a Papaya Dog and a favorite place for a slice. Sociologists have a name for this. Today’s elites are not “highbrow snobs.” They are “cultural omnivores.”

Omnivorousness is part of a much broader trend in the behavior of our elite, one that embraces diversity. Barriers that were once a mainstay of elite cultural and educational institutions have been demolished. Gone are the quotas that kept Jews out of elite high schools and colleges; inclusion is now the norm. Diverse and populist programming is a mainstay of every museum. Elites seem more likely to confront snobbish exclusion than they are to embrace it…

And so if elites have a culture today, it is a culture of individual self-cultivation. Their rhetoric emphasizes such individualism and the talents required to “make it.” Yet there is something pernicious about this self-presentation. The narrative of openness and talent obscures the bitter truth of the American experience. Talents are costly to develop, and we refuse to socialize these costs. To be an outstanding student requires not just smarts and dedication but a well-supported school, a safe, comfortable home and leisure time to cultivate the self. These are not widely available. When some students struggle, they can later tell the story of their triumph over adversity, often without mentioning the helping hand of a tutor. Other students simply fail without such expensive aids.

In an information age and knowledge economy, cultural capital matters. As Khan points out, cultural capital isn’t randomly distributed in society. Whether the upper classes acquire this capital through early advantages (as discussed by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers) or parenting styles (as discussed by Annette Lareau in Unequal Childhoods) or educational systems (as discussed by Pierre Bourdieu in Distinction), this is not simply a matter of taste as it can be parlayed into other forms of capital.

The rise of granite countertops

I’ve written about this before but more people are also interested in this topic: what is behind the rise in popularity of granite countertops?

“What’s interesting is how granite has quickly become the one and only material, across the country and across all price points,” says Ron Cathell, a real estate agent in Northern Virginia. It used to be a high-end thing, back in the 1990s when these countertops began making appearances. It was aspirational. “Then, 12 years ago, the first sort of moderately priced homes started using it. Now, every home has to have granite if you want to sell it. Not just sell it, but rent it. It’s become such a thing. It’s almost — ” he searches for the right metaphor. “It’s almost like trying to sell a house without a toilet.”

As the price has gone down, the popularity has gone up; just look at the graph provided by StoneUpdate.com, a Web site dedicated to the natural stone industry. In 2000, 895,000 metric tons of granite slabs were imported to the United States. In 2011, that number was 1.43 million — and that’s down from a high of 2.64 million a few years ago. The recession slowed granite sales — even cheap granite, which can be bought for as low as about $30 a square foot. Less cheap can go for $80, or however much you’re willing to spend, really. The backsplash is the limit.

“Let’s get deep, let’s get psychological,” says Anthony Carino. Carino is the co-host of “Kitchen Cousins,” a renovation show on HGTV, the network that taught the world about recessed lighting and radiant heating, that democratized the stainless steel appliance so it could be enjoyed by New Yorkers and North Dakotans alike. HGTV is the land that viewers visit when they are trying to cultivate a personal design aesthetic by spying on what everyone else is doing. “People wanting granite countertops is people wanting to sound like they know what they’re talking about,” Carino says. “It’s like listening to two guys talk about hot-rod cars.”

I would argue that this is not psychological – it is sociological. Granite countertops are in for three big reasons:

1. It signals something about its owners. Perhaps it is that they have the money (a marker of social class). Perhaps it is because they have the right taste (though whether it is about aesthetics or being functional would be interesting to look at). Perhaps it is because they are smart enough to get behind the latest trend (#2 on this list).

2. It is what is popular now, thanks to HGTV and other outlets. People want what is popular, partly because they don’t want to be left behind (like having Harvest Gold appliances) and partly because of #3.

3. It helps a home sell. Add stainless steel appliances and decent cabinets and you have a kitchen that is ready to help sell the house.

People internalize these important factors and then make a decision whether to purchase granite countertops or not.

A few other things intrigue me:

1. Are granite countertops “green” or “sustainable”? Does it matter?

2. I’ve seen a few references here and there to a backlash against people who buy this. One referred to purchasers as the “granite and stainless set.” Will this grow into a bigger movement and/or how long will the granite countertop popularity last?

3. Is part of the appeal the natural nature of granite? Although one could argue that it is strange to bring a big slab of rock into your gleaming kitchen…it makes for an odd mix of modern machines and prehistoric rock.

4. How do people sell other countertop surfaces these days if granite is so popular? Besides price, what is the sales pitch for something else?

Also, Megan McArdle recent wondered why people purchase stainless steel appliances.

h/t Instapundit

No sociological explanations for “the year of the sitcom”?

A critic suggests we don’t need big sociological explanations to understand why television viewers have returned to sitcoms:

For the Chinese, this is the Year of the Rabbit; to the Jews, it’s 5772. And for journalists covering the TV business? That’s simple: It’s the Year of the Sitcom! Early coverage of the 2011–12 small screen season’s winners and losers has understandably focused on the fact that comedies such as New Girl, Suburgatory, and 2 Broke Girls seem to be doing far better than other kinds of programming this fall. This is what those of us who cover entertainment call a “trend,” and as such, we feel a profound professional responsibility to dig deep and search our souls for the answers: Why laughter? Why now? This will almost certainly result in a dramatic uptick in articles featuring sprawling sociological theories supported by quotes from ubiquitous TV historian Robert J. Thompson and all manner of Hollywood insiders: People want to laugh in a down economy! Comedies only take 30 minutes to watch, and we’re all too busy for dramas! We’ve found a funnier, totally new way to make comedies that’s unlike anything you’ve seen before! But no matter how intelligently the stories are written, or how wise the talking heads doing the explaining might be, the bottom line about TV’s alleged sitcom renaissance is much simpler. It’s just not nearly as interesting…

To understand what’s happening with comedies right now, consider how things often work in the movie business. After X-Men hit big in 2000, Hollywood decided to make Spider-Man and many, many more superhero movies. After audiences demonstrated a willingness to watch girls be gross in Bridesmaids, you could almost hear studio bosses shouting from their offices, “Get me the next Kristen Wiig!” TV is no different; it can just react to trends more quickly. And so, when ABC’s Modern Family rocketed on to TV in 2009, networks suddenly started feeling sitcoms might be worth the risk again, as co-creator Steve Levitan told Variety last summer. “My guess is that programmers see the success of a show like Modern Family and it gives them the impetus, the appetite to program more comedies,” he told the industry trade. This is why, post-MF, CBS decided to roll the dice and try half-hours on Thursdays; Fox chose to double down its efforts at finding live-action laughers by launching an hour-long post-Glee sitcom block; and this fall, new sitcom blocks have popped up on both Tuesdays (ABC) and Wednesdays (NBC). All told, that’s eight new half-hour slots for comedy to try to gain a foothold with viewers. Since TV types love talking in sports metaphors, put it this way: More at-bats generally result in more runners getting on base, and with a little luck, more runs scored. Likewise, while producing lots and lots of comedies is no guarantee of success (NBC once programmed a massive eighteen sitcoms one fall), you’re almost certainly going to up the odds of finding worthwhile new comedies by aggressively playing the game rather than sitting on the bench and hoping reality shows get you the win…

Bottom line? There may be no grand logic behind why sometimes we watch a lot of comedies and other times we waste our time on reality shows or obsess over the personal lives of melodramatic medical practitioners. And often it’s just a matter of finding the right balance of numbers of shows (a glut is a glut) and networks figuring out the best way to schedule them. So let’s all resist the urge to make up sociological or economic explanations for the sitcom’s resurgence. (Thereby freeing up Robert J. Thompson’s day: Hey, Bob, why don’t you and Paul Dergarabedian go whale watching? You deserve a break from all the quoting!) Yes, these are tough times, but they do not necessarily make people more eager to laugh: In boom times, do people come home and say, “I’ve been smiling all day and I’m tired of it: give me something dour to balance me out!” They do not. And viewers are not being lured back by new innovations in comedy: Sure, Zooey Deschanel is a unique personality, but Two and a Half Men remains top-rated, and that’s just The Odd Couple with more erection jokes. (Though who could forget the Odd Couple classic, “Felix gets his junk caught in his tie-clip case”?) As ever, trends are just another way of saying that success breeds imitation, whether it’s comedies, dramas, movies, or Angus hamburgers — available for a limited time only!

A few thoughts:

1. So the best explanation is that TV networks have simply put more sitcoms out there and several have caught on? This Moneyball-esque explanation (you are bound to have more hit shows if you simply put more out there!) could have some merit. Think about the music, movie, book publishing, and TV industries. The companies behind the products have little idea which particular products will prove successful and so they throw all sorts of options at the public. To have a successful year within each industry, only a few of these products have to have spectacular success. Essentially, these few popular ones can subsidize the rest of the industry. There is no magic formula for writing a successful sitcom, movie, book, or album so companies throw a lot of products at the wall and see what sticks.

2. A note: those people peddling “sprawling sociological theories” sound like they are not sociologists but rather “pop sociologists.” To really get at this issue, we would have to compare success of different genres over time to try to see if there is a relationship between genre and social circumstances at the time. Yes, I agree that people can be quick to find big explanations for new phenomena…and do so without consulting any data. Knee-jerk reactions are not too helpful.

3. At the same time, one might argue that the tastes of the public guided or at least prompted by some of these sociological factors. While there are no set formulas, won’t “good shows” win out? Not in all circumstances – think of the “critical darlings” versus those that end up being popular. Perhaps we need to ask a different question: how do shows become popular? What kind of marketing campaigns pull people in and how does effective “word of mouth” spread?

Evaluating Scottie Pippen as “window into your [pro basketball] soul”

I recently had a discussion with a colleague about Scottie Pippen, who is entering the Basketball Hall of Fame. My colleague, a long-time Detroit Pistons fan, could not help himself from laughing when I suggested that Pippen was one of the best 25 NBA players of all-time. Miffed, I used my own years of watching Pippen play for the Bulls, Bill Simmons’ ranking in The Book of Basketball (these rankings were the best part of the book – Simmons has Pippen at #24), and stats from basketball-reference.com to make my argument.

Apparently this interaction was not as isolated as I thought. Kevin Arnovitz at Truehoop writes that Pippen was a polarizing player and “how you feel about Scottie Pippen is window into to your soul as a fan of the pro game.”

Differences in fashion tastes across American cities

The Wall Street Journal reports on fashion differences across large American cities. The findings are based on the analysis of luxury spending by several different retailers. Some of the findings:

Southerners bought more white, green, and pink than other regions’ residents, for instance, according to data from private-sale site Hautelook.com, which caters to young, urban professional women…

Though Dallas has a flashy, big-spending image, the average woman there spends less on fashion than one in notoriously frumpy Washington, D.C., according to fashion website ShopItToMe.com…

And despite the fashion press’s obsession with J. Crew, the company is among the top five brands only in New York City and Boston…

So while there are national media outlets and national retail stores that promote their own tastes and lines, there are also regional tastes that shoppers follow. Who sets these regional tastes? Who or what, for example, helps shoppers make decisions in places like Detroit and St. Louis so that their fashion tastes differ from New York or Chicago? Local culture plays some role but how does it translate into fashion choices?