THE DISAPPEARANCE OF THE FRIDGE: Camouflage and Obsolescence in the Kitchen

Behold the glorious modern kitchen! Sparkling countertops, high-tech materials, and majestic range hoods: it’s all the industrial appeal you can imagine! The appliances are all energy efficient, the custom cabinets have a space for every gadget, and only the food stands out against all this heavy-duty stainless steel. But wait. Where is the refrigerator? Ah, maybe it’s here split up between drawers and hidden behind doors that match the rest of the casework. Or maybe it’s not here at all, and instead this kitchen includes an iGreen system by Veneta Cucine, a kitchen concept using built-in trays under the countertop to hold fresh produce. Do tell, where have all the fridges gone?

Take a step back to a time when the fridge had not yet been born. Before mechanical refrigeration systems were introduced, food was cooled and preserved with ice and snow, either found locally or brought down from the mountains. The first refrigeration cellars were holes dug into the ground and lined with wood or straw and packed with snow and ice: this was the only means of refrigeration for most of history. But then, in the 1860’s, the commercial icemaker was invented, making ice more widely available. This innovation created a new desire to store the ice indoors and to put it into a container where it could keep perishables cool: the icebox. Iceboxes were often made of wood, probably for ease of construction, insulation, and aesthetics. Some were even made into beautiful pieces of furniture.

Just a bit earlier, in 1834, American physician John Gorrie built an air-cooling device to help patients with yellow fever. By compressing a gas, sending it through radiating coils to cool it, and then expanding the gas to lower the temperature further, Gorrie conceived a system that is very similar to how refrigerators and air conditioners function today. Gorrie received the first U.S. patent for mechanical refrigeration in 1851. In addition, in 1859, Frenchman Ferdinand Carré developed a new machine that used rapidly expanding ammonia, which liquefies at a much lower temperature than water and is able to absorb more heat. As a result of breakthroughs like these and the effects of warm winters in 1889 and 1890, refrigeration was becoming more desirable.

Domestic refrigerators were introduced in the U.S. in 1916, for about $900 per unit. (Consider that a brand-new Model T was about $850 at this time.) Soon after, manufacturers like General Electric and General Motors, the parent company of Frigidaire, decided to get into the business of making refrigerators, going electric, and selling them at a price that more households could afford. Like the stove, the fridge form evolved from a piece of furniture with curved and filigreed legs to a branded white box; streamlining modified its hulking physique. Monitor tops, the Servel (1916), the Kelvinator (the first with automatic controls in 1918), the Sears Coldspot (1928 debut) came to the market; new styles of refrigerators continued to emerge. By 1920, more than 200 refrigerator models were on the market, and by 1937, more than two million Americans owned refrigerators. Planned obsolescence became part of the refrigerator cycle. Like automobiles, the latest models were most desirable. Refrigerators started to be made in a variety of colors and arrangements. Women working during World War II returned home and to their kitchens after the war with new expectations for their home work spaces.

Enter: the refrigerator gadget and components. First came cold compartments for ice cube trays in the 1920s. Although Clarence Birdseye invented the double belt freezer in 1928, freezers didn’t become a part of the refrigerator unit until G.E. invented the refrigerator/freezer combination in 1939. By 1947, G.E. was making a two-door refrigerator/freezer combination unit. Next came automatic defrosters and icemakers, in the 1950s and 60s. Soon icemakers and chilled water moved into the door, making iced drinks and cocktails just a press and a click away.

Taking the customizable fridge/freezer relationship into the future, Sub-Zero sprang from Westye Bakke’s Madison, Wisconsin basement to his two-car garage, then to post-WWII kitchens as the first branded premium built-in unit with a dual refrigeration system. The customizable aspect of Sub-Zero models made it possible for these fridges to blend into their kitchen surroundings, leading to the seeming disappearance of our fridges today. Today’s architects and builders still often consider Sub-Zero to be top-of-the-line. The company has developed several series of under counter and integrated models as well as wine chillers, all available in a range of configurations (freezer drawers, refrigerator drawers, refrigerator above freezer units, etc.)

Today’s fridge gadgets and gizmos have joined the information age. As kitchens are filling with smart appliances, it seems the fridge has a new personality. In her essay about the refrigerator, Akiko Busch points out in The Uncommon Life of Common Objects, “…I wonder if this is why words and refrigerators are so innately connected, and why we are so compelled to give this appliance a voice of its own.” A desire for the smart fridge is growing; desire is building for a fridge that knows when the milk is gone and can put it on the grocery list or even order more for delivery. Electrolux introduced the Multimedia Managing Service or MMS concept fridge in 2003 and G.E. introduced their Smart Fridge with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) in 2007. LG Electronics and Samsung had their own versions, too, but none of these intelligent appliances are priced low enough to put them into every household just yet.

Speaking of smart fridges, there’s another kind of smart in town: sustainability. Energy consumption is a huge consideration when choosing a fridge. On average, Americans consume 1,462 kWh annually for refrigeration. New refrigerators have much lower energy consumption, such as the Panasonic NR-B301G or NR-B202G that use as few as 196 kWh, but the average age of the refrigerator in most households is 5 to 9 years, so it will be some time before the benefits of lower-energy models will really make a difference in overall consumption.

Get this! 99.5% American households have a fridge. Although it may seem surprising, it makes sense—in many respects, the fridge represents the kitchen. Think about the contents of hotel rooms—most guest chambers have a mini-bar or a small stocked fridge. It seems the fridge is now also a travel necessity. Now consider this: about 17% of American households have two or more refrigerators. That’s right—one refrigerator is not enough! And to add to the consumption due to this phenomenon, the second fridge in these households is often an even bigger energy user; they tend to be 10 to 19 years old.

It’s no wonder that fridge life is being reconsidered. It turns out the Sub-Zero fridges not only integrate well into the kitchen terrains, but they are also quite energy efficient. The company claims their fridges use less energy than a 100-watt light bulb. According to their website, their energy consumption ranges from 337 to 652 kWh per year—not too bad for a big, badass, blending-in fridge. Plus, for stateside residents, it’s nice to know they’re made in the U.S. and they don’t have to travel overseas to get to American destinations (saving fuel).

But for some, this is not enough. New fridges are expensive, Sub-Zeros are still top-shelf and pricey. So, what is one to do if they want to consume and pay less? For some eco-conscious individuals and families, there is a movement to unplug the fridge. Not just to defrost, but for good. And most of these folks aren’t suffering from being fridge-less. They’re learning something that most Americans who have lived their whole lives with refrigerators have difficulty understanding: shelf life of food.

Many questions emerge: what are they eating? How do they store milk? What do they miss from their days with fridges? Rachel Muston in Ottawa, Canada admits she spends more time cooking and eats fewer prepared foods, but her husband misses instant cold beers in the evening (he has to put them into a cooler with ice for an hour to achieve the desired result), but overall they seem to do just fine without the appliance. No-fridge-advocates are busy trading food storage ideas, trying to bring the milkman back to life, and recognizing fridge-less celebrities like Colin Beavan—a.k.a. No Impact Man—who stopped using a refrigerator during a year in which he tried to have no impact on the environment. Terms like BE (Before Electricity) are emerging in the lexicon of the fridge-free, as they recognize that people seemed to do just fine before the refrigerator existed.

Is this just romance for getting back to nature or technological regression? Probably neither. This shift is just smart. In fact, it’s a wonder that more energy consuming devices aren’t getting the same reconsideration. Questioning accepted concepts like the ubiquitous-ness of the usual appliances in the kitchen ought to be welcomed. Not every household needs a giant refrigerator, stove with four burners, an oven, a dishwasher, and a microwave. This isn’t to say everyone should go trash his or her kitchen appliances right now: but it does mean it’s time for revolution in kitchen culture. And it sounds like it’s already happening.

According to The New York Times article from February 5, 2009:

“PEOPLE who do best without a refrigerator often have certain built-in lifestyle advantages — they live alone and don’t have to cook large meals for a family, say, or they live on a farm or within walking distance of a grocery store. In the case of Duncan Campbell, who has been living happily without a fridge for three years, it was the food he was used to eating.”

Maybe it’s not for everyone, but it’s not impossible either. Think about New Yorkers: many households are single people or couples and most live within walking distance from a grocery store. Sounds like NYC could be the place to reduce fridge usage. Or at least the size of fridges.

So, what does this mean for technology and design? Will designers play a role in this counter culture? Indeed they can—and some are. As an example, take a look at the iGreen by the Italian kitchen company Veneta Cucine. This kitchen concept is a system of baskets and trays made of wood and biodegradable plastics for storing produce, promoting a well-designed fridge-free lifestyle. This may not be the complete answer, but it’s nice to see such activity within the world of a sleek kitchen cabinet manufacturer’s body of work.

It’s not the end of the fridge, as some may fear. It took so long to get to a point in history when the fridge became a part of the civilized culture. But it’s always possible to improve our lifestyles. In an age when energy consumption is a concern for many, it makes sense that the use of any appliance would fall into question. It only took one century to invent the fridge and put it in millions of American households. Compared to all the years humans lived without mechanical refrigeration, this is a testament to the spread of revolution; it can happen again. Plus, this also points to the obvious fact that the fridge is not necessary for life—it’s an appliance of convenience. Albeit an important one.

So, live it up! Bring in the glossy recycled materials and the fresh countertops. Install more shelves and drawers for produce. Or efficient under-cabinet freezer drawers. Employ a mini fridge that blends into the rest of the domestic factory. Try out the new goods or do without. Want a giant dishwasher? How about a shrunken stove? Or an enlarged pancake griddle? It’s time to ponder how the sleekness of the modern kitchen can make anything possible, even reduction.

*****

Here’s some shelf life info from Greenpa of “Little Blog in the Big Woods:”

Butter/margarine – shelf life about 2 weeks
Eggs -shelf life at least a week
Cheese – keep covered, shelf life variable–taste when unrefrigerated hugely better
Ketchup/mustard – shelf life – forever
Honey – shelf life – forever
Onions/garlic – shelf life – 2 weeks
Tomatoes – shelf life – 4 days
Cabbage – shelf life – 1 week
Cooking oil – shelf life – months
Peanut butter – shelf life – months

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