Toaster Society by Maggie Appleton
At the back of Van Dijk and Ko’s overstuffed antique store in north Amsterdam, sitting inside a glass-doored cabinet with chipped white paint, I happened upon five retired toasters.
Only four actually looked retired though. The fifth felt youthful and modern. As if hijacked from a nearby IKEA superstore.
It’s not that it looked shiny and unweathered. Quite the opposite. A thin coating of debris and dust dulled the aluminium body. One notable dent marked a side panel. And only three out of four of it’s short plastic feet were left to stand on. Perhaps casualties of the Great Appliance War of 1976.
The toaster was clearly named ‘Elva’ – embossed in a sweeping lettered graphic on one of her sides. (Yes I just subconsciously feminised the toaster. But we all know how that happened. Toasters = kitchens = women belong in kitchens = my problematic association chain is the reason gender discrimination won’t die.)
Her full legal name – ELVA TYPE 1401 – is printed with much less care and consideration on the underside of her base sheet. Elva turns out to mean ‘Eleven’ in Swedish – the native tongue of her designers. (I have yet to figure out the fate of toaster models one through ten.)
She felt familiar, like I’d seen her before. Because I had. Many versions of her genealogical offspring populate Pinterest boards and rank highly in Amazon’s search results. Usually tagged as “cute retro toaster.” It seemed I had stumbled onto an archeological dig site and kicked up their Mitochondrial Eve. She wouldn’t have been so striking without her strange cabinet-mates. These guys were the unfortunate Neanderthals and Homo Habilis’ of toasting appliances. Extinct species that most of us wouldn’t recognise as toasters.
They were awkward triangular prisms that sat upright. Edges and corners poked out from all directions. A baffling mesh of wires and coils weaved through their bodies. There weren’t even visible slots that suggested where you would put the bread in. These alien toasters were speaking a material language I couldn’t decipher. Elva on the other hand, made perfect sense. I knew what all her parts were saying – which end was up, where the bread would or would not fit, how to start the toasting process, and how to end it. So what made Elva feel cute, comfortably familiar, and recognisable as a toaster, when her companions were clearly not?
Beyond simply the arrangement of her functional parts, her aesthetic language is one we’re still speaking today. She comes from a design legacy that we don’t have a neat and concise label for, but is some combination of minimalism, functionalism, and Scandinavian simplicity. She looks like the lovechild of Dieter Rams and the Jetsons – a future-retroist object promising pure capitalist efficiency without sacrificing artistic elegance.
Her streamlined curves evoke the Eames chair and the moon landing pod – every corner and edge perfectly rounded. Even her sides puff out like a little metal pillow. She lacks any sense of danger, edginess, or harshness, and would be a particularly ineffective weapon or child safety hazard.
Suffice it to say that all this smoothness and unity carries an ideological agenda – the form our objects inhabit is never historically neutral. There is no one enduring and inevitable way to design a toaster. Elva’s designers created her in the context of a very particular time and place. As best the internet can tell me, that moment was between 1955 and 1960 in the Bromma district of Stockholm, Sweden. Designers at the Elvarme AB company – meaning “Electrical Heating AB” – manufactured her on site. A prime location for those modern midcentury design sensibilities. It’s no wonder they hopped on the bandwagon of making consumer goods that feel organic, mimicking the seamless qualities of nature. You can see it in all the ways they tried to hide suggestions of human manufacturing on Elva.
Her joints and grooves are tucked inside the curves. Her seams are neatly masked. Her only visible screws are stashed on the bottom panel. Her hard edges and ninety degree angles are downplayed. Any signs of production and assembly are treated as shameful evidence that we had to put her together in a grubby, soot-coated, clanking mechanical factory. Instead of nourishing and cultivating her in a wide, undulating field of silvery organic appliances.
For all our anthropocentrism and self-congratulatory parading about the marvels of modern engineering, our design trends often reveal a serious inferiority complex around human-made objects.
While Elva’s creators saw her as an expression of design trends and philosophies, her original owners would have felt quite differently about our little toaster.
Sixty years ago it was extravagant to own a machine entirely for toasting bread. Elva would have been a luxury commodity and a signifier of affluence. Looking at her now, I don’t get a overwhelming sense of grandeur. Yet I can’t help but imagine how powerful and proud her original family felt when they brought her home. Was she a significant event that justified inviting the neighbours over to subtly show her off? Did she embody a sense of modernism, future optimism, and cultural advancement? Were they overwhelmed by their newfound ability to make breakfast in less than 3 minutes? No toaster would enjoy that fanfare nowadays. We no longer understand the privilege of owning an object entirely for toasting bread. They sit quietly in the kitchen corner, unappreciated – treated as cheap banal appliances stuffed between the microwave and the kettle. We forget all the ways that toasters give us social power.
Toaster power mostly comes from time. Specifically, saving time. People who own toasters are in the time-saving game. Which means they must be busy and important people. Or have a strong interest in looking like busy and important people. Busy and important people cannot spend 30 minutes wrestling with stovetops, saucepans, sausages, and scrambled eggs every morning. Toasters give them 27 minutes of those minutes back. Given their fast-paced lifestyle, these people also need breakfast with a portability factor. You cannot balance a heap of jam or a whole scrambled egg on a limp piece of bread while running out the door to your Very Important Job. Which is why we invented toast.
What goes into our toasters matters even more than the toaster itself. The bread we choose to toast comes with a strong sense of social stratification. Browning a home-made slice of sourdough marks your identity in a very different way to toasting a pop-tart – although I’d like to think Elva has been spared the horror of ever having a pop-tart stuffed into her.
Mostly because Europe was pop-tart-free until the early 2000’s, well past her working days. But on principal Elva is too sophisticated for pop-tarting. Only the true dregs of toaster society have to make pop-tarts. They’re the same ones who never have the crumbs swept out from underneath them. And off-brand strawberry jam from last Tuesday is still splattered down their sides.
Peeking down into Elva’s open bread slots, looking for signs of left-behind crumbs, I have to wonder what kind of slices she has seen. In my wildly biased assumptions I see her popping out the high class breads of her time – pure virginal white slices made from bleached, sieved flour. Cleansed of any wheat husks or contaminating seeds – icky signs of nature. They would come smoothly cut and wrapped in plastic, straight from the magical, scalable efficiency of modern machines. Brought home in the backseat of a classy little Volvo. Back before that all became a nutritional moral sin.
If she were still plugged in today, she would instead be handling only organic, artisan, ethically-sourced, gluten-free, buckwheat rye. Topped with a ripe avocado and sprinkled with chia seeds.
In the end, I didn’t buy Elva. Because a broken toaster is a broken toaster. But I did appreciate her. She’s one of those few objects that beautifully captures our penchant for instant convenience, delightful interaction, mass produced commodity, and playful utility – all in one small, well-designed metal hunk.