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.
The Bassinet by Fem Mei Sim
‘The Bassinet’ by Fern Mei Sim
I round the corner of the Van Dijk & Ko antique warehouse and come across a bassinet sitting on the concrete floor. Its curving wicker exterior immediately transports me to back to Malaysia: I am six years old again and visiting my grandma. Back then, I would struggle into her large bamboo chairs and play with the cane reeds that bound them together. Inevitably, I would sweat in the oppressive South East Asian humidity, and my thighs would painfully stick to the seat, the wicker’s creaking canes carving scarlet indents into my skin.
My research task at hand brings my mind back to present-day Amsterdam and I notice that this bassinet is crafted differently to my grandma’s chairs: its surface is far more forgiving and bound in soft braided raffia.
A quick scroll through the white suburban mums of Pinterest traces the bassinet’s vintage wicker style to early 20th Century Holland. The cradle’s boat-shaped exterior is constructed with cane reeds that bend like loosely coalescing tree branches or slackened sailor’s knots. Inside, its soft cushion is covered in red and white striped cotton, and below, its stand is sturdy on four legs.
I wonder why such an ornate bassinet sits childless in a dusty antique warehouse, rather than cosied in a nursery.
A few splinters and loose strands of raffia suggest that it once carried a child… So where are they now? Have they grown up? Do they have children of their own? Why wasn’t the bassinet passed on to younger family members or friends?
I look around the room and notice a rusty red basketball hoop sitting nearby. Perhaps both items were owned, and since discarded, by the same child? Or maybe, they were just props on a film/theatre set, just like the lights, reflectors, and reels of film sitting behind them. I ask a shop attendant as he passes by and he reveals that no, the bassinet was from a homewares sale.
When I look back at the cradle, its softened wicker handles call me to pick it up and rock it. When I give into the urge, I find the raffia worn down and loosened from the cane scaffold.
I push and pull, and the cradle rocks gently, its pendulous momentum assisted by its weighted base. The cradle’s easy, practiced dance makes it is clear that a red-eyed someone once spent many hours in this ritual, urging the bassinet’s inhabitant to sleep. From the cradle’s intact circumference, I gather that this someone must have been largely successful, or at least blessed with a relatively peaceful sleeper that did not kick in protest.
I wonder more about this guardian and their child. I find it interesting that the cradle’s cushion is striped red and white, rather than coloured a stereotypical blue or pink. Did the child’s parents actively avoid gender stereotypes? Or perhaps they did not know the sex of their child until birth?
I inspect the wooden base of the cradle and discover pastel pink skirting crumpled and hidden away under the cushion.
Were the child’s parents originally expecting a girl, but then surprised by a baby boy? Was there a mad rush to cover the delicate rose skirting with a more “masculine” cushion? Or perhaps the bassinet was a hand-me-down, passed on from older sister to younger brother, as in my own family? But the red and white cushion fits so perfectly, as if it were specially made for the bassinet. So why the “identity crisis”?
Curious, I further investigate the striped bedding and find another cushion sandwiched between it and the pink skirting. Alarmingly, its taupe cover is marred by reddish-brown stains. Is it blood? Did the child harm themselves while playing in the bassinet? Or is it paint? Were the parents touching up the nursery while the cradle sat out in the open?
I look to the cradle’s stand for more clues. Centimetres from the ground, its four feet are connected by sturdy canes, arranged both perpendicularly and diagonally.
Directly above their intersection, the wooden base of the cradle-bed is heavily scratched. Perhaps the family cat or dog used to sit here and use the bassinet as its scratching post? Or maybe, the pet was jealous of the family’s new obsession and desperately fought its fate of being replaced by the baby? After all, my auntie’s cat Toby acted out like this following my cousin’s birth.
Did the pet eventually get to the baby? Was their altercation the source of the cushion’s blood stains? Could this traumatic memory be the reason why the bassinet was sold, rather than passed on within the family?
Whatever happened, the bassinet remains in relatively ship-shape (both literally in its boat-like form, and figuratively in its condition). Like many other antiques here, however, it lacks a price tag or official story… it’s another “priceless” memory floating through the Van Dijk & Ko warehouse.
Memories of a Mandolin by Vittoria van der Hoeven
Memoires of a Mandolin
When you go to the North side of Amsterdam, across the canal on a ferry, and a few bus stops down the road you will find a large antique warehouse called the van Dijk and co. Inside that warehouse, there is an assortment of many old and antique treasures. Some are dirty, some polished, some broken and some reupholstered, all up for grabs to anyone who deems them worthy enough of giving them a new home and a second life. But how do we measure the value of the items we may come across? And how can we, without being able to view the past life of an item place any monetary tag on it? One object in particular comes to mind whilst pondering this very notion.
Lost amongst the scattered collectables, comfortably on a plush, green armchair, sits a short-necked, eight stringed lute, more commonly known as a mandolin. Like an old man, years into his retirement, the mandolin rests sunken, despite its lack of weight, into the grooves of the cushioning on its newfound throne. Its worn wooden features are far more sub-standard to the straight and even textured wood on the arms of the chair it leans upon. There is no price sticker added to its curved body, but like all things in this shop, broken or brilliant, it is still a commodity waiting to be sold.
In its decrepit state, especially in contrast to the newer and more modern items surrounding it, the mandolin doesn’t seem to mind its current unsuitable and misplaced location. It doesn’t care as it silently waits while past anthems from rock and metal play in the background. These were sounds that were unfamiliar to it, could never replicate or blend in with, not even in its once prime condition.
Instead, when plucked, the tones that should sing out struggle to reverberate a semitone out of tune. A distance far too great for even those without a musical ear to appreciate. The strange twangs of the strings conjure an unintentional reaction similar to that of biting into a sour lemon. Like a puppy dog that hears something unusual or unfamiliar, your head will slant over to one side and your eyes will begin to squint and twitch. These are not the sounds that one would expect from a well functioning European styled instrument.
Perhaps this is why the owner decided not to even bother attaching a price tag to it. When asked, the mandolin can be bargained down to 90 euros and with little resistance perhaps to even less. Were this instrument kept in mint condition, it could sell on ebay for a significantly heftier price of just under US $500. Yet, at the moment of impact once a single string has been plucked, the mandolin will begin to shake. The vibrating melodies will travel from the strings, up to the sound hole, and throughout the entire instrument eventually reaching all corners of the room with its sound. It is clear that the instrument is not beyond repair and that the right person could still find some sort of value in it. Which makes one wonder if there must be another reason why the value of the mandolin has depreciated so considerably.
Once, this mandolin belonged to somebody. But to the average person who has no knowledge of the items past, there is no way of truly knowing whom.
Its only sign of origin, a stamp pyro graphed into the right side of the fret board is now faded, worn and illegible to the untrained eye. However, it is on the left side of the stringed surface that we can get a glimpse of memories from the mandolins past. Etched deeply into the timber, an inscription can be clearly seen. There is an engraving that reads in small capital letters, the name “FREDDIE”. Whoever FREDDIE was, they must have really cared for the instrument, enough to have the need to show ownership over the item at the time the marking was created. But the crude nature of the lettering suggests that perhaps it was a child, who should not have had access to a sharp object, who carried out this act. Not only that, but surely no adult would disfigure a precious possession in this way, knowingly decreasing its value.
The mysterious child’s memories are of no significance to people who pass by gazing at the mandolin today. But what for instance, if we did know whom this mystery person was? Should the individual whose memories are shared with this mandolin alter the asking price at the antique store? The discovery that somebody of importance may have once owned the instrument could drastically change the value of the item causing the price to skyrocket. Every detail of its use would become a treasured memory that strangers would languish to be able to become a part of. But even so, the new owner would feel compelled to keep those memories in tact and untouched. They may lock it up in a big glass cabinet or mount their prized possession onto a wall so as to avoid tainting the item with ones own individuality. Instead, the imprinted name steals some of the value from the instrument. Because of this, the mandolin is perceived by some as something that has been discarded and rejected. Much like an old tattoo of a past lover that cannot be removed, the name serves only as a painful memory.
Today when the mandolin is picked up, a greasy coating of dust creates a lingering black film on the fingers of the handler. The outline of black stripes with a circular pattern begins to appear on the pads of the handler’s fingers as their hand instinctively places them upon the wired strings. This is a pattern common to everyone else that had picked it up and attempted to play it too. Only once you would have had to press harder into the strings in order to have the same indented effect. Could this be a last attempt for the mandolin to leave a lasting imprint on someone before it is tossed aside yet again?
As the dust begins to settle soon after placing the wooden item back into its place, the instrument continues to wait. Longing for its next examination, the remainder of the stringed wire from the tuners at its head of the mandolin curl towards onlookers, like an overgrown or unkempt garden in desperate need of care and weeding. Is it because of the physical signs of a previous ownership that this particular mandolin would struggle to sell for 90 Euros? Or is it because somebody else had made good use of it, that it is no longer useful to others?