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The Evolution of Refrigerator Design

On the evening of March 4th, 2013, I attended an IDSA sponsored mixer that was tied into the Housewares show that was going on that day. While I was sufficiently impressed by the UIC innovation center where the event was held, I found the actual presentation of the speaker from Whirlpool somewhat underwhelming. The early part of the presentation conveyed some forward thinking and innovative ideas about food preservation and food preparation in the coming decade. Displaying how a laser would heat food in plain sight on a counter top or preparation area in lieu of an enclosed microwave oven. In addition, the idea of a GPS like app that would guide the consumer to the nearest fresh or organic produce were articulated as likely futures. While these were both intriguing ideas, it was the speakers somewhat yawn invoking pronouncement of Ice White as being a potential next big thing, possibly even challenging the dominance of the stainless steel finish in refrigerator design that stuck in my head.

It can be argued that the refrigerator has been in a state of stasis in recent decades with the stainless steel finish which in the 80s and early 90s was the domain of a higher end modernist or institutional sensibility having become a default design style almost to the point of being pedestrian. While a small group of bold and futurist driven design ideas have appeared over the years, the mainstream consumer has not embraced the more bold or revolutionary trends in design in recent years.

No discussion of the early mass produced refrigerator can be made without mention of Raymond Loewy who arguably designed the first truly aesthetic and well designed modern refrigerator for Sears Coldspot in 1935. As a direct result of his effort, the redesigned model was not only more attractive to the eye, but easier and cheaper to manufacture. As a result, sales of the modern streamlined design rose over 300 percent in it’s debut year. Robert Loewy, himself an icon of industrial design, had an influence that resonated beyond the refrigerator and is noteworthy for bringing streamlining to cars and locomotives, Electrolux vacuum cleaners and the iconic glass Coca Cola bottle. One of his most notable designs the 1961 Studebaker Avanti remains one of the high points in automotive design and even by today’s standards remains a strikingly modern piece of form.

The use of standard white which was introduced in the 20s and 30s remained dominant even through the 1970’s when colors like Avocado Green and Gold began to take a market share away from White. While these earth tone colors did make an appearance in the first half of the decade, this tends to be exaggerated to a great degree largely as a result of films and TV that portray the 70’s retrospectively seeming to now have kitchen appliances almost exclusively of these colors. By the start of the 80’s, black began to take a foothold in the higher end or premium refrigerator market which was soon followed by stainless steel finishes. This gradually took a larger market share as the 90’s progressed finally trickling down from higher end models to the more mid-range and mainstream products by the turn of the century.

Two directions in design that have failed thus far to create mass appeal have been the glass door refrigerator and the refrigerator as nondescript cabinet that matches the existing cabinetry and decor. The former which also has it’s origins in institutional kitchens while being practical has the distinct downside of making one overly conscious of the contents of the fridge. One is faced with the reality of the fact that what typically stored within may not necessarily be the most desirable things to display.

The most recent trends that have stirred some interest in the design world have been (perhaps somewhat cynically) the use of future/retro 50’s design coupled with a wider palate of colors which has been pushed by Smeg, Elmira Northstar and Big Chill over the past several years which have the aesthetics  of the best of inspired mid-century modernism coupled with the advantages of modern energy efficiency.

In terms of engineering advances the gradual adoption of Freon in the late 20’s over the previously used and very toxic sulfur dioxide or methyl formate represented a huge leap forward in terms of safety in the early days of the refrigerator. While later in the century it was determined that Freon itself was a threat to the ozone in the earth atmosphere resulting in Freon being replaced by other even safer refrigerants.

One of the most fascinating facts about refrigerators is that mass adoption began to occur in the 1930’s at a time of extreme economic hardship and disruption. While less then 10 percent of American households had them at the end of the 1920’s by the mid-1940’s close to 90 percent of American households owned one.

The latching door which was a fixture of refrigerator design in the mid-20th century was finally replaced by doors that had magnets in the seals by the late 1960’s. The trend toward automatic defrosting and ice making in the 60’s had the effect of diminishing efficiency although energy efficiency continued to improve throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s largely as a result of DOE efficiency standards which were initially put into effect in 1976. As of 2013 the typical refrigerator uses about half the amount of energy as a comparable sized model from the 70’s.

It is generally accepted that in the U.S the trend has been towards larger sized models over the past few decades while Europeans are often said top prefer smaller models. This is said to be a by product of the American tendency to shop for groceries less often but buy in bulk or larger quantities versus a European tendency to shop more often with a preference for fresh food. Europeans also seem more willing to embrace a modernist sensibility in form while some American’s seem more willing to gravitate towards the rustic.

While most of the currently available models come in various door configurations freezer top/refrigerator bottom remains the most common. The refrigerator top/freezer bottom configuration which made it’s initial debut in the 1950’s remains my favorite out of the simple fact that I believe the freezer is used much less often (although this is said to be slightly less efficient). The side by side configuration dates back to the mid-20th century while by the end of the 20th century what are termed French doors (with two refrigerator doors at the top and a single freezer door the bottom) made their appearance.

It remains to be seen as to whether any notable or distinct design trend will super cede the default use of stainless steel and white (which arguably never really went away). More recent moves toward reinventing mid-century modernism with a wider and more vibrant color palette, we can see that the future is as of yet open ended with nothing clearly defined. This potentially leaves room for today’s industrial designer to chart a new direction and usher in a era of forms that we may have not yet conceived of or fully appreciated. At the same time we can also counter, that the modern refrigerator in it’s current form may well be close to it’s final form with only incremental tweaking and variations likely. In the end only time will tell.

Aticle Written by: David Mazovick


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