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Leslie Clagett writes a wonderful blog (kbculture) on the, perhaps, unlikely theme of kitchens and bathrooms. Her posts are cleverly titled, terse, often thought-provoking. She adds unexpected layers of insight to the people and products she shares. She is the author of several books, recently The Smart Approach to the Organized Home. Yesterday, she posted a 1956 Westinghouse advertisement featuring fifty color versions of the same refrigerator asking what it says about us that we have come to settle for white-black-stainless. The following are my comments, somewhat modified. They were involved enough that I decided to make a post of them.

I'm sure there's a university department somewhere devoted to the hermeneutics of color in contemporary society. It's an enormous and esoteric subject. Without knowing it, we juggle the meanings of a vast array of colors in our heads almost every moment of the day. Chuck mentions Pantone. [Chuck comments that even car colors are simple and safe, and then says that TurboChef now offers Pantone colors for an upcharge.] Pantone's site is worth joining and spending some time at. An entire industry exists — Pantone is only the tip of the iceberg — to establish the colors for each season, occasion, individual, and to differentiate them from past seasons, other occasions and different individuals.

A wonderful example of this is the encounter between Maranda Priestly and Andy Sachs in The Devil Wears Prada where Andy says that both belts look exactly the same and then adds, "Y'know, I'm still learning about this stuff." "This... 'stuff'?" Maranda begins.
Oh... ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don't know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you're trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don't know is that that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise, it's not lapis, it's actually cerulean. You're also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn't it, who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here. And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.
We expect color and discussions of color in clothing, perhaps not so intense as Maranda's discussion, because we seldom take clothing for granted. By nature, we judge all books by their cover, denying vehemently that we do so.

If Chuck were right about car colors being simple and safe, the automotive world would be as dull as Henry Ford's dictum suggests. [Paint them any color you want, as long as it's black.] The fact that colors fall within ranges — those ranges are the historical result of enormous trial and error — does not mean that minute variations within them are not the fiercely contested battlefield of manufacturers and marketers. This sounds ridiculous on the face of it, but hotrodders can tell at a glance when a Ford has been painted a Chevy color — it stand out like a sore thumb — and God knows if the next Maserati Quattroporte or Bentley show car is released in cerulean or celadon, all hell will break loose. Every pricey new car will end up with colors that lean ever so slightly in their direction.

Color has meaning, even if we don't have words for it, even if it seems so vastly complicated that no one could possibly understand it. Cars and clothing are things worn in public. People judge us by them, even if they say they don't, and their judgments are deep and complicated.

Kitchens were once adornments for housewives, and housewives adornments for husbands. Of course, the word "housewife" now has a demeaning sound to it. Kitchens formed family identity. In societies where servants are usual, the kitchen's appearance, the quality of pots and pans, even the need for comfort and workability is of little or no concern. The dining room, the place of consumption, rather than the place of preparation, becomes central.

Obviously, Leslie and the people who read this blog love kitchens — and bathrooms. The modern Americanized world, however, has left the old meaning of kitchen far behind. Wonderful kitchens have become, oddly enough, like fine mechanical watches — anachronisms. They are nostalgic, like fountain pens or Tuscan fantasies. They seek to restore something, to imitate something imaginary, or to preserve something increasingly unnecessary.

R.M. Schindler designed houses in the 40s and 50s with postage stamp kitchens. He thought that his modern clients would be far more involved in living their lives than in cooking or preparing food. He seems like a prophet today, but he was wrong for a long time. The people who owned his houses surreptitiously upgraded their kitchens. They added burners and increased the size of their refrigerators. Sometimes the dining area (the food consumption area?) was gobbled up by the new kitchen. Since then, the production of fast food has dwarfed the production of actual meals prepared in actual kitchens. We are approaching Schindler's dream, where a refrigerator and a microwave, some disposable flatware, and a roll of paper towels can speed us through the process of nourishing ourselves. Or, perhaps, poisoning ourselves. And the time we have left?

The time we have left we can spend with our iPod, iMac, iPhone, plasma TV, and GameBoy. Not what Schindler had in mind, but still, things that can be lived with canned drinks and prepackaged foods.

If the decline of color in the kitchen means anything at all, it means we no longer judge people by their kitchens. If kitchens were central to our lives, not merely central to this readership, fifty color combinations would be hundreds too few. We upgrade microwaves, but we do so without having to worry about their color. They come in white, black and stainless, just like the predictable background of our kitchen appliances. The thing that manufacturers have learned to focus on is getting one of each (stove, oven, sink, dishwasher, etc.) into every kitchen without calling too much attention to the process. We now measure homes in diagonal inches, by the number of videos they contain and by how many cars and trucks they come with. Ask the poor what they would wish for and they are likely to say, "A big house with a huge driveway and ten cars. And the biggest TV in the whole world." To which we should probably add — home delivery.

There's a wonderful line in the movie Pleasantville (Tagline: Nothing Is As Simple As Black And White) where the paragons of the town are huddled together against the inevitable encroachment of rain and color, when Big Bob says, "Well, we're safe for now. Thank goodness we're in a bowling alley."

I just put the kettle on for tea. Perhaps this kitchen will be safe for a few more years.
 
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