Fiddly, Fussy or Just Plain Ugly Kettles
LONDON — It seemed so straightforward. I needed a new kettle. Nothing fancy, just one that was simply styled, well-made and wouldn’t look obtrusive in a stainless steel kitchen. Easy, or so I thought, until I tried to find one.
Now, I can’t pretend that I was thrilled by the prospect of cruising the kettle sections of London’s department stores (as shopping sprees go, it isn’t quite up there with the arrival of the new season’s Pierre Hardy shoes at Dover Street Market or a bumper delivery to Donlon Books), but I hadn’t expected it to be so dispiriting. There were dozens of different kettles to choose from, but none that I could bear to live with.
Simple, well-made and unobtrusive doesn’t seem like the toughest of design briefs, nor in this age of unimaginably exciting leaps in nanotechnology and a Large Hadron Collider does making something to boil water. I had no reason to suspect that any of the kettles on sale wouldn’t work, although several threatened to make rather a meal of it. The problem (and I write this in the knowledge that many of these columns bang on about there being much more to design than mere style) was that they looked dreadful — fiddly, fussy, overwrought and, at worst, downright ugly.
The products around them — the coffee machines, toasters, food processors and so on — were just as bad. The design crimes of the kettle seem to be replicated in most of the other basic kitchen appliances that millions of people use every day. Why are seemingly simple products so badly designed?
One explanation is that the kettle is a typical example of a product with a bad case of what I’ll call “designeritis.” To clarify, it is an elderly product — the first stovetop kettles surfaced in the 1880s, and electric ones in the 1920s — that has exhausted the possibility of introducing genuine innovations to make it more efficient. In theory, it is still possible to design a kettle that is faster, quieter, safer and more energy-efficient than existing ones, but not much more so. The only way for the designers of a new model to convince us that it is different enough to bother buying is by tweaking its looks.
That doesn’t give them much to play with, and goes some way to explaining why stellar designers aren’t exactly clamoring to reinvent the kettle.
If you’d slogged away at design school for years, what would you rather do? Join the Apple design team to put the finishing touches to the Kindle-killing tablet computer that it is rumored to be working on? Develop a planet-saving electric vehicle? Invent a solar-powered cellphone or an educational laptop that could improve the lives of millions of people in developing economies? Or fuss over the shape of a kettle spout?
Given such limited possibilities, the designers who do end up finessing those spouts tend to go overboard in their efforts to attract our attention, which is why so many new kettles look neurotically over-styled. Judging by the selection I saw in London, the current crop fall into four categories.
First up is the “Come in, Cape Canaveral” genre of irritatingly over-complicated kettles stuffed with features that we neither need nor want. (Espresso coffee machines suffer from the same syndrome.) Breville is among the chief offenders. Exhibit A: the Breville Blue Ice Jug Kettle that glows blue when the water has boiled, as though you’d have no other way of knowing. Worse still is Exhibit B: the Breville Brita Spectra Kettle, which threatens to “softly illuminate your kitchen ... with a rainbow of colors” as the temperature of the water changes. Dualit is another manufacturer that’s guilty of cluttering up what were once pleasingly restrained kettles with superfluous extras, in its case ungainly water gauges.
Next comes the “Back to the Future” category of kettles that play the nostalgia card. Take the Le Creuset Traditional Whistling Kettle, which looks as if it has been sprung from a medieval witches’ coven, and the Wesco Classic that could be a prop in a Walker Evans photograph of a dilapidated 1930s diner.
Then there are the “Wannabes,” the manufacturers that try so hard to associate their products with a particular style that they slip into self-parody. Both Siemens and Krups favor a “boy racer” style of stainless steel kettle with black detailing and testosterone-charged names, like the Siemens Porsche and Krups Expert. Kenwood, meanwhile, seems to have guzzled so much Kool-Aid that it flits tipsily from trend to trend. No sooner did it bid for eco points with the Energy Sense Eco, than it vied for cool ones with a range of super-minimal white plastic kettles that look startlingly similar to Jasper Morrison’s designs for Rowenta.
At least Kenwood is trying. It can’t be accused of falling into the “Must try harder” camp of kettle makers that almost produce a decent product, only to let themselves down with dodgy detailing. John Lewis comes closest to ticking the simple, well-made and unobtrusive boxes with its kettles, as you’d expect from a retail chain that is owned by its employees and run on Quaker principles. Then you notice that the shapes aren’t quite right and the handles look irritatingly cutesy.
All of which left me in a conundrum. There was no shortage of kettles, but none that I liked enough to buy. I did what I should have done all along. After much scouring of search engines and local telephone directories, I found an electrical repair shop (the sort that used to be on every other London street, but is now an endangered species) and took my old kettle there to be reconditioned. (In case you’re wondering, it’s a simple, well-made Dualit from before the days of “Come in, Cape Canaveral” water gauges.) Problem solved with a clear conscience, at least until I need a new toaster.