Form Doesn’t Necessarily Follow Function: It’s Negotiable

01 Sep 2003
September 1, 2003

You think we don’t know what you’re doing?! Do you actually think you’re fooling us? You’re just pretending to clean our dishes. Well, yes, it did take us months to realize just what you were really up to. Every now and then we’d notice a piece of food cemented to a clean glass or bowl. At first we simply ignored it. We didn’t want to believe you would turn on us. But when the evidence became a regular occurrence we were forced to call in a specialist who pronounced your computer brain utterly and certifiably dead.

You’ve been washing with hot water but you’re no longer signaling the little door that holds the soap to open on cue. With great hope we add detergent to each load but leave that door open. We want to think that some portion of the soap will dribble out, hide from the drain during the first cycle and actually sanitize our plates. We know we’re living in a dream world. We just pray it isn’t a salmonella-laden one.

Almost every major kitchen appliance now has a computer that controls its every move. Should that go, the cost to repair it is prohibitive enough to force you to buy a new machine. A reboot was going to set us back more than $300. Not quite “planned obsolescence” –more like “oh-so-easy-to-fool obsolescence.”

Asko Buttons

Seven years ago we invited you into our home. It was the dawn of the Stainless Steel Era. Our Asko dishwasher looked sleek and moderne in our suburban kitchen. And its iconic buttons appealed to the high design standards both my wife and I had acquired after years of art education.

Last week we accepted our fate and began a search for a new “friend.” With our two young children in hand we ventured off to our local discount appliance store. And, before going any further we’d like to publicly apologize to the salesman at Appliance Land for any damage our sweethearts might have caused to any floor sample. We, of course, are not formally admitting any responsibility.

• • •

Appliance shoppers fall into two major categories: Formalists and Functionalists. The “look” is extremely important to formalists. Shoppers of this ilk not only consider the aesthetics of the single purchase but its effect on the rest of the room and/or house. The cumulative effect is critical. Functionalists, on the other hand, look for items that are well made, economical to operate, and will do the job efficiently. The “look” is insignificant. Just where my wife and I sit on this continuum and how we resolve our differences is why marriage counselors and HGTV’s Designing for the Sexes are such hot commodities. Without some form of mediation we’d be in constant litigation.

The latest style for home appliances is the integrated look: refrigerators and dishwashers that don’t look like refrigerators and dishwashers but simple extensions of your cabinetry. All the buttons are hidden on the inside of the door. Pros: a very clean, minimal, and attractive look. Cons: when you are compiling your breakfast while half-awake it may take you longer to find the milk and your clean cereal bowl. The bread drawer may be mistaken for the dishwasher.

My wife was attracted to this type of design. But her standards, she will admit, are so high she goes further and into more detail than most when critiquing each maker’s style. She loved the handles on the Bosch. She was ready to buy. I, too, thought they were impressive. Not overly stylized like the Sears Kenmore and with much more thought than the Kitchenaid. “Understated elegance” we declared in unison. And we were pleased.

We were amazed that we actually agreed on a design decision so quickly. It’s hardly ever so. Two people with high fashion sense but often very different design ideas makes for a standoff the likes of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. We still haven’t been able to agree on an entertainment center for our TV, VCR, DVD, Tivo combo (and I refuse to set up the Tivo until we have one –it’s been four months and it’s still in its box). I’ve found the perfect setup at Circuit City, but Susie has vetoed it. We wait for each other to blink. But like Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach, we must form an alliance in order to move on.

While leaning towards the formalist end of the scale I felt it in our best interests to look closer into the inner workings of models we were considering. The origins of the Bosch are European, where kitchen space is at a premium. We visited four stores before we realized its interior was 4 inches smaller than American brands and there was no heating element. Our family uses a lot of dishes. Drying would be by convection, a much longer and less thorough process than American models with drying heat.

The tension began to rise, mixed with utter disappointment as the reality became apparent. Good form could not be reconciled with good function if we chose this brand. We would have to completely rethink our choice. And our final purchase would be a compromise of our aesthetics. My wife muffled a groan. My children began to open and close every oven and refrigerator door on the showroom floor.

Susie refused to give in. She asked if the Kitchenaid (better function, not-quite-up-to-our-high-standards on form) came with different handle choices. I winced. I knew where this was going. She was weighing the possibility of fabricating her own handle. She could do it if she wanted to. She had the tools. But really, was it worth it for a kitchen appliance? I had to think fast. This could consume our lives.

I was starting to think the integrated look was a bad idea, no matter what the handles looked like. But I would have to approach this line of thinking with finisse if I was to successfully make my point. With the integrated front panel all the buttons were hidden on the inside. There was no way of telling where in the cycle the wash was or even if it was on. How would we know when the dish load was done?

I needed metrics while my wife required clean lines. I needed to know when the washing was completed. Susie really didn’t care “when” only that eventually it would be. She wanted our dishwashing experience to be a complete aesthetic experience.

I could see her waivering as I outlined our functional requirements. A slight shift in her posture, my arguments were beginning to make sense to her. I worked hard to keep a calm demeanor. I paused after each point, allowing each to sink in. “I see your points,” she replied. “I really do. But I’m really disappointed.” I commiserated.

Just as design decisions can tear a couple asunder, so too can they offer the hope of renewed conciliation. We bought the Kitchenaid (without the integrated door). We successfully negotiated this marital minefield and are eagerly awaiting our new friend’s delivery. But I’m giving my wife one more month to find an entertainment center we both can live with then I’m off to Circuit City.

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