Whenever someone asks me what I consider to be great design, I get the same picture in my mind; The Electrolux Assistent. Next year, this amazing piece of kitchen equipment will celebrate it’s 75th birthday and that, in itself, is a big part of why I hold it in such high regard.
I didn’t know much about these machine when I came across two of them at an auction in rural Scania a few years ago.
One of them, I have come to believe, is from the very first generation introduced in 1940, in the midst of World War II. The recipe book that came with it had a recipe for a flour based butter replacement which would come in handy in “these trying times”. The other machine is from a later era, maybe the sixties. Some of the tools (kneading/mixing tool, grinder feeder baton, etc.) for the earlier machine were made out of wood, while the same pieces were plastic for the newer one. I was immediately struck by the beauty of the 1940’s machine. It features exquisite styling, evocative of Loewy-esque futurism and Scandinavian Functionalism all at the same time. With it’s cast aluminium parts, shaped in a way that gave me simultaneous references to aerospace design and the human body. A stripped down and honest machine, perfectly intertwining form and function. A beautifully balanced color scheme of beige, red and raw metal.
The design of the original Assistent is credited to Alvar Lenning. He was a Swedish pioneer in Industrial Design science, unfortunately he is not as well remembered as some of his contemporary colleagues. In fact, the Assistent is his main, and perhaps only, real legacy in terms of wide public recognition.
So what’s so great about this product? Many things, I would say. First, there is a fantastic understanding of the users, their needs and their priorities. The versatility of the machine – it does everything from whipping cream and kneading bread to stuffing sausages and liquefying tomatoes – this must have been a godsend to housewives of the forties. Easy to set up and use, easy to clean and easy to maintain. I would love to know more about what processes they used in those days! Perhaps it was a simple case of “Design by Wife”, in which case there is an unsung hero in this story.
The maintenance aspect brings me to my second reason for admiring the Assistent. If my 1940 model Assistent were to break down, I would be able to order current spare parts to fix it. The basic construction has remained the same for 75 years! The motor is interchangeable, the power transfer is the same and the tools and accessories are almost completely compatible. In addition, the assembly is made to be understandable and logical so that the user can perform basic repairs on his/her own. A few easily visible screws hold the panel covering the power transfer, so changing the power transfer belt is as easy as changing a vacuum cleaner bag. How the people responsible for developing the Assistent back in the late 1930’s managed to future-proof it this well is mind-boggling to me. In a world where time to obsolescence is measured in weeks for many types of products, the Electrolux Assistent can serve as a reminder to the Product Design community, that there is a different way of going about one’s business.
Finally, as I have already mentioned, the aesthetics of the original machine are striking and elegant. It is minimalistic in the sense of being stripped of all non-functional elements. At the same time it is sensual, almost voluptuous, due to the fact that all the curves and surfaces have been sculpturally crafted and harmonized with one another. Regrettably, the product design of the Assistent has faded into anonymity over the years, with each generation. Recently the unique construction that defines the Assistent, was taken over by Ankarsum and the Electrolux Assistent has been reinvented to where it now has the same configuration and form factor as a modern Kitchen Aid machine. The current Ankarsrum model does not, in my opinion, possess the flair and style of its ancestor and is not as distinguishable from the competition. I would love to see coming generations of the Assistent return to the form sensibility and elegance of the early generations.
I hope Electrolux and Ankarsrum take the opportunity next year to celebrate this fantastic piece of Scandinavian design history! I just might throw my own machine a quiet little party in the kitchen at home, come 2015. Whip some cream. Mince some chicken. There is no end to the possibilites…