In Search of Normal

Have you ever had an image of a product in your mind – nothing fancy, just an “ordinary” version of something – but when you try to find it for sale, nothing quite matches that image? Everything you see is trying too hard to impress, with a stylistic flourish, a jazzy color scheme or other “designed” gloss. Or it has been cheapened through the use of low quality materials to the extent where you question its durability. This seems to be an increasingly common experience, and one brought home to me vividly in recent weeks.

Having just moved to the USA, I was looking for a toaster. The archetypal image I had conjured was of a simple oblong affair in polished stainless steel or chrome with two-slots, long enough to toast slices cut from round loaves, and wide enough for bagels. This enabled me quickly to eliminate one particularly alarming group of toasters I discovered:  a Frankenstein-like strain that had become conjoined with other kitchen appliances (egg poacher, mini-oven, coffee maker. Fig. 1) With my simple archetype in mind, a quick search on the internet seemed to present a number of possible matches, but on closer inspection nothing was quite right. Did I really need to defrost, reheat and keep warm my slices of toast at the push of a button, or just, er…toast them? Did I need to fine-tune the level of browning with ten degrees of accuracy? And did I need an LCD display to tell me what was going on?

Fig. 1 Frankenstein's toaster's. Left to right, Back to Basics Egg-and-Muffin 2-Slice Toaster and Egg Poacher, the Hamilton Beach Toastation 2-Slice Toaster and Mini Oven, and the Toastmaster Coffeemaker/Toaster Combo.

Visually too, the toasters were all straying slightly from the image I’d created. Many had plastic ends, some in different colors. The stainless steel was often brushed, not polished, and emblazoned with garish logos. The ones that came closest only spoiled things by self-consciously flaunting their ‘heritage’ art-deco detailing. I became frustrated. All I wanted was a “normal” toaster!

The episode reminded me that a few years ago I’d been to an exhibition in London organized by the designers Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa entitled Super Normal. The show and accompanying book (Fig. 2) quietly presented a manifesto encouraging designers and manufacturers to shun superficial “specialness” in favor of trying to capture this endangered quality called “normal”. Their thinking is that if designers are constantly trying to differentiate new products (albeit within tight bounds) we will eventually lose sight of the quality that makes something normal. To stop that happening they suggest more designers should try consciously to capture that quality in new objects. These they call “Super Normal”.

Fig. 2 The cover of the book Super Normal: Sensations of the Ordinary by Jasper Morrison and Naoto Fukasawa.

I finally found my archetypal toaster but, tellingly, I had to look beyond the domestic market to the catering profession. Where performance, not styling is the main selling point, “normal” has survived in the form of the Waring Commercial WCT704 (Fig. 3). It exudes the essence of quality American design – of a Greyhound bus or an Airstream caravan in miniature. Styled, but not overly so, generous in size, built to last and with no unnecessary frills. It toasts bread rather well too!

Fig. 3 Normal found: the Waring Commercial WCT704

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