The KitchenAid stand mixer: How color, cake and nostalgia made an American icon
These countertop appliances have made baking easier for nearly 100 years. But a mix of smart marketing, a strong reputation and happy memories have made the KitchenAid stand mixer an icon.
Ashlee Clark ThompsonAssociate Editor
Ashlee spent time as a newspaper reporter, AmeriCorps VISTA and an employee at a healthcare company before she landed at CNET. She loves to eat, write and watch "Golden Girls" (preferably all three at the same time). The first two hobbies help her out as an appliance reviewer. The last one makes her an asset to trivia teams. Ashlee also created the blog, AshleeEats.com, where she writes about casual dining in Louisville, Kentucky.
The gunmetal gray KitchenAid stand mixer was a mainstay in Stella Parks' baking life. It came into focus for her when she was 10. Already a budding baker, Parks recalls reading a chocolate cake recipe in Cooks Illustrated that mentioned using a stand mixer.
"That KitchenAid saw me through my entire childhood and into culinary school, and even into some of my professional forays," said Parks, who went on to become a pastry chef, a James Beard-award winning cookbook author and an editor at the food site Serious Eats.
Like all the things we take for granted, her mixer eventually faded into the periphery. Parks moved on to newer models, and her old kitchen companion ended up stashed away with her parents out in the country in central Kentucky.
Five years ago, the mixer reappeared in Parks' life. She spotted it as she pulled into her parent's home, on the curb, out with the garbage.
"It was like I saw the family dog shot in the driveway," Parks said.
Watch this: The KitchenAid stand mixer makes its mark on home baking
The KitchenAid stand mixer has fulfilled many roles in its near century of existence: status symbol, badge of culinary skill, wedding registry must-have.
Stand mixers aren't unique to KitchenAid. Plenty of other brands make some version of an electric mixer mounted to a frame. Many are cheaper than KitchenAid's models, which will set you back at least $200. And let's be honest: A home baker could probably make do without a KitchenAid on their countertop.
So what makes this product so special?
I visited the factory where KitchenAid stand mixers are assembled, dug into the company's background and talked to experts in baking, history and design to figure out how this small appliance became an icon. KitchenAid has been smart about making its mixers available in myriad colors that get people excited about picking an appliance that fits their personality. The mixers also have a well-earned reputation for holding up for decades, and KitchenAid has been in tune with the needs of its customers and the desires of the larger culture. Plus, the food we make with the stand mixers evokes memories of birthday cakes, brownies and other happy desserts.
KitchenAid has achieved something with its stand mixer that's rare among appliances and consumer products in general: it's made something that's become part of our family histories. Here's how that happened.
Like many corporate histories, the KitchenAid origin story is a little hokey, a bit too convenient and highly memorable. Before there was KitchenAid, there was the Hobart Manufacturing Company. In 1908, an engineer at the Ohio-based manufacturer named Herbert Johnston began to design one of the first electric stand mixers, the Model H, according to the book KitchenAid Best-Loved Recipes. The machine, which the company began to sell in 1914, was an 80-quart behemoth that found favor in commercial bakeries and naval battleships because it made it easier to make food in mass quantities.
The success of the Model H prompted Hobart to think small. In 1919, engineers shrunk the mixer down to the 65-pound Model H-5. To test the H-5, Hobart sent units home to the wives of company executives. According to Jessica McConnell, senior manager of color, finish and material design at Whirlpool (the parent company of KitchenAid), one of those early testers gave this response when asked about a name for this new appliance: "I don't care what you call it, but I know it's the best kitchen aid I have ever had!"
Hobart's stand mixer, along with competitors like the Sunbeam Mixmaster, arrived just as machinery met domesticity, an era that historians have called the second industrial revolution. During this period, which began in the 1920s, more middle-class American homes added electricity. Companies shifted their focus from mechanizing factories to mechanizing consumer goods. Small kitchen appliances like electric chafing dishes, electric percolators and toasters began to make their way to home kitchens, said historian Megan Elias, the director of Boston University's gastronomy program.
Machinery in the kitchen expanded the variety of desserts you could make at home. The stand mixer made it possible to make treats like marshmallows that people could previously only buy at the store. And it cut out a lot of the labor for difficult dishes, like angel food cake, said Parks, who discusses the history of sweets in her cookbook, Bravetart: Iconic American Desserts.
"Thanks to having a more powerful mixer like this, something that was traditionally never made at home can now be made at home," she said.
After World War II, KitchenAid and other manufacturers continued to pare down industrial appliances into products that would meet the needs of families instead of factories. But they faced a new problem: How could they make their products less daunting and fit in with the modern home?
The answer was color, a factor that would play a major role in the popularity of KitchenAid's stand mixers more than once.
Bakers want color on their countertops
It looks like a rainbow shattered in the KitchenAid factory in Greenville, Ohio. I'm surrounded by parts of what will become stand mixers that are each worth hundreds of dollars. Metal carts on wheels cover most much of the factory floor, their shelves lined with dozens of mixer components. One color fills each cart in shades with names that would make a crayon box jealous: boysenberry, raspberry ice, ocean drive, dried rose. Some have a shiny finish, while others sport a matte or pebbled exterior.
About 1,200 workers assemble the mixers and other small KitchenAid appliances here in Greenville. (The town is also known for being the birthplace of the sharpshooter Annie Oakley.) Employees pop the pieces out of the molds from the casting facility, smooth out the rough edges and hang the sections from metal hooks. Machinery swings the pieces into a chamber for painting, a powder-coating process that's similar to way paint is applied to cars.
More than 80 colors are in rotation at the KitchenAid factory during my visit. That selection means that you can buy a symbol of your individuality to display on your kitchen counter and it's part of the reason KitchenAid's stand mixers are so popular.
"Any time we think of something that we own, whether it's our car or our KitchenAid stand mixer, it reflects something about us," said Kate Smith, a color expert and CEO of Sensational Color.
"The more personal the item, the more we think it reflects us personally, the more important the color."
And it's easier to pick a wild hue for a small appliance than for a large one, Smith said. People tend to stick with more neutral finishes for their stoves and fridges. But a stand mixer is "a little bit of a safer place to reflect their personality in the kitchen," Smith said.
And color is important to us. Think about how it finds its way into our language -- we see red when we're mad, we feel blue when we're sad, we are green with envy.
"We have a natural relationship with color," said Elaine Ryan, a color expert and interior designer. "Color speaks to us in a thousand different ways."
Before the 1950s, the KitchenAid stand mixer's signature color was white. The company then expanded its color options to further separate its countertop mixer from its commercial forefathers. Choosing a color that complemented your existing decor made the mixer feel more like it belonged in your kitchen, McConnell said.
"You offer colors on these products to make them feel more home relevant and less commercial," she said.
Once upon a time, you could polish silver with a KitchenAid mixer
At the 1955 Atlantic City Housewares Show, KitchenAid rolled out five new colors: petal pink, sunny yellow, island green, satin chrome and antique copper, according to the book KitchenAid Best-Loved Recipes. Lots of other appliance companies experimented with color during this time as well, creating kitchens that felt like cooking in an Easter egg basket.
And the stand mixer's form and shape -- specifically, the machine's ample, curved housing -- lent itself to showcasing a variety of hues, McConnell said. She compared the stand mixer to rounded, midcentury cars like the Volkswagen Beetle: "It's kind of lovable and has a little bit of a personality."
In the 1960s, the desire for vibrant appliances and entertaining at home began to wane as it became more affordable for middle-class families to go out to eat, Elias said. That trend continued through the 1970s and '80s.
But American culture once again shifted in the late 1980s when home cooking came back into fashion. People began to rethink feminism and domestic life -- cooking could be fun, rather than oppressive, and it could be something in which men and women could both participate, Elias said. The influence of celebrity chefs like Julia Child and Alice Waters was palpable. And in the '90s, kitchens went from being a room you hide in the back of the house to a more prominent place in the design of a home.
There was a reignited desire to show off your kitchen and the appliances in it, and the KitchenAid stand mixer fit well into this modern version of domestic life.
In the 1990s, KitchenAid saw a growing interest from customers for a variety of colors for their stand mixer. Retailer Williams-Sonoma requested a handful of new colors for KitchenAid stand mixers that they could offer exclusively to the store's customers, which included empire green, empire red, cobalt blue, majestic yellow and black, McConnell said.
"It just kind of blossomed into the rainbow that it is today," McConnell said. "And really, If you love a color, we have that color for you."
This year, the company introduced its first "color of the year" -- bird of paradise, a bright peach shade.
A classic that lasts
A friend recently let me borrow a KitchenAid stand mixer that belongs to her parents. They had originally bought it to celebrate their first home -- 47 years ago. The pale yellow mixer looks similar to the tilt-head models of today. The only signs of wear are the small stains along the silver band of the motor head. And it still works.
"The level of engineering and the materials involved were almost closer to what you would see in an industrial professional level," Parks said. "It was kind of build to last, and it did."
Its consistent design over the years also means you can bring old mixers into the modern age. Take the stand mixer's attachment hub. The hub first appeared on the Model H-5 back in 1919, and allowed you to insert different kitchen tool attachments the mixer's motor would then power. Some of KitchenAid's attachments have included a knife sharpener, a silver buffer, a can opener, a pea sheller, a juicer and a spiralizer for vegetables. Decades-old attachments that you can find on eBay or in your grandparents' pantry will still fit and work on modern mixers, and modern attachments will fit on old mixers.
People hold on to their mixers for decades, then pass them down to children and grandchildren when they're ready to spring for a new model in a different color. Smith, who received her KitchenAid as a gift from her parents in the 1980s, has an adult son whom she wants to give her mixer -- because she's seriously considering getting the model in bird of paradise for herself.
That promise of an inheritance paired with nostalgia has also worked in KitchenAid's favor. You use the stand mixer for special treats rather than the day-to-day food you have to make. A stand mixer signals celebration, special treats rather than necessities: birthday cakes, Christmas cookies, pies for the church picnic.
"Nobody has nostalgic family feelings about toasters," Elias said.
When you're able to ask for a KitchenAid stand mixer, whether it's on your wedding registry or your Amazon wishlist, it shows that you've reached some level of adulthood. You're signaling that you care about what you eat, and that you're ready to put down serious money on your craft (or let someone else make that investment on your behalf).
"A really strong, sturdy, expensive gadget is kind of seen as a lure," Elias said. "If they're that much money, you're making an investment in your domestic life. Like, 'We're serious about making these cakes.'"
KitchenAid stand mixers have been an investment in Stella Parks' professional career, first as a pastry chef, then as a recipe creator and editor at Serious Eats. She and her husband picked out their own when they got married -- a burgundy KitchenAid Professional 5 that they painted the walls to match. That mixer saw her through the first 10 years of marriage, several restaurants and a lot of recipe testing.
"Honestly, it had been used and abused so much more than the average consumer would ever use one," she said. "Maybe even more than the average pastry chef, because I'm not making just enough items for service. I'm testing things over and over and over again."
Eventually, she replaced her mixer with a professional series in copper pearl. But it was easier to let the burgundy model go than the gunmetal gray mixer that saw her through her first years as a pastry chef, the one that ended up on her parents' curb.
"It had truly lived a full life and probably saw a lot heavier wear and tear," she said. But seeing her parents' mixer out with the garbage? "Yeah," she said, "it was like a gut punch."