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Commentary Smart Home

Five qualities vintage appliances had that we need today

Commentary: Today’s appliances pale next to midcentury designs that had sharp looks and the latest tech.

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GM Frigidaire's Imperial line of refrigerators came in fun colors like pink and teal.

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There was a time when refrigerators, stoves, even washers and dryers had real pizzazz. That era was the late 1950s through the 1960s. These machines came in eye-popping colors and cut sharp, elegant silhouettes in the home. They conveyed a sense of permanence, pride and optimism in construction rivaling that of classic autos.

Sadly, times have changed. Go to any large appliance showroom now, and you'll find a sea of forgettable stainless steel. This shift to featureless, industrial design happened at the turn of the millennium, as a rejection of the drab earth tones of the 1970s and the washed-out pastels, beige hues and cheap plastics of the 1980s and 1990s.

Today's stark designs have gone way too far away from the colorful, creative designs of mid-century appliances. Antiseptic and anonymous, contemporary appliances play an industrial game of copycat. Frankly, I'm sick of it. Appliance makers should wipe the slate clean and return to their roots.  

Here are five qualities from midcentury appliances that modern manufacturers should adopt for their new products: 

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Color was a big part of Frigidaire's appliance design in the 1960s.

Found in Mom's basement

Interesting colors

Once upon a time, bright colors ruled home-appliance designs, thanks in large part to the influence of the auto industry. During the 1960s, numerous appliance brands were owned by car companies. That meant that the same finishes being used on the vibrant cars of the day were also available for your kitchen and laundry appliances. For example, GM, which owned Frigidaire from 1919 to 1979, introduced appliances in the 1960s in vibrant shades of red, blue, green and yellow. Some Frigidaire fridges, stoves and dishwashers even sported jazzy shades of teal or pink.

RCA Whirlpool also made appliances in many wild colors and shades.

Whirlpool Digital Library

Whirlpool (then RCA Whirlpool) didn't fear a large color palette, either. It offered washing machines, dishwashers and refrigerators in yellows and pinks. Whirlpool even sold appliances in versions with brown exteriors, if that was your thing. 

These days, major appliance makers have lost their taste for interesting hues. Much of that shift is likely due to men cooking in greater numbers. I'm sure the rise of the celebrity chef in popular culture has role in this, too. The home kitchen in many respects has become a second man cave or an echo of a professional kitchen. 

Appliance companies have certainly embraced this perspective. From high-end brands like Wolf and Thermador to GE and more household names like KitchenAid and Samsung, all have "chef-inspired" or "professional" product lines. The end result is that stainless steel has become the non-color of choice. Darker, more smudge-resistant finishes like slate and black stainless steel have become an option across several brands, but these are just jazzed-up blacks and grays. 

Fortunately, we've seen some exceptions to these sober finishes in modern appliances. Whirlpool will soon offer a new finish it calls "sunset bronze" that's a cross between copper and rose gold; the hue is similar to what you find on iPhones and smart watches. And boutique and luxury manufacturers such as Big Chill and Smeg are already on this track with a rainbow of colors for their appliances. However, the status quo won't change until large players and consumers alike see the light and abandon stainless steel as the must-have appliance finish. 

Whirlpool's new "sunset bronze" appliance finish.

Chris Monroe/CNET

The feel of durability

Large appliances of this era were big, heavy brutes. They used comparatively more metal in their construction and heavier parts than today's machines. The upside was that they exuded an air of permanence and durability. Whether or not older appliances really had more longevity than today's products is open for debate, but they certainly felt like they could take a beating. 

The LG DLEY 1701V dryer is both sturdy and beautiful.

Chris Monroe/CNET

I remember slamming old dryer and washer doors shut forcefully when I was a kid, and I never had any fear of causing damage. That's not the case with many new laundry models. The lighter weight metal or plastic parts of their doors make me think twice before I give it a hearty slam. Some appliances aren't even equipped for you to open and close them like you'd expect. Case in point: the LG DLEX 5000 dryer. Its door bounces right back from its latch if swung with any speed. In LG's defense, the company's LG DLEY 1701V dryer is the most beautiful contemporary laundry machine I've laid eyes on. With plenty of glass and steel, this appliance does feel like it's made to last. And yes, I could slam its door shut to my heart's content. Too bad the dryer's design is a rare outlier in the category.

Loads of artistry

Midcentury appliances tended to be sculpted in hard lines and with smooth, flat surfaces. Colors weren't one-dimensional, though; they were shaded in areas to create the illusion of depth. They were also trimmed with silver or polished steel edges that naturally drew the eye. Brand names were drawn in elegant cursive script and punctuated by stylized accents. 

The elegant logos and cursive labels on the GM Frigidaire Flair electric range and oven.

Bradley Avery/bradavery.com

These appliances had an artist's touch. In truth, they were domestic machines inspired by the daring and excitement of the jet, and later the space ages. You just don't see this flair in today's appliances.

An example of the clock and cooking timers on a GM Frigidaire Flair. The half-hidden dials underneath the clock give the entire panel a strong aviation theme. 

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For example, Frigidaire's Imperial family of appliances were especially distinctive and minimally modern. Though created for model year 1965, the products below all resonate with tasteful visual impact ahead of their time.

The 1965 lineup of GM Frigidaire Imperial appliances was quite eye-catching.

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Innovative design

In terms of new features, capabilities and innovative applications, midcentury appliances were on point. Take the 1964 GE Americana refrigerator. It had a unique shape that would have fit right in on the set of "2001: A Space Odyssey." Two doors sit on top that vertically split its fridge compartment. Below is a bottom freezer unit. But what really draws the eye is a flat countertop in between the sections. It runs the entire width of the appliance and provides additional counter space. 

The 1964 GE Americana was sleek, functional, and had an interesting shape.

Retro Renovation

There's even recessed lighting above the counter, plus an AC outlet on its back edge. With the same shape and updated technology, I'd bet a fridge like this would be a hit today. Imagine LEDs instead of fluorescent bulbs, banks of AC options including USB and wireless charging. Of course, to gain a counter you do have to sacrifice something. That trade-off comes in the form of less cold storage space. 

That's not to say appliance companies haven't released groundbreaking approaches to a decades-old product category. Samsung's Family Hub fridges merge tech like cameras, touchscreens and apps with contemporary luxury styling. Besides its fancy display and smart functions, the Family Hub's design is updated, too. Its front is split into four independent doors, a departure from traditional two-door side-by-side and bottom freezer models. Still, this fridge is quite unique compared with the rest of the appliance market.

Samsung's Family Hub fridge line uniquely offer updated designs and smart technology. 

Chris Monroe/CNET

Optimism and then some

Perhaps the most important ingredient of these older appliances is also the hardest one to define: optimism. To my mind, it radiates from these contraptions in waves. Both the Frigidaire Flair and GM Americana are examples of this fearless optimistic outlook. Designers dared to entirely re-imagine traditional concepts of the range, the oven, and the refrigerator. So what if a stove has never had burners that retracted to save space. An oven with gull-wing doors -- no problem. A fridge with a counter in the middle -- we can do that. 

This optimism stemmed from confidence in better tomorrows, the firm belief that the current model year is the best there ever was, and that the next year's would top that, too. Companies had the confidence to create appliances in colors spanning from the friendly and upbeat to the downright brash. 

Today, the rationale for conservative silver-and-black metal finishes is prudence and practicality. It also reflects the sober functionality of restaurant kitchens. Now the most forward-looking fridge design belongs to the Samsung Family Hub line. Its smart connected features are certainly impressive. I'd argue that physically, it doesn't deviate far from classic refrigerators. 

There was a carefree quality to these products, too. And why not think out of the box? Heck, in 10 years, you could be living on the moon, or Mars, so why worry? I admit it sounds like an infectious mindset. It's a bug I hope current appliance designers and consumers will catch again.

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