How the KitchenAid mixer became the beautiful object that’s often seen and rarely heard
In 1937, Egmont Arens redesigned the KitchenAid stand mixer.
That design, tweaked only slightly, is the design of the KitchenAid mixer that’s probably on your counter today.
It’s the design of the 2 million or so mixers the company now makes every year. So many people want these things that this year KitchenAid announced it would double the size of its Greenville, Ohio, factory to feed demand “in large part, for the legendary stand mixer,” the company says. The silhouette Arens created is so important to KitchenAid that it’s trademarked.
Arens might have started his career as a Greenwich Village bohemian, but this is his legacy: he was a pioneer in the art of selling Americans on consumer goods they never knew they always wanted. And he excelled at it. Working for a roster of companies (General Electric, Fairchild Aircraft, the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company…), he made beautiful and salable everything from fountain pens to airplanes to, according to one report, “secret war weapons.”
But the mixer was his most lasting triumph. In all 95 years of its history, only a select group of dedicated cooks and bakers have ever bought a KitchenAid mixer and then used it regularly. The rest of us just like how it looks. It’s pure form that sells the mixers — just as Arens intended.
The first iteration of the KitchenAid stand mixer looked like an industrial machine. The 65-pound Model H stood upright, its engine stacked in a neat, vertical line above the mixing bowl. Before 1919, when the Model H was released, a commercial version of these mixers had been marketed, successfully, to kitchens that needed to churn out dozens of loaves of bread each day. The home version was a tougher sell. While the earlier, larger models had made sense for bakeries and military kitchens, it wasn’t as clear that home cooks needed a dough-kneading machine, especially when it cost almost $200 — the rough equivalent of about $2,750 today. Most women were unmoved by the concept.
Until the Sunbeam MixMaster. The first MixMaster came on the market in 1930. It was small and sleek, with a bullet-shaped body. It did about the same range of kitchen tasks the KitchenAid mixer did. And it was cheap: $18.25. In the three years before the MixMaster appeared, KitchenAid’s 1927 Model G, with its bulky, tubular head now parallel to the kitchen counter, had sold just 20,000 units. By 1936, American cooks were buying 300,000 MixMasters a year.
KitchenAid hired Arens.
Eggy Arens was a new type of professional, an industrial artist who made commercial products move. But he had not always been in the business of designing things to sell. Before the Depression, Arens had been a cowboy, a sports editor, a man who crossed the Atlantic Ocean with two friends in a 30-foot sailboat just for the hell of it. “Bobby Edwards has a rival in versatility,” reported the Quill, a downtown New York rag, in 1918. “Old Eggy Arens, the Eighth Street bookseller, poet, painter, carpenter, ticket agent, column conductor, beau of the Village dances and publisher.” Arens had opened the bookshop in Greenwich Village when it was the most radical, creative neighborhood in New York and printed playbills for the edgy Provincetown Playhouse. He had been an art editor for Vanity Fair when it was the Jazz Age’s hippest magazine.
In 1929, though, on the cusp of the Depression, he had turned from promoting plays to promoting products, as the founder of a “division of industrial styling” at the storied advertising firm Calkins and Holden. His job was to make the objects the firm was advertising beautiful.
This was, at the time, a new idea. Arens’ boss, Earnest Elmo Calkins, had written in the Atlantic, in 1927, of “Beauty, the New Business Tool.” As industrial production had ramped up, Calkins argued, “We began to miss something in our cheap but ugly products.”
The next frontier in industry, he wrote, was to beautify machines —
“a new field of artistic endeavor.”
This wasn’t selling out. It was making the world a more attractive place to live, and in the midst of the Depression it was downright patriotic. Someone needed to convince people to buy things, if America was going to get back on its feet.
By 1937, when he took on KitchenAid as a client, Arens had branched out on his own. But he had internalized Calkins’ ideas. In 1935, he co-authored, with his colleague Roy Sheldon, the first book on “consumer engineering,” which, they wrote, “in its widest sense … includes any plan which stimulates the consumption of goods.” It didn’t matter how, exactly, one stirred the appetites of the American consumer. What mattered was that they bought things. “Consumer engineering does not end until we consume all we can make,” Arens and Sheldon said.
So, when he was asked to fix the KitchenAid mixer, Arens didn’t try to change its function or make it more useful. He just came up with a design that would entice people to buy the thing, simply for the sake of buying it.
He scaled the mixer down and gave it smooth, sweeping lines. All of a sudden, it looked like a machine that would quietly streamline dinner production, instead of whirring monster that would take over the kitchen. His Model K sold for $55, the equivalent of about $1,000 — still pricey, but all of a sudden, both accessible and desirable.
Arens did miss one opportunity. He was obsessed with the power of color, but his KitchenAid mixer, like many early appliances, was white. In 1955, KitchenAid added color (Petal Pink, Sunny Yellow, Island Green, Satin Chrome, Antique Copper) to the mixers and saw a huge lift in sales. In 1990s, it created a new array of designer colors to appeal to Food Network-ized upscale kitchen owners. That worked, too.
Through these decades, the essential function of the stand mixer has not changed — nor has its actual, fairly limited usefulness. Every year it’s one of the country’s most popular registry items, but it’s not because newlyweds get much work out of it: “Let’s be honest, the real reason everyone loves it is because it comes in 25 amazing colors — from tangerine to pistachio,” as the wedding magazine the Knot admits. That’s why we spend around $500 on a machine to occasionally whip egg whites to hard peaks or cream potatoes. (Maybe pull together a batch of brownies.) Because the mixer looks good while doing it.
This eternal growth in sales wasn’t what was supposed to happen, though. Arens and his contemporaries saw a conclusion to consumer engineering: at some point, production and consumption would reach an economic equilibrium. They didn’t imagine that, in a few decades, the luckier of us would be rich enough to create idle mini-factories in our kitchens, full of contraptions we only occasionally use.