Don't Talk Bosch

New Statesman (1996), May 22, 1998 | Go to article overview

Don't Talk Bosch


The world of consumer durables is divided into two continents. In manufacturers' jargon, there are "white goods" and there are "brown goods". White goods are refrigerators, cookers, washing machines and so on. Brown goods are televisions, videos and stereos. Of course, white goods these days can be any colour you like. And brown goods are usually black.

Which raises the question of how these catch-all terms emerged. The phrase "white goods" once described cotton and linen fabrics. It came to apply to kitchen equipment when white enamel replaced dark lacquers during the 1920s; a shift that was partly social, driven by the obsession with hygiene, or at least the appearance of it, and partly stylistic, reflecting the conceits of modernist architecture.

The Americans, you may have guessed, take this to extremes. According to Adrian Forty's Objects of Desire, they even pay more for white eggs than for brown. Perhaps Melville can help. Musing on the whiteness of the whale in Moby Dick, he figures that white objects in nature have a virtuous, almost miraculous quality. He doesn't mention fridges.

But there is an element of the miraculous about this most artificial environment. The kitchen has been conceived as a domestic Utopia. Its whiteness is the whiteness of "The Shape of Things to Come", not simply the same whiteness as that of the bathroom.

If the kitchen is Utopia, the living room is Arcadia. Brown goods are so called because radios and televisions began life in wooden cabinets that made them look as much as possible like bits of furniture. Apparently hewn out of the forest, they created the living room in the image of the primitive hut.

This polarisation may be temporary. White goods are increasingly available in bright colours. Brown goods are already almost universally encased in black plastic. Given time these more recent introductions to the home will become more varied, too. It is the process of things becoming less like furniture and more like the things they are. It is not a crime to be a telly or a fridge, even if those who cover the fridge door with a "country kitchen" door from Magnet or a "Shaker" one from Ikea seem to think it is.

White goods are only one aspect of the production of Bosch, the giant German manufacturer celebrated in a new exhibition at the Design Museum.

A few weeks ago I had a go at the Design Museum for staging exhibitions overly focused on obvious personalities and rich companies. The Bosch show is worse than I could have imagined. It is a corporate installation, a prime example of what museum staff have been known to term a "pay and display" show. It is not just that there is no independent curatorial eye, no view taken on any aspect of Bosch's output, no comparison offered with other products, designers or companies, no social or cultural context provided. …

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