“Engineered for Domestic Bliss” Brings Us Back-to-the-Future Chrome and Bakelite Housewares

Images courtesy Minneapolis Institute of Art

Typewriter

Next time you’re wandering around downtown Minneapolis, whether on the bustling city streets or skyways, an exhibition in the César Pelli‎-designed Wells Fargo Center skyscraper is well worth a stop. In fact, the objects in the exhibition—gleaned from the modernism collections of the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) and Norwest Bank Minnesota—will set you dreaming of cocktail hours gone by, of Streamline Moderne kitchenware and mid-century modern appliances.

The exhibition is titled “Engineered for Domestic Bliss” and runs through July 19 of this year. Throughout the ground-floor concourse and the skyway levels are 20 cases housing table lamps, clocks and housewares from several decades before and after World War II. “These appliances, and others engineered for keeping house, feeding the family, and leisure pursuits, promised lives of efficiency and style to a growing middle class,” according to Mia’s website.

Radio

In selecting the objects for the exhibition, explains Ghenete Zelleke, decorative arts curator at Mia, “I looked at everything we have in storage and in the galleries, and picked consumer goods that were part of middle- or middle-to-upper-class family life. Many of these objects were targeted to women, and were considered part of women’s work, and were intended to make family life as easy and as elegant as possible.”

Like, for instance, the chrome-plated steel and Bakelite Twin-O-Matic waffle iron, designed by Karl Ratliff; the Silver Chef electric mixer of chromium and plastic by Dormeyer Corporation; or the Art Deco-style Handy Hot toaster from 1934 by Jean Otis Reinecke of chromium-plated metal, painted metal, and Bakelite.

Table fan
Telephone

Delightful to behold, some of the items were nonetheless questionable—even lethal. The Sun Kraft Jr. table sun lamp, which was advertised to promote good health, emitted harmful UV radiation. The Tempera electric hair curler set by Wella, circa 1940, looks painful, but was “an equal opportunity for black and white women in their pursuit of beauty,” Zelleke says, as the device promised to curl the straight hair of white women and straighten the curly hair of African-American women.

A streamlined or machine aesthetic is prominent in many of the objects. The Sparton radio by Walter Dorwin Teague (1936) and the Predicta Princess television by Philco (1959) demonstrate how these communication devices could come out of wood or faux-wood furniture cases and stand boldly alone.

Television

In the case of the television, Zelleke says, “by removing the furniture and putting it on a pedestal, the television almost looks like a mirror on a coffee table. With the name Princess, it’s easy to see how this and many other objects [the Cheerywake tea server, as another example] were targeted to women, while still having a heavy industrial aesthetic and presence.”

Cocktail shaker

The 1930 Zeppelin cocktail shaker by J.A. Henckels Twin Works, of nickel-plated brass, may be one exception. “This is an object I can see being targeted to a man, as the husband was usually in charge of cocktails,” Zelleke says. “As a mode of transport, the zeppelin was a failure. But this object’s sleek metallic façade, which opens to reveal 18 tools for creating and serving cocktails, is simply out of this world.”

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