What’s wrong with appliance design?

illndexMostly everythingA short list follows:

1. Most appliances are organized (if you can call it that) around current thinking (if you call what currently passes for thinking…oh, never mind). Since no one appears to have had an original thought about appliance design since there WAS appliance “design,” we’re dealing currently with the same sort of “default level” thinking that has informed the industry, well, forever.

2. Most of them are deep and narrow, versus wide and shallow. This means user access is made difficult as a part of the “design.” Since user access to stored material is the whole point, this might possibly be considered . . . bad.

3. Most of them place all, or a significant portion of their main functional space/surface out of what Panero and Zelnick, in “Human Dimension and Interior Space,” describe as the “zone of easy reach.”  (As an aside, the scope of HDIS is just a tiny bit spellbinding. If there’s anything you want to know about how a human body interacts with a given, if necessarily limited, type of environment, give it a look.)

1. In the case of refrigerators, for example, let’s take a space that’s 72” tall and 36” wide. The zone of easy reach is, for most people, 28” – 78” above finished floor (AFF). We have to allow for the compressor, evaporator and other mechanicals, so if you lose roughly 12” in height for them, lose another 4” in the roof and floor of the usable cavity, you’re left with the space from 16” AFF to 68” AFF. That’s bad enough, as it puts access 16” below the lower minimum height and 10” below the upper maximum height…so we start with a usable space of say 28” lateral, 56” in height and 20” in depth. The location of the space is too low by 16”, but overall, the space is wide enough, and relatively shallow enough, to be usable.

2. EXCEPT…in singular fit of idiocy, whatever nitwits are allowed to decide these things divide the space vertically instead of horizontally. Yes, folks, there we were, with a space that was wide and (relatively) shallow, really easy to use if lower than optimum, all stored items reasonably visible…and we change that, making instead, two compartments which are narrow and deep, AND we’ve made the door swing utterly wrong for the vast majority of users…more on that later.

So, let’s go back . . . ”zone of easy reach” . . . everyone get that? The idea is that you don’t have to bend, or do more than lean laterally one way or the other to reach what you need for a given task.

This concept, applied to kitchen design in a wider way, is what I used to develop the Proximity Kitchensystem ®.

It’s simple, really: if you are performing a specific task, say in wet prep, dismantling a few heads of lettuce and other salad ingredients, each implement you are going to use (sink and faucet, cutting boards, knives, colanders, centrifuge (salad spinner), bowls, perhaps a small container for compost…) should be immediately at hand.

You shouldn’t have to wander around looking for any of them. When we apply this (actual) thinking to the design of an appliance as opposed to a work center (this is known as “drilling down,” in design industry slang) we get the sort of analysis that leads to a bit of outrage, since things could be so much better with almost no effort whatsoever. Of course, we’d all have to actually THINK. I know, annoying, right? It’s practically a civil rights violation.

Effectively I’m talking about laziness on the part of designers, manufacturers and consumers, for that matter.

Back to my little diatribe…

Now take door swing. Again, you have a cold storage appliance (fridge/freezer) which is nominally 36” wide, and we have a choice, in the design process, of dividing the functions from each other vertically or horizontally. I’ve already eliminated the vertical division for anyone with more intelligence than a newt, so let’s talk about where we’re going to put the freezer and the fridge in relation to each other. Freezer bottom, fridge top, any questions? OK, fine: because you’re in and out of the fridge numerous times in a given prep session, the freezer, much less often. So, most often used, closer proximity. It’s simple.

Good (read: functionally intelligent) design dictates a single fridge door at the end of a counter. This way, the door swings away from the counter, the user steps into the temporarily created 90º storage footprint with the door storage on one side and the storage inside the fridge on the other. The natural movement as one steps back, having retrieved the needed material, is to pivot and place the material on the immediately available counter, away from the fridge.

Now let’s go back to the vertical division for a second . . . not only does it create stupid (narrow and deep) spaces for storage and access, it also (in a deluxe extra bonus offering of “we’ve-been-this-stupid-for-this-long-why-should-we-change-now” thinking) puts a door directly, perfectly and obviously in the way of the natural movement from storage to use.

Regardless of which end of the counter you put the fridge on; it’s wrong either way.

Tune in next time for solutions . . .

proximity_story_pete_walker-150x150.jpgMr. Walker is a nationally recognized professional  and has created functional and aesthetic modern living environments for more than 400 clients, in addition to having designed over 3000 kitchens in 33 years of professional practice.
He continues to develop the proximity | kitchensystem.   Pete is happy to take questions, comments and critique.  You can reach Pete through his email address:, or visit the website at

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