The 1957 promotional film is in black and white. The YouTube print is of a low quality, washing out the spokesmodel's face to just eyebrows, nose and lips. Dressed in a backless evening gown with modest heels, she walks languidly across the screen to begin her pitch.
"Welcome to the RCA-Whirlpool Miracle Kitchen," she says in a rounded alto. "In this kitchen you can bake a cake in three minutes, and in this kitchen the dishes are scraped, washed and dried electronically. They even put themselves away. Even the floor is cleaned electronically. So welcome to this wonderful new world of push-button cooking, cleaning and homemaking."
And so we are introduced to one of the most powerhouse of mid-20th-century concept kitchens, a place equally visionary and preposterous, of fantasy and aspiration. An environment invented by men to make women more ornamental, a confident proof of concept: The Miracle Kitchen.
My father, Joe Maxwell, is the last living member of the design team that created this marvel. Much of its technology was too advanced to work properly, or existed only in theory. The self-propelled machines—a floor cleaner and dishwasher—didn't work at all.
"We had a guy behind a two-way mirror," dad told me, "moving these things around by remote control."
Muted in black and white on film, the actual Miracle Kitchen was a riot of primary colors. Red, yellow, black, slate and cobalt panels covered its various concealed amenities. Even the sink was hidden, as if the visceral acts that take place in a normal kitchen had to be sanitized and recessed. Above all of the workspaces were large panels of garish pink.
The first thing we're shown is the Planning Center, an odd, office-like desk with lots of aerodynamic buttons, a cordless "personal" phone and closed-circuit television screens. From here one could summon the sundry self-propelled devices and have a view of the nursery and front door.
"In other words," assures our model in calming tones, "you can sit in your RCA-Whirlpool Miracle Kitchen and keep tabs on the whole house." (The careful way she pronounces the product's entire name every time—The RCA-Whirlpool Miracle Kitchen—is almost verbally inclusive of its hyphen and registered trademark sign.)
Later, after revealing the hidden beverage dispenser "with a mere wave of her hand," she confides, "right now, I think I'd like a can of frozen orange juice." You almost believe her.
"She couldn't make anything move by waving her hand," Dad said. "Other people were doing that."
The kitsch of it all belies a frightening kind of careless power. The self-propelled floor cleaner has a crouched and threatening look. The dishwasher emerges from its place and lumbers through the room to bring plates to the table, supposedly guided by electrical tracks hidden beneath the floor. We're told that the "electronic oven" can cook a leg of lamb in seven minutes, and bacon and eggs in 90 seconds. One senses the barely controlled force of the Atomic Age straining against the harness. Everything, of course, is available at the push of a button, like missiles snug in their silos.
The spokesmodel delivers the best line of the film with a grace that conceals its awkward entitlement: "Now, in those days when time is too short or when your bridge game has been a little bit too long, you still can prepare a well-balanced meal in just a matter of seconds with the least amount of attention." All I could think of was martinis and an unsteady gait, a cigarette being lit while another still burns in the ashtray.
At the end of the film, we are shown Whirlpool's washer/dryer, an appliance that was actually on the market. The rest of it, we are told, "is a laboratory of kitchen ideas for the future," where "the things women don't like to do are done automatically."
The Miracle Kitchen got a lot of press. It was one of three concept kitchens showcased in the American National Exhibition in Moscow in the summer of 1959. It was here that then-Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev engaged in the impromptu "kitchen debate," in GE's lemon-yellow concept model.
"I want to show you this kitchen," Nixon said to his counterpart. "It is like those of our houses in California."
"I have read much about America and American houses," responded Khrushchev, "and I do not think this exhibit and what you say is strictly accurate." He wondered whether American workers could afford such luxuries and then went on to claim that all new Russian houses had the same stuff. The subsequent New York Times transcript has him asking, "Don't you have a machine that puts food into the mouth and pushes it down?"
Much of the optimism of those times is gone, its powerful middle class hollowed out. We have microwaves and roombas, cell phones and security cameras now, but they're just bland accompaniments to our non-futuristic lives. The Miracle Kitchen, though, manifested some ideas that remain too forward-thinking to have ever been implemented.
It is not through the whiz-bang and unworkable features that I can see Dad's contribution to the Miracle Kitchen. He is the one who conceived of sinks and drawers that raise and lower, putting everything within easy reach. "It's possible for you to have a sink adjusted to you individually," the spokesmodel says in the film, "whether you're tiny, typical or tall."
These same concepts continue in my father's dream even now, of a mass-producible kitchen that responds to the user's differing needs and abilities, rather than the other way around. We grow old and stooped, we might have low vision, we can be confined to wheelchairs. Building code ignores these things in favor of the law of averages and imposes uniformity.
My dad has created a universal design kitchen that can alter its physical form to respond to these changing needs. When he approached Whirlpool with this idea for the 50th anniversary of the Miracle Kitchen, they declined.
After he left to go work for himself in the early 1960s, Dad received a letter from Bill Hume, Whirlpool's product manager. He thanked Dad for his work and explained why the carousel refrigerator Dad designed—one altogether more accessible than the others on the market—was never put into production. "If in looking back on your efforts I were to assign any weakness to them," my father was told, "it would be that they were too far in front of the industry. The Carousel concept is the most flexible interior ever designed but we have concluded it is too far advanced by relation to our competitors to gain the broad acceptance we feel necessary."
Dad is proud of this letter, the one that told him he was too innovative, even for the most Jetsons-like of dream kitchens. I wonder when the day will come that finds us living in spaces that adapt to us in all our wondrous and changing forms. Is that asking for a miracle?
Formerly with the Squirrel Nut Zippers, Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician who leads the band The Minor Drag. He lives in Carrboro.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Do you believe in miracles?"