The planet is getting fatter. The World Health Organization identifies the phenomenon as “one of today’s most blatantly visible—yet most neglected—public health problems.” The International Obesity Task Force estimates that at least 155 million school-age children worldwide are overweight, a trend the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in April committed $500 million to reversing in the United States. Doctors, policy makers, and city planners are casting about for ways to combat the epidemic—diet and exercise, fat taxes, building active communities. But product designers? Stockholm-based Electrolux thinks food-related appliances can help and asked entrants in its 2006 annual competition—Design Lab—to tackle the issue.
“This has been on our minds for quite some time,” company design director Henrik Otto says. “If we don’t do anything about world obesity, we won’t pay for it right now, but we will pay for it in twenty years.” So Electrolux invited students to propose food-preparation and preservation equipment that would contribute to a healthy lifestyle “in the not too distant future.” Hundreds of people from 37 countries entered, and nine finalists went to Barcelona last November to present their concepts to a jury. Turkish student Metin Kaplan’s winning proposal, the Nevale, strives to make eating well convenient, a theme in many entries. Like the traditional Middle Eastern food container sefertas, his device has multiple compartments, allowing people to separate home-prepared items and regulate their temperatures independently.
Similarly, Germany’s Christian Jung conceived of egg-shaped Hotpods that use induction heat to steam individual portions—one of several entries with a technological focus. Brian Chuan Chai Law, of Singapore, proposed an infrared vacuum-cooking appliance; Eduardo Altamirano Segovia, a graphic-design student from Mexico, delivered a portable cooker that uses an advanced version of the clean and highly efficient Stirling engine, a little-known nineteenth-century invention that is now mostly used in submarines. “The entrants don’t have any preconceived ideas of what they can or cannot do,” Otto says. “So if they have an idea they believe in, they become extremely dedicated to finding all the solutions that support it.” Kleber Puchaski, from Brazil, created a beautiful transparent form for a familiar concept: the kitchen garden. With his solar-powered hydroponic machine, people can grow their own herbs, small fruits, and vegetables.
“The finalists oriented themselves to slow food, not fast food,” judge Fernando Campana says. “Of course, it’s a trend, but it’s a good one.” Will Electrolux be producing any of these healthy ideas “in the not too distant future”? All Otto will say is, “We’re looking at a couple of them right now.”