This is the second in our Home Truths series of stories about the changing nature of the home, shared by our long-time partner and collaborator Gabrielle Ackroyd, currently undertaking a PhD on material culture/anthropology at UCL. The findings are based on her own academic ethnographic research.
The Aga oven - a staple of traditional country kitchens and aspirational interiors magazines since its inception in Sweden in 1922. Made of enameled cast-iron and combining heat storage and cooking abilities, its external design has barely changed since. But what can such an analogue appliance tell us about the ‘connected home’? The answer lies in how it brings into view the kitchen as a network made up of interactions between people, products and infrastructures.
It has particular significance when considered alongside ongoing discussions on connected devices and the Internet of Things. An Aga can be thought of as an analogue version of a connected device – constantly on, and ascribed a degree of sentience. In their analogue form at least (because a smart version of the Aga, remotely controlled via an app, does now exist), Agas often have a strong hold over their users. Through my ethnographic research, the following narratives surrounding the Aga have emerged:
1. Core of the Home
The Aga replicates a controlled version of a hearth, not just providing cooking facilities and heating, but also bringing a presence and focus to the room. The warmth and ever-readiness means that the Aga fits firmly within Grant McCracken’s concept of ‘homeyness’ – “a constellation of goods and meanings related to the comfort and informality of the home”.
Beyond the hearth role, Agas tend to dominate the homes they are in and typically have a multi-tasking hub role within the domestic network. Notably the Aga often has a particularly close relationship with the freezer, by virtue of the Aga’s cooler oven being well suited to thawing food. Elsewhere in the network however, other appliances including the microwave, the electric kettle and the toaster may be notably absent, because the Aga has taken over their functions.
2. (Projected) Character
For many owners, the Aga feels like another member of the family; one described theirs to me as “a faithful, loyal old pet”. In the same way that those you know well have ways they like to interact, so do Agas (or so their owners imagine them to at least). Whilst generally considered to be amenable, they are not perfect and, like a person or a pet, their character emerges over time, with its own idiosyncrasies and quirks. Some of these can seem temperamental or difficult to deal with but overall, Agas seem to people to be ‘on their side’, a member of the team. This provides a contrast to some interactions, and indeed imagined interactions, with controlled, programmed, inhuman and efficient ‘smart’ technologies.
3. Making Use of Supplies
The Aga stores up heat and lets it out, meaning that on a day-to-day basis the supply is limited. Users must conserve this supply, which can mean making more use of the oven chambers instead of the hot plates than when cooking on other appliances. A successful Christmas dinner is considered the peak of mastering Aga cooking and heat conservation skills.
From a design perspective, the energy constraints that are enforced have the potential to turn usage into a challenge. This becomes something to master and to collaborate with the Aga on, where the user takes on the role of the custodian of the allotted resources. Consequently, this is a different type of interaction, accompanied with a particular sense of achievement - more so than if resources were unlimited. This energy ‘game’ also functions the other way around, in that efforts are made to ‘use up’ the energy being emitted through slow cooking and off-the-cuff baking.
Whilst the design of the Aga may have changed little over time, it seems as though there could be a new point of interest for this much-loved old technology, helping to think through, reveal and imagine upcoming people-product possibilities. The complex role the Aga plays in our kitchens and in relation to the user also provides some stimulating ‘food for thought’ in our smart technology era.
Gabrielle Ackroyd (@gabavenue) is currently working on a PhD on Anthropology/Material Culture at University College London on homes and mortgages. She is also a freelance consultant and Truth collaborator.