The Self-Effacting Germans All Around Us

March 7 1994

The Self-Effacting Germans All Around Us

March 7 1994

The Self-Effacting Germans All Around Us

Germany?” thinks McKenzie, leafing through the magazine supplement. “What’s Germany got to do with me?” He finishes his cup of Melitta coffee, puts mug and breakfast

dishes into the AEG dishwasher, sets the timer on the Gaggenau oven to start heating up dinner at six, takes out the Miele vacuum for the cleaning lady. He slips on his Hugo Boss suit jacket, turns off the Krups coffee

maker and steps out on the back deck to shut off the Gardena garden sprinklers. He locks the back door and heads for his VW Jetta. Remarkable, the way German consumer goods have worked their way into our lives, many so unobtrusively that we hardly notice them.

German cars have been a fact of North American life since the first Volkswagen beetles began tootling around here in the mid-1950s, those little metal arms flipping down from their door columns to signal turns. When Janis Joplin sang her prayer for a Mercedes-Benz 15 year later (“My friends all have Porsches/I must make ay-mends”) she echoed the dream of at least two generations of young Canadian and American drivers. The great German marques — add BMW and Audi to the list — then as now signalled not only power and speed but fuel economy, passenger safety, the apex of automotive engineering. Mercedes alone has patented dozens of safety features now standard on all cars, patents it has immediately shared with all other car makers, without royalties.

Among a smaller group of consumers, German cameras and other optical devices have enjoyed similar cachet for much longer, dating from at least the 1925 introduction of the Leica, the world’s first 35 mm camera, by Leitz GmbH of Wetzlar, near Frankfurt. A revolutionary instrument, that first Leica set out what are still the basics of most photography, not only with its brilliant adopting of an already standard film size for movies, but with such now-commonplace features as interchangable lenses and easily adjusted f-stops and shutter speeds.

Major household appliances from Germany are a more recent phenomenon. Their sales here remain somewhat inhibited by price, but probably even more by what could be called “cultural factors.” Germans shop for appliances differently than North Americans. For

a start, even apartmentand condodwellers in Germany own their own fridges and stoves and take them along when they move, so they’re willing to spend for the long term. Higher energy costs and more limited average household space have also led to more efficient, but costlier, designs.

Convection cooking, for example, in which a fan circulates the hot air, is standard for most German ovens but until recently was only available here in professional restaurant and bakery models. A convection oven can cook different dishes on up to four racks at once with no transfer of taste or odor; it needs no pre-heating, cooks foods at lower temperatures and can cut cooking times by up to 30 per cent. What most haven’t been able to offer is North American-style pyrolytic selfcleaning, with the oven reaching 932° Farenheit, and cooks here have been hesitant to accept their alternatives.

With German washing machines and dishwashers the most frequent North American complaint is “too slow.” That’s not necessarily true; for lightly soiled dishes, the AEG dishwasher, for example, offers a Super Quickwash cycle only 15 minutes long. But there’s also a very good reason the German appliances take longer. Almost all have built-in water heating elements; in Germany, they are normally hooked up only to the cold water line. Heating the wash water does take time, but it also allows the household water heater to be set at a lower temperature, greatly reducing energy costs, not to mention accidental scaldings, especially of small children.

In an independent study conducted

for Ontario Hydro, a typical middle-ofthe-line German clothes washer performed “consistently and significantly better” than its North American equivalent, consuming 40 per cent less water for a normal washing cycle, 60 per cent less detergent and 75 per cent less energy. It also got clothes cleaner,

Reunification imo both an incredible stroke of luck no longer thought possible and a bitter surprise, since nobody could have assessed the situation —the catastrophic consequences and problems of 75 years of Communion.

What it ssential for the future it that Germany remain a reliable, esteemed partner in the Western alliance, that it support the integration of Eastern Europe with the West, and that we solve the problems of reunification facing us, actively and constructively and with tolerance and understanding.

Dr. Michael Otto,


too liked to start with a tubful of whites in cold water. As well, the German machine’s spin cycle, at almost twice the rotation speed, produced an added 8 per cent energy saving from the dryer, because the clothes were that much less wet going in.

Comparable back-to-back tests of dishwashers produced similar results: equal washing performance but with the German machine using 33 per cent less energy, 45 per cent less water and 50 per cent less detergent, and requiring only 30 per cent more time (80 minutes versus 60). Funny, though, that what sells German dishwashers here is not their efficiency but their better designed, more adaptable dishracks, and above all, their quiet. Noise control has historically been more important in Europe, where more people live in apartments and flats, and where many more kitchens have surfaces of stone, tile and marble. In another test, this one in the U.S., Gaggenau dishwashers were found to emit only 43 decibels of sound compared to 75 for comparable American machines. As one Toronto owner of a

in part from greater effectiveness of its front-load design, in part from the hotter final water temperature, and probably in part from the actual heating up of the water while the clothes washed. When our great-grandmothers boiled the week’s laundry on the stove, they

Mythos Icaria by Rosenthal.

German dishwasher put it, “If you can’t hear it, who cares if it takes a little longer?”

Erwin Braun, one of the founders of the Braun appliance company artic-

ulated an attitude common among German manufacturers and designers when he said, “Our products should be like a good English butler, there when you need them, in the background when you don’t.” On a recent visit to Montreal, Dieter Rams, Braun’s chief of design for the last 30 years, expanded on that: “One of our principles is that consumer goods are primarily tools. Just looking at it, the design

should make clear what that product can do for you. We still have a lot to do with our designs to make them more self-explanatory.

“We do our utmost to design our kitchen machines so that they are very easy to clean, with no deep recesses, no edges to catch dirt. You shouldn’t have to use special cleaning tools on them which then also have to be cleaned, too. Or lots of detergent or

soap which then goes into the water system. Designers still have lots of challenges, not only to make more new products, to manufacture things more efficiently, but to ensure that mass production remains quality production.

“We also have to think more about how we can operate with limited resources, what materials we can use that can later be recycled more easily. One of our rules at Braun is that good design protects the environment, by saving raw materials, and by saving energy both in production and when the product is used. And we must also protect the visual environment. Visual pollution causes similar strains to our quality of life as pollution of the air or the earth or the water. Design can help lighten the visual chaos, but only by coming back to purism, simplicity.”

Thus, the self-effacing understatment of a Mercedes dashboard, of those glass German cooktops that look like part of the kitchen counter, of Gardena’s pop-up sprinkers that vanish into the earth when the water shuts off, of the Jil Sander suit that puts the focus on the woman wearing it. Thus, too, the popularity in western Canada, as early as the 1930s, of Schwarzkopf Nonalkali Shampoo. Schwarzkopf made no phony claims to change anyone’s lovelife, it merely formulated the world’s first low pH shampoo, which works infintely better than conventional alkaline shampoos with hard water. (Schwarzkopf, which sells only to hairdressers in Canada, has a 24 percent share of the Canadian market in haircoloring. The German company exports to 60 countries and has factories in 15, but since 1950 its manufacturing and distribution operations in Canada, which employ 150 people, have always been run by an immediate member of the Schwarzkopf family.)

German consumer products tend not to make a lot of fuss. They just do the job, as discreetly and efficiently as possible. Which is why, as we juice the grapefruit, or cut the firewood, or hem the new curtains, or load up the trunk with bags of topsoil, we tend not to think about them, still less about where they come from. ■