How did this organization originate, and why do we need a foundation devoted to toasters?
The intellectual answer to the "why" question is that much can be learned about cultures through the examination of everyday items and we have a unique opportunity to gather some fascinating artifacts from the 20th Century before they become lost to history. For the history of the toaster is the history of 20th Century Cultural Trends and Industrial Design ... a more emotional response is that they are fascinating, funky and fun, demonstrate the better side of human ingenuity, and simply uplift one's spirits!
As with most businesses, clubs and organizations, it takes the passion and vision of an individual or a small group of people to provide the initial impetus and direction. In the case of The Toaster Museum Foundation, it came about as a result of a combination of factors: the huge success of a Toaster Museum my wife and I had open in Seattle, a continuing desire to contribute positively to the community, and the story of an eccentric uncle.
I have an ongoing love of functional art but my specific obsession with, and reason for, collecting toasters came about as the result of a business I opened in Seattle.
The AFLN Gallery & Cafe, located on Seattle's Capitol Hill, was an art space that supported itself with a small cafe and espresso bar. The kitchen was very tiny and one day, in trying to figure out how to expand the menu, the idea struck me to put functioning toasters on the tables, sell bread and toppings, and let customers make their own toast. This worked well for a couple of reasons: it required no additional kitchen space, and the customer got his toast exactly as he wanted it.
After gathering up several 1950s-era chrome pop-ups and developing a menu that included more than 25 different toppings, the toast cafe was operating and became a hit. I kept hunting for back-up toasters and one day came across a Toast-O-Lator, a tall, slender toaster with an opening on each end that "walks" the bread though while toasting it. This toaster hooked me as a collector and had patrons bringing their friends back to the cafe to use it.
Good coffee and good toast brought in many regular customers, but the best was a young woman named Kelly who, even though she burned her finger on the Toast-O-Lator, married me and became my partner in love, business and toaster-hunting.
We had to close the gallery/cafe because we lost the lease on the space, but the collecting continued.
The next year Kelly and I worked to open another business - an art gallery and artist studio complex. We continued to collect toasters for fun and stored them in our studio that was part of the complex.
Like many cities, Seattle has a night once a month when all the galleries stay open late and thousands of people come out for an "Art Walk". During these Art Walks we would have to go into our studio for various reasons and occasionally someone would spot the glimmer of chrome and ask us what we were doing with "all those toasters". Finally, after giving dozens of impromptu tours and being unable to shoo people from our studio, we decided to open a full-fledged and proper Toaster Museum ... and the response was amazing.
The Toaster Museum wasn't open long but it attracted visitors from around the world as well as International media attention. Pieces about the museum appeared on Japanese television, Canadian radio and TV, and on the BBC in Great Britain. In the U.S., The Toaster Museum was covered by such diverse sources as National Public Radio and Forbes Magazine.
Yes, a Toaster Museum. It's the sort of thing the media eats up - as a story at the end of a newscast, it is the perfect way to "lighten-up" after reporting on all the blood-letting around the world - and consume they did. Most of the journalists (and a good deal of the public) came thinking the museum was something silly - or just a novelty - and were surprised to discover the rich history the toaster tells.
Although the museum was just a sideline of our business, which was an art gallery and studio complex, it became the most consistently pleasing part of what we were doing.
Guests to the museum were amazed (as we continue to be) at the design, innovation, and effort that went into producing toasters. We were struck by our own ignorance of America's design heritage, and how our country has come to accept shoddy merchandise in order to get the best possible "deal."
It started to be clear that the Toaster Museum could have a higher purpose beyond housing toasters. It could teach.
It can teach history, design trends, and cultural preferences. It is able to show how attention to detail matters - how life can be better when things of lasting quality are incorporated. It might convince those involved in industrial design that designing toasters can be a rewarding experience, and not the lowliest of tasks.
The idea of a museum devoted to a single appliance seems a bit narrow - often visitors would ask us if we were going to expand into waffle irons or coffee makers - but the purity of the Toaster Museum is what makes it unique. With an "Appliance Museum" it would be easy for visitors to walk by toasters thinking they were something else - a waffle maker, or a radio, etc. By displaying just toasters, the viewer can know that every object he sees is a toaster and the whole diverse, daring, experimental, and wacky history is revealed.
The notion of creating a non-profit entity came about for a couple of reasons:
We made them stop their story and decided to imagine that the house was full of modern pop-ups, so as not to be too disheartened. But this did make us realize that we, too, would be considered eccentric relatives, and we did not want our collecting efforts to end up in a landfill.
So, it was decided that if the Toaster Museum remained active , we would look into becoming non-profit.
Various delays and setbacks have made it a long road, but did create a non-profit organization to support the museum - we came close to opening our doors in Charlottesville, Virginia, but the plan didn't come together. But there is good news:
Nov. 2008 UPDATE:
After leaving Charlottesville we still held on to the hope that the collection of 500+ toasters, ranging from pre-electric 19th century toasting forks to modern toasters designed by Michael Graves, could remain together and eventually find a place of display. The good news is that the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn has acquired the entire collection and they will stay largely together although we are uncertain when they will have the toasters ready for public viewing. Additionally the Henry Ford has committed to preserving the Internet resource toaster.org, which has so well served researchers and students over the years.
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