How to get a robot into the kitchen

How to get a robot into the kitchen

In 1962, one in four Czechoslovak families bought themselves a new electrical appliance: a boiling spiral, an iron with temperature control, a vacuum cleaner or a blender produced in the workshops of the Elektro-Praga Hlinsko state enterprise. It was only five years before that an audit revealed the company had been producing goods without any sales for a full eighteen months. There were serious debates about cancelling the production of the blender, which had been produced from 1955 as Pragomix Special, type 030, designed by Miloš Hájek.

When examining the reasons for the low sales, an intriguing question arose - how does one advertize goods? [1] It was discovered that there is virtually no advertizing. The products were simply displayed in shop windows and furnished with a price tag. Even though the prices of these appliances were not exactly low [2], people at the time had few other options when it came to spending their money. The problem lay elsewhere - hardly anyone had experience in using the new appliances. Advertizing was supposed to come up with a way to introduce the new gadgets into Czechoslovak households.

An ad campaign that was being prepared focused on working women. Never mind all the official proclamations about gender equality and the new role of women in a socialist society - women were primarily perceived as housekeepers, whose role was to do the washing and the ironing, tidy up and prepare Sunday lunches as well as breakfasts and suppers every day. However, in advertisements that promoted the new appliances, they were promoted to the role of absolutist rulers of their households. One of their "humble servants" was the Jupiter vacuum cleaner, named after an ancient Roman god. "Human imagination once created gods so people had something to fear," the text of an advertisement read. "Nowadays, the same imagination creates the miracles of modern technology, and names them after gods. And so, modern times have overturned the Biblical quote 'Man was created in God's image'. Quite the opposite: People create gods to serve them and bring them comfort." [3]

In contrast to the humble deity that began cleaning up as soon as the mistress issued an order, the new kitchen robot was given a very prosaic name: Pragomix; and unlike its divine couterpart, it had a tough job entering Czechoslovak households. First of all, it had to overcome one of the most conservative aspects of people's lifestyle - their old eating habits. The ad campaign presented the new blender as a machine that could prepare with ease the dishes that marked a new trend in healthy eating, be it porridge, vegetable soup or different types of sauces and spreads made from dairy products. Curd cheese, as well as other types of cheese, were meant to replace warmed-up sausages and traditional dishes based on flour. "If someone has an unhealthy diet, they begin to look sick, they age quickly and their work performance deteriorates. They can even fall ill and die," a promotional leaflet warned potential readers in the early 1960s. "It is especially women who should be prudent enough to maintain a youthful look by eating healthily, instead of manufacturing that look using make-up." [4]

The slogan "Pragomix means tastier, healthier dishes" put the Hlinsko-produced blender at the forefront of the campaign for a heathy diet. And thus, the kitchen robot was advertized using a brochure that featured over two dozen recipes - from children's dishes to low-fat spreads, but there was also a recipe for "a refreshing drink made from rum". More recipes followed, including an instructional cooking video. On-site presentations - in companies and factories, including a tasting of the final products - became widely popular.

Emanuel Kupčík's illustration on the cover of the Great Book of Pragomix Recipes brochure, Prague, 1964.

 

The Pragomix ad campaign started halfway through 1958 and by Christmas that year, all the warehouse stock had been sold out. The following year, the demand for Pragomix greatly exceeded the supply and its production had to be increased by 95%. [5] Illustrated advertisements had their share in the campaign's success. Some of them were very short, such as "A Working Woman's Supper", which merely showed a list of dishes one could prepare in the blender, for both children and adults. Other advertisements gave long-winded explanations of why working women should get themselves a Pragomix. It saved time, relieved women of physical labor and "saved the vitamins" hidden in the fruit peels and egg shells that the machine processed easily. There was one thing these advertisements had in common - they were based on a text message accompanied by an illustration. And as they were usually put together by advertizing consultants (called "referring officers"), graphic designers had little control over basic aspects of the advertisement or the final result. Their job was to work with the given text, choose an appropriate font and add a photograph or a drawing to illustrate the meaning.

In the late 1950s, this approach was criticized by Emanuel Kupčík, a graphic designer whose engraving illustrations accompanied the Elektro-Praga Hlinsko leaflets and printed advertisements. Kupčík believed that the contractors were not competent enough to decide which themes were visually interesting or worth describing. In efect, they required the designer to depict whatever was put down in words. Copywriters were oblivious of the designers' capabilities and graphic designers could not express themselves through words. [6] This situation had two potential solutions - either the copywriter and graphic designer worked in closer cooperation, or the two merged into a single, all-round artist.

In the early 1960s, the copywriter-graphic designer tandem was challenged by an argumentation that put emphasis on graphic means of expression. It was greatly inspired by short movie ads with a running time of around one minute. In this limited space, a commercial was supposed to present a message that was both concise and illustrative. There was no time for idle talk. First, a graphic designer was asked to come up with "a good poster that had a central idea, a twist, a punchline, or a witty aspect to it. Only then it would reach the screenwiter and the director, who would develop it into movie form, in the most concise way possible." [7]

Karel Pekárek, shots from the Pilsner Urquell commercial, 1961.

Karel Pekárek's Pilsner Urquell commercial (1961) was a representative example of this approach. In promoting the beer brand that was meant for export, he used a stylized drawing in combination with shots of moving flames, to communicate a simple metaphor - beer was the best way to "quench thirst". Pekárek was known for using modern, simple lines to create book illustrations and propagandist poster graphics, as well as commercial graphics, both in his home country and abroad. His teacher at the Brno School of Arts and Crafts, Zdeněk Rossmann, an avant-garde set designer, architect and typographer, inspired him to use the modernist concept of a unified style, which was supposed to bring order into society and raise the level of cultural awareness. Pekárek paid great attention to detail, whether it was administrative forms, leaflets or printed advertisements. Although it was very uncommon at the time, he insisted on companies using a unified style when promoting their products. Also, he believed a graphic designer should have the possibility "to exert an influence over the text, which would only complement the graphic part, if necessary. It's obvious that even the best of copywriters cannot imagine the visual part without being influenced by previous advertizing, thus suppressing a potentially new, original idea ... This is what makes advertizing in our printed media bland, boring and artless." [8]

 

Emanuel Kupčík, Elektro-Praga Hlinsko ad, Technický magazín, 1960.

 

Miroslav Hucek, Milan Kopřiva, an advertisement from the Nový dekameron promotional brochure, Liberec Trade Fair, 1966.

 

For Czechoslovak graphic designers, the EXPO 58 international exhibition in Brussels provided for an inspiring confrontation with both Western and overseas cultures, and it resulted in a creative revival in advertizing as well as other forms of applied graphics. In the late 1950s as well as in the early 1960s, advertizing was filled to the brim with characters sporting big noses, as a less than subtle hommage to Saul Steinberg and other proponents of modern graphic design. The flashy and overtly simple compositions became omnipresent, but it did not eradicate some of the more traditional forms of advertizing design. Much more conservative illustrations, brimming with details, could be found, for instance, in Sešity domácího hospodaření, a series of slim cookbooks that featured, all through the 1960s, advertisements promoting new types of kitchen robots and the various accessories - kneader heads, whipping attachments, grater extensions or cutting blades.

 

Miroslav Liďák, Ohníček magazine cover, 1963.

 

Apart from its evident success, the massive campaign promoting new household appliances had other, quite unexpected consequences. Kupčík's drawings, with their technique reminiscent of old photoxylographs, became the source material for Jiří Kalousek a Miroslav Liďák's collages. Both Polylegran members would cut out images of the Pragomix kitchen robot and the Standard and Pluto vacuum cleaners (the latter was nicknamed "the egg") from the Elektro-Praga Hlinsko ads and used them in an entirely different context. Miroslav Liďák used the cutouts to create a robot which was later featured in Vlastislav Toman's sci-fi comic called The Martian. Jiří Kalousek made humorous collages out of Kupčík's drawings, but he also used them in his own comic strips. One of these had the kitchen robot change into a spaceship, which could work as an unobtrusive ad, presenting an amazing kitchen helper for a working woman and a caring mother.

 

Jiří Kalousek, comic strip from the Young Readers' Club (Klub mladých čtenářů) bulletin. Malý čtenář, Prague: SNDK, 1964.

 

[1] Evžen Rejmánek, „Inzerce důvěry“; Propagace, 1962, vol. VIII, 2 (February), 45.

[2] In the early 1960s, a blender cost 500 Kčs (Czechoslovak crowns), which was about a third of the mean monthly income at the time.

[3] "Božstvo v roli služebníků " (Deities in the role of servants; illustrated ad slogan on the back cover of a magazine); Práce mladých, vol.. XIII, 21 (November 1, 1958).

[4] Milk and dairy products (Nový Bydžov: Průmysl mléčné výživy, n. p. 1960).

[5] "Akce Pragomix" (The Pragomix ad campaign); Reklama, vol. V, 8 (August 1959), 176.

[6] Emanuel Kupčík, "Stesky propagačního grafika" (A promotional designer's lamentations); Reklama, 1959, vol. V, 9 (September), 200.

[7] Spytimír Bursík, "Očima zaujatého diváka" (Through the eyes of a biased viewer; response in a survey); Propagace, 1960, vol. VII, 4 (April), 102.

[8] Karel Pekárek, "O inserátu" (About advertisements); Reklama, 1957, vol. III, 1 (January), 4–5.

 

The text about advertizing graphics constitutes one chapter in the book named Pionýři a roboti. Československá ilustrace 1950–1970, which was published by the Paseka publishing house in November 2016, in cooperation with the Faculty of Fine Arts in Brno.

 

Cover of Pavel Ryška a Jan Šrámek's Pionýři a roboti. Československá ilustrace 1950–1970.