Appliances: The Aga Saga

Old traditions die hard or—as a growing number of savvy European firms are demonstrating—reinvent themselves. Many bastions of conservative style, such as Burberry, Land Rover, and Louis Vuitton, have spawned youthful alter egos for a new generation. Now Aga, manufacturer of the quintessential British cooker (aka stove), is poised to follow suit as it settles into its ninth decade.

Invented in 1922 by Swedish physicist and Nobel Laureate Gustaf Dalén, the stove was named for the Swedish gas company Svenska Aktiebolaget Gas Accumulator (AGA), of which Dalén would eventually become director. While convalescing at home from an accident, Dalén observed how difficult it was for his wife to prepare meals on a stove that burned fuel rapidly and demanded constant tending. With AGA’s assistance, he developed a revolutionary cooking appliance that maintained its heat for 24 hours using only eight pounds of coal. In 1929, AGA licensed the stove to a British iron foundry, and the rest is culinary history.

The Aga quickly attracted a cult following among such royal fans as Queen Mary. "The Aga became part of the upper-crust life in England," declared advertising giant David Ogilvy in an interview for a 1997 BBC documentary. "It looked solid, was solid, and is solid. It was the Rolls-Royce of the kitchen, and people realized that very quickly." As a door-to-door salesman for Aga in the mid-1930s, Ogilvy was pivotal to the company’s success. In 1935 he wrote The Theory and Practice of Selling an Aga Cooker, which Fortune magazine described as "the best sales manual ever written."

What is most remarkable is how little the Aga has changed. The hallmark array of au courant colors joined the original cream color in 1956. The heat source eventually transitioned from solid coke to oil in 1964 and gas in 1968. However, today’s classic Aga (the deluxe four-oven stove costs about $13,000) still operates on Dalén’s initial principle of maintaining continuous heat at constant temperatures in distinct cooking zones.

For purists, this handcrafted, enameled, cast-iron range, built and installed on-site by a certified Aga fitter, is one of the paradigms of timeless quality. "It’s definitely a lifestyle thing," observes Joan Picone, interior designer for European Country Kitchens in New Jersey. "You always find Aga families in which the grandmother had an Aga, the mother has one, and the daughter has one."

Now Aga has introduced a series of updated ranges to meet the logistical needs of contemporary living. In 1996, it introduced the Companion ($3,690), a 24-inch dual-fuel range with standard gas burners on top and two electric ovens that can fit into more diminutive spaces. It was so popular that the 6-4 Series ($6,999), a larger six-burner/ four-oven version complete with a wok burner, was launched earlier this year. For more standard-size spaces, the Cookmaster ($6,355) is a neat 36 inches wide, arrives pre-built and ready to install, and can be left on all the time or programmed to turn on or off.

"The concept and the look are the same," says Picone. "But they cook the way most of us are used to. And they have a huge amount of charm."

Aga Ranges, 800.633.9200, www.aga-ranges.com

Photo by claudiuvoichin.com
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