Have you seen the amazing refrigerators in some peoples' kitchens these days? They have touchscreens, doors in surprising places, special compartments with precise temperature settings for everything from broccoli to wine. It wasn't always this way.
Until a couple decades ago, even top-of-the-line fridges used a ton of energy, couldn't fit a gallon of milk and a pizza box on the same shelf, and forced everyone over 10 years old to bend over to grab anything.
The freezer-on-top models, which were standard issue for most of the appliance's history, were an artifact from a time when iceboxes were inside the fridge and located on the top. The reason: Cold air is heavy, and as it descended from the ice box, the chilly air would help keep the rest of the appliance cool. But when the freezer finally became its own compartment, manufacturers put it on top again. It's energy efficient in that spot, but to grab a yogurt or a head of lettuce, you risked developing a spinal injury.
Thankfully, aching backs prevailed, and in the 1980s the side-by-side fridge and freezer made it into homes. It was one step toward a design that benefited humans, but the vertically-oriented spaces were less than ideal. "The compartments were thin and narrow," remembers Kurt Jovais, director of home appliances at Samsung. "If you had a pizza box, you had to set it on its side."
So fridges got bigger. The problem, explains Jovais, is that "the fridge is like a highway. No matter how big, it's still going to be full of cars." Monstrous, cold-keeping beasts hold lots of groceries, but they can also take over your kitchen.
So people like Jovais have done a ton of market research to find out how people organize their fridge. He found some funny things: people like to use their crisper drawer as beer storage, and the fridge's most accessible spaces (like the real estate in the doors) tend to be filled with items that are infrequently used, like olives and hot sauces.
Nowadays, refrigerator designers attempt an efficient use of space with egg trays, wider door pockets, and shelves that fit a gallon of milk. These food-specific elements free up more ground for items like to-go containers and half-eaten pie.
Those special compartments are also designed to make food last longer. In the United States, we toss out about 40 percent of our edibles, and a good chunk of that comes from fruit and veggies not consumed quickly enough. A humidity-controlled crisper helps greens last longer. The catch is that if humid air gets into the freezer it causes freezer burn. Samsung solved this problem with separate evaporators for the fridge and freezer to keep each compartment at appropriate humidity levels.
Fine-tuning temperature control helps, too. In one bottom-mounted freezer model, Samsung added a third compartment—a drawer that opens from the outside between the fridge and freezer that's meant to be modded. If you want to make it a designated wine area, the drawer can be set at a temperature that's better for Chardonnays (around 42 degrees) than for veggies. To soft-freeze meats and fish, the drawer can be programmed to stay round 29 degrees.
And of course now that refrigerator-makers have the temperature, humidity, organization and efficiency pretty much mastered, appliance companies have to find more tasks for the appliance. Samsung and LG have one on the market with Wifi. So far, consumers seem mostly interested in their fridges performing food-storage-related tasks. But Samsung is hoping that will change with its calendar, Pandora and Epicurious fridge apps. Personally, I'd just be happy for a fridge that fit a darn pizza box.