This week The Wealth List takes a look at one of the iconic brands and designs synonymous with the kitchen. A design classic that stirred up a furore on social media after a comment on the UK TV show – Great British Bake Off – sparking debate as to whether owning one automatically qualified the user as “posh”. We are of course talking about the AGA range cooker – in a bid to find out more we spoke with AGA Brand Ambassador Laura James to find out more on the background of the company, its products and very clever marketing coining such terms as the Agastocracy and AGA-Sagas…
AGA has a complex but interesting early history behind it – initially invented and patented by a blind Nobel Prize winner in Sweden (Gustaf Dalén) in 1922 – how did the product and subsequently the brand end up becoming a British farmhouse icon?
Britain’s love affair with AGA began in 1929 when it was distributed here under license. UK manufacture began in 1932, but the popularity of the AGA really began to take off from 1936, when manufacture and marketing was taken over by AGA Heat Ltd, which was based in the West End with a showroom close to Selfridges.
In the 1950s, AGA introduced the notion of the Agastocracy, its advertising underlining it was the discerning choice. Then, of course, came the so-called AGA Sagas – a series of fictional novels that seemed to feature characters and kitchen with an AGA at their heart and AGA’s iconic status became established in the national mindset.
It was a long time until AGA launched a model that would run on electricity (1985) – What were the major difficulties that needed to be overcome in order to go electric?
There was actually an electric cooker made by AGA in 1975, but it was closer to a conventional oven than a heat-storage range cooker. It wasn’t until 1985 that there was real demand for a cast-iron electric AGA cooker. This change was prompted by consumers preferring the convenience of electricity to oil and the growing popularity of the relatively new Economy 7 tariff.
How has AGA managed to stay relevant/modern and “up-to-date” in the market place?
The AGA has maintained its place in the British kitchen – and safeguarded its iconic status – by carefully evolving while remaining true to its original design aesthetic. There are now AGA cookers that are on when you want them and off when you don’t. Others that have on/off hotplates – which saves on running costs, while still keeping the kitchen cosy and even an AGA cooker that can be controlled remotely via a smartphone app.
Having only seen a handful of AGAs personally, they have usually been in very large houses and appear to be part of the heating system for the entire house – how did the engineers and developers set about scaling down to accommodate the smaller houses of today?
Although it’s true you often see AGA cookers in large houses, they have never run central systems. Over the years the collection has evolved to take in 2-oven, 3-oven, 4-oven and even 5-oven models. The final piece in the puzzle was the recent launch of the AGA City60, which manages to house two ovens and one hotplate within an overall width of 60cm. Crucially, this is the standard width of a kitchen unit making it perfect for galley kitchens and compact apartments. The principle of the cooker is exactly the same, it is just in a smaller package and has one hotplate rather than two.
Is everything still made in the UK? (even for international distribution?)
Yes, all AGA cookers are made at the AGA Foundry at Coalbrookdale and Ketley in Shropshire a United Nations World Heritage site.
AGA has very few competitors and those that do exist appear incredibly similar in shape and style – Is this down to a rare case of the inventor getting the concept right first time? Or have there been different shapes and styles tested over the years that have not made it?
The AGA is an enduring design classic, which is loved the world over. It quite simply does what it is meant to do, seamlessly and with great results.
Having been in production for the best part of a century, can you tell us about any unusual or strange places where AGA’s are/were in use?
- The Archers radio show has a real AGA in their studio as they found they couldn’t fake the sound of the ovens and hotplate lids
- An AGA was taken to Antarctica for the British Antarctic Survey base in the ’30s
- There is an AGA at Thomas’s (Burberry) Cafe in London
- AGAs used to be fitted as standard on Iraqi trains in the ’40s
- There is one in a Scottish Baronial castle in China
- In the 1920s and ’30s the RAF installed AGA cookers in all its new officers quarters
Have you ever produced any exceptionally large or small AGA’s for publicity/marketing purposes?
Specifically for marketing, no. The range of sizes available has been increased over the years to accommodate modern demand, the largest AGA cooker available is the 5-oven with module, which is actually fairly huge, the smallest is the AGA City60, which is just 60cm wide.
What are some of the more long-standing myths about AGA’s?
It’s an enduring myth that an AGA cannot be turned on and off. Whilst this is the case with older versions, the newer models ovens and hotplates can be switched on and off independently.
Another is that an AGA can run the central heating. Years ago, there were models that could provide hot water, but they have never heated radiators.
What does the future hold for AGA?
AGA is holding its first ever AGA Festival in London 20th September with a long list of speakers including best-selling food writers, cookery experts and celebrity owners – more information and tickets can be found here.
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