Reinventing the Humble Toaster

A surprising flash of insight at a company cookout changed how Balmuda makes its toast.
21 April, 2017
While Gen Terao has made his reputation as a brilliant industrial designer, the CEO of the Balmuda appliance company is as much a storyteller as he is an engineer.
The South Korean company (now relocated to Japan) is known for reimagined household products, like kitchen toasters, that most people don't much think about. When Terao describes his process, though, it's as likely that he'll speak emotively of the comfort of warm bread he remembers from Spain, or what he saw at a bakery, as he does about the technical aspects of redesigning a new appliance and bringing it to the marketplace.

Terao started out by sweet-talking a local factory into letting him using their milling machines, which he did. From a single block of aluminium, the former musician created five laptop stands sold today as the X-Base, which allow for better cooling of high-performance laptops. From there, Terao just kept going with desk lamps, environmentally friendly cooling fans, electric tea kettles and new-era rice cookers.
The inspiration for the toaster first comes from the warmth and scent of fresh bread that moved Terao to tears when, as a young man wandering the globe, he arrived in Spain. Twenty years later, as rain was dampening the enthusiasm at a company barbecue – Balmuda now employs 65 people – he noticed that the water and humidity changed the performance of the grill in ways that might work for making toast.

"If we can reproduce this taste, we will be able to do Balmuda toaster," he said. Engineers started work on it the next day, and ultimately came up with a pricey but almost-perfect toaster oven. Not before they visited a bakery to understand the role of steam, though, and not before 2,000 design iterations.
So what's the secret? The toaster doesn't look different from other models at first glance. It measures 209 millimeters high, 357 wide and 321 deep, in the same rectangular box configuration and with the same viewing window to the interior grill as most toaster ovens do. It features five different settings, say for cheese toast or croissants, with corresponding timers. What's added is a small reservoir and a tiny pouring mug to fill it with 5 ml of water that will fill the oven compartment with steam before baking.

The reason, Balmuda says, is because the water will heat faster than any gases do. Because the steam leaves a light layer of water across the bread, the toaster lightly burns that layer without impact on the oils, butter or existing moisture in the bread. All that fresh-bread feel stays sealed inside, and only then does the fully heated toaster finish baking bread at the desired setting.
The toaster oven model is more common in Asia than it is in some countries where people are used to the pop-up slices, and the USD$350 toaster was wildly successful, with a three-month waiting list when it was first introduced. Since then, Balmuda has tweaked the original toaster and offered an updated model that's been available since mid-March 2017.

With either model, it's obvious that the Balmuda toaster, with its sleek design and matte finish, isn't just a kitchen appliance. The company is very intentional about its materials, and appeals to customers who also are investing in both the experience and the décor elements of its products.