Jet Age Design: The Tappan Fabulous 400 and Frigidaire Custom Imperial Flair

by James Kraus

Fab III

Tappan Fabulous 400.

American appliance manufactures began upgrading and stylizing their wares in the 1950s to add Jet Age glamour to the heretofore humble workhorses of the household. The movement gained extra momentum in 1953 when Frigidaire introduced the first popular-priced appliances available in colour finishes. As an alternative to traditional white, buyers could now opt for Stratford Yellow or Sherwood Green. Other manufacturers responded with their own special palettes, and in short order all major kitchen appliances were being produced in a rainbow of colour from pastel pink to charcoal grey. 

Emboldened by strong customer enthusiasm for this new focus on style, designers began reconsidering the basic design features of many appliances. The most radical rethink was in the kitchen range. Manufacturers embellished their stoves with gleaming chrome and stainless steel trim, and the once unadorned backsplash behind the burners became an “instrument panel” festooned with stylish knobs, pushbuttons, clocks and cooking timers.

In 1959 Tappan took a giant step further by rethinking the entire form factor of the traditional stove, resulting in the ground-breaking Tappan Fabulous 400. Instead of the conventional low single oven that required stooping down to cook or clean, the 400 featured dual ovens located at eye level, both lined with gleaming stainless steel and fitted with full glass doors. The smaller oven had an electric rotisserie motor fitted at the rear. Burners were installed in a slide-out drawer, complete with fold-down maple cutting board. The 400 could be built-in, but was most commonly installed on its own matching lower storage base cabinet.

Covering the unsightly burners when not in use was an idea that meshed perfectly with the tenets of the Jet Age push-button era. Anything having to do with chores or menial tasks was to be eliminated though the miracles of modern engineering; or otherwise covered or hidden away.

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The Roper Charm, a popular competitor. Natural gas version in brushed chrome and coppertone with mirrored-glass oven doors, 1966.

Tappan’s radical new design was soon copied by competitors; the most noteworthy being the Custom Imperial Flair of 1960 from the Frigidaire division of General Motors.

Logo and oven door graphic detail, Frigidaire Flair, 1960

Logo and oven door graphic detail, Frigidaire Flair, 1960.

The Flair improved on the Fabulous 400 in two key areas. Rather than lined up in a single row, the burners were staggered with two front and two rear allowing for extra stovetop workspace. The sliding drawer had two stops, the first exposing just the front pair of heating elements, the second offering access to all four.

The Flair clock. Note the stylish hands and font and the deep blue anodized aluminum dial

The Flair clock (original version.) Note stylish hands and font and deeply-recessed blue anodized aluminum inner bezel. The creator was likely inspired by the Howard Miller clocks of the period designed by George Nelson Associates.

The other difference, and a significant innovation, was the oven door suspension. Instead of being hinged at the sides and swinging out over the burners, the Flair doors were attached to parallelogram hinges with counterbalancing springs that swung the doors straight upward and out of the way for safe, easy access. If that wasn’t enough, the stainless steel oven liners slid out for easier cleaning.

Frigidaire Custom Imperial Flair with right-side oven door in the open position. The Turquoise shown above and Coppertone were the two most popular colours for U.S. appliances in the 1960s. On the cooktop is a matching turquoise Kobenstyle casserole by Jens Quistgaard for Dansk; designed in 1956, it remains in production today.

Frigidaire Custom Imperial Flair with right-side oven door in the open position. The Turquoise shown above and Coppertone were the two most popular colours for U.S. appliances in the 1960s. On the cooktop is a matching turquoise Kobenstyle casserole by Jens Quistgaard for Dansk; designed in 1956, it remains in production today.

The Flair went on to become the free-standing stove of 1960s America. It was widely seen in the kitchen of Darrin and Samantha Stephens on Bewitched, and was recently featured in the home of Pete and Trudy Campbell in season five of Mad Men, set in the year 1966.

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Samantha Stephens with her Flair on the set of “Bewitched.” The Flair was the centerpiece of the Stephens kitchen from 1964 to 1969.

Currently, many homeowners like to fantasize themselves needing a commercial kitchen ready for Gordon Ramsay or Emeril Lagasse to step in and prepare a multi-course feast. As a result, a La Cornue, Aga or Viking is usually given pride of place. Alas, none of these have the ingenuity of design, charm and stylish flourishes of a Flair; nor the easy, safe ergonomics of an eye-level oven with slide-up door.

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A Custom Imperial Flair as featured in a 1965 General Motors brochure highlighting non-automotive GM products from appliances to heavy trucks, earthmoving equipment and locomotives. The illustrated combination of turquoise and walnut succinctly expresses early-to-mid-sixties design currents.

Unfortunately, kitchen design has retreated into the past. In these early decades of the 21st Century, the majority of homes still feature a stove with a bend-down oven barely off of the floor, or a built-in cabinet-mount oven with an antiquated bottom-hinged door that threatens to sear the chef whenever food is inserted or withdrawn. Since the demise of the Frigidaire Flair, basic oven design has not moved forward; it has gone backward.

UPDATE: When I posted this article, I was not aware that there were so many devotees of these wonderfully functional and stylish ranges. Amazingly this post has recorded some of Auto Universum’s highest traffic, and many people have contacted me regarding parts availability and units for sale or purchase. I can tell you that replacements are quite rare. 54monroe sells miscellaneous parts on eBay, and Antique Appliances has a limited number of parts. For new or rebuilt clock/timer assemblies, try General Time Repairs.

For selling, purchasing, technical assistance and parts scrounging, there is a Google Group Forum for the Frigidaire Flair. 

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12 thoughts on “Jet Age Design: The Tappan Fabulous 400 and Frigidaire Custom Imperial Flair

  1. I had a Tappan 400 in the early 70’s. Loved it! Can you still find the 400 or are there new models?

    • Unfortunately, Tappan is no longer building kitchen appliances and no one makes anything remotely like the Fab 4 or Flair. Your only recourse would be to find and restore a vintage model.

  2. Thank you for including GEneral TIME RepairS LLC!

    We look forward to the possibility of serving the Tappan, Frigidaire or other vintage clock/timer assembly repair or replacement needs of Auto Universum readers.

  3. I recently purchased a home built in 1962 complete with it’s original Norge Fiesta. This model is very similar to the Tappan and Frigidaire, but with only a single oven.

  4. The problem with the Flair range and don’t we all love it? Code requirements for a pull out drawer style cook top electric or gas cooktop from what I can see could be a safety hazard with small children, pets, the elderly bumping into a hot, boiling”peninsula” type cooking surface. Furthermore, placing/removing hot oven items from an oven over a potentially hot stove adds to more physical danger.

    Lastly, we all love self cleaning ovens. The pull-out and lift up oven door is a fantastic way to get the door out of the way but this design at the time did not include a high temperature self clean feature. I would love to see modern a lift up oven door arrangement in a 21st Century oven. Did we love the range on Bewitched? Of course we did, but those days are sadly long past.

    • There are some potential dangers with pull-out cooktop, although growing up with a Roper Charm my family never suffered an unfortunate incident. As to reaching over the stove to access a eye-level oven, many homes today are fitted with an over-the-range microwave in that exact position. While a stovetop may indeed be potentially hot, an open swing-down oven door is always hot.

      I currently use a fully restored (including new porcelain and NOS clock assembly) four-burner, no pull-out Tappan 300 (a junior version of the Fabulous 400) because I could find nothing newer that could match the convenience of the eye-level upper oven with side-hinged swing-out door.

      By some legwork and good fortune I was able to find an early-seventies version with dual catalytic self-cleaning ovens (I use the lower only for broiling), which I aesthetically back-dated to look like a 1965 model during restoration.

      The days of Bewitched may be long past, but at Auto Universum Global Headquarters, the apogee of the Jet Age lives on.

  5. The house my parents built in 1962 had a Frigidaire Custom Imperial Flair. I guess they were expensive at the time, which would have been enough reason for selecting something else, but I had an uncle who was an executive with Frigidaire, so they got it. It worked very well for about 40 years… as did the Frigidaire refrigerator.

  6. We still have our Fabulous 400. We had it totally rewired about 15 years ago. We get positive comments from everyone that sees it. We love it!

  7. Thank you for posting your article James. When we were purchasing our home ten years ago we fell in love with the vintage Tappan Fabulous 400 still in the kitchen. The couple who owned the house at the time asked if they could buy us a new oven before we moved in. We politely said no and thanks.

    After ten years I would not part with the Fab 400 even for a new thousand dollar range. I use it nearly everyday and it still works flawlessly. A true work of industrial art that was built to last and look great. Thanks again and keep up the great work.

  8. I rented a house with 1965 Custom Imperial Flair for 9 years, it was by far the best stove I have ever used. I would take one today over any other! The best!

  9. James, I loved reading this! I recently bought a Frigidaire Flair (Custom Imperial) and had to fight my contractor (and my hubby) tooth and nail to be allowed to install it into our kitchen remodel. Yep. I chose to build it into a new remodel.

    I found it at a junk store—it wasn’t all in working condition, but my hubby and contractor fixed a few wires in the back, installed two fresh new fuses and a new plug and voila! All of it works perfectly. I love, love, love it.

    I wrote a blog post about it here, Part 1. (I’ll make another comment when Part 2 is published, for the rest of the story.) Thanks again!

    http://vomitingchicken.com/kitchen-remodel-part-5-much-ballyhooed-flair-story-part-1/

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