When I was very young, we lived in Japan, and a woman who lived with our family then and took care of my sister and me introduced us to the sorcery of common objects. If you are longing to have a visitor leave your house, Masako Ohara told us, you need only have a broom and a handkerchief. These two common objects are the accessories of exit. Tie the handkerchief around your head and sweep the dust out of the kitchen and onto the porch, and within minutes your guests will excuse themselves and be gone. Such is the resonance and power of simple kitchen objects.
It is impossible not to think of her when I look around my kitchen, because it is a room full of things that have acquired a significance and power of their own. I think of her, for example, if I happen to be putting away food in a small plastic container designed by Morison Cousins. While it is entirely possible that Cousins was not inspired by Japanese folklore, surely he, too, understood the resonance of common kitchen objects. Why else would he have designed a colander that looked like the starship Enterprise? And when he designed Tupperware, it was with some understanding that ordinary little plastic bowls could become not simply indispensable food containers, but the agents of social gatherings as well. In 1951, The Tupperware Company had hired Brownie Wise, a middle-aged, divorced mother who had suggested that throwing little parties might be a way to persuade women to buy the containers, and the company has since stated that a Tupperware party begins somewhere in the world every two seconds. Surely that is a fact worth contemplating when you are putting away a plate of leftover food. But this is how it is with the ordinary kitchen objects—a stack of small plastic containers can make your house a place where people might gather, while a broom and a handkerchief are all that is needed to make them leave.
More than any other room in the house, the kitchen is full of utensils that have a power that extends well beyond their function. Probably, it begins with the food. A friend of mine told me of a simple picnic she once arranged. There were assorted sandwiches and salads and cool drinks, and she had arranged it all to be eaten at a picnic table in her garden, under an old oak tree. But the charm of the outing was short-lived; the random chemistry of ingredients had an unexpected toxicity. Apparently, the fumes from the oak tree, the resin from the German wine, and the pistachios in the ice cream all created a random constellation of poison; headaches, fatigue, and nausea soon followed. Malice converged unexpectedly. Such are the unpredictable alliances and misalliances that can occur in the kitchen and that can only begin with the food.
They extend from there, quite naturally, to objects. It doesn’ t hurt that many of us were raised watching the dancing spoons and talking teapots of Looney Tunes and Merry Melody cartoons, and have little trouble entering into a verbal, if not emotional, relationship with kitchenware. In his book, A Box of Matches, the author Nicholson Baker imagines “the adventures of a cellulose kitchen sponge that somehow in the manufacturing is made with a bit of real sea sponge in it, giving it sentient powers. It lives by the sink but it has yearnings for the deep sea; it thirsts for the rocky crannies and the briny tang.” Surely there are few of us who would have trouble accepting a sponge with a collective memory; while manufacturers of the Information Age seem to be keeping themselves busy trying to imagine ways in which appliances can be given intelligence with silicon chips, they might do better to simply recognize what most of us already know—in the kitchen, at least, what we are really after are objects and appliances equipped with emotional intelligence.
Advertisers, of course, know this. Their line of work celebrates our willingness, our compulsion to attach a voice, a face, a persona to common objects, sometimes universal, sometimes specific to a moment in history, and for generations they have tapped into the resonance of kitchen objects, readily attributing all manner of characteristics and qualities to inanimate objects in their quest to establish brand identity. What are called “brand mascots” have been a way of life and commerce in America ever since the plate ran away with the spoon, and their various personas range from the charming to the preposterous. In its ongoing quest to characterize small squares of absorbent paper with floral patterning as heroic, Georgia-Pacific, the parent company of Brawny paper towels, found it necessary in 2002 to reimagine the Brawny Man for the post-9/11 kitchen and reconfigured the traditional mustachioed lumberjack to a “tough yet sensitive” fireman. In 2003, an $85 million national advertising campaign introduced the Oven Mitt as the spokesobject for the fast-food chain Arby’ s; speaking in the voice of Tom Arnold, the talking mitten was imagined to be a persuasive vehicle with which to deliver the message about the nutritional value of traditionally roasted food.
Predictably, advertisers in recent years often relinquished talking objects for the imagined sophistication conferred by celebrity endorsements. But as Morison Cousins or Brownie Wise or anyone who has ever chatted with a kitchen appliance could probably have told them, talking objects convey considerably more emotional depth and resonance than many celebrities. A variety of familiar mascots are now simply asked to keep up with the times. The Energizer Bunny is no longer constructed of pink fluff, but high tech silver. Even Mr. Peanut, first imagined by a Virginia schoolboy in 1916 who won a contest with his drawing of a “little peanut person,” and who has persevered for generations as the persona for the salted snacks division at Kraft Foods, has recently learned to dance and play basktball in an effort to associate the snack with a healthier lifestyle. In the language of design and ergonomics, the word “transgenerational” refers to something that can be used easily by anyone from the ages of nine to ninety, but there is something about a bunny learning to dress itself in techno-textiles or an eighty-eight-year-old peanut’ s learning to play basketball that captures the meaning of the word more fully.
Even the simple names of kitchen objects often acquire a meaning that goes well beyond their domestic function. Think of the Cuisinart, introduced in 1973 at a Chicago housewares exhibition. With a name that managed to convey its own mix of art, Gallic culinary sophistication, and ordinary American domesticity, it enabled a generation of suburban housewives to become proficient chefs; with such transformative powers, it is small wonder that it became a little icon of its time. Teflon-coated cookware developed at DuPont not only encouraged us to cook without butter, but also became a metaphor for all sorts of corporate and political invulnerability.
In considering the line-up of culturally meaningful icons, it occurs to me that the Good Grips kitchen tools speak even more clearly to these times. We are willing to believe that kitchen accessories can convey innumerable human characteristics, from humor to masculinity to congeniality, but Sam Farber, the founder of OXO International, asked why they could not also speak to kindness. With a degree in economics, Farber had started Copco in 1960, producing a line of steel and enamel kitchenware. In 1982, he retired to the south of France. But watching his wife, who was afflicted with arthritis trying to grip a potato peeler, he wondered what could be done to help her and the other twenty million Americans suffering from arthritis. Farber teamed up with Smart Design in New York City to reconfigure, among other things, the generic metal vegetable peeler first introduced in the early 1900s which, with its narrow steel handle, can be sharp, awkward to hold, and prone to rusting.
The designers researched the way people utilize such kitchen devices, cataloguing their variety of gestures and motions into twisting and turning; pushing and pulling; and squeezing. Working with models, they realized that most kitchen tools demand a combination of these motions. For the peeler, then, the handle was enlarged to improve leverage and reshaped as an oval so that it wouldn’ t rotate while it was being used. The metal handle was replaced with Santoprene, a non-slip, polypropylene plastic and rubber material originally used for dishwasher gaskets. The designers also shaped the handle to include flexible fins that can conform to individual grip, preventing the peeler from slipping. An oversize hole made it easy to hang, even for people who might be visually impaired.
For all the qualities kitchen utensils seem to convey, here was one that not only reflected efficiency and safety, but in recognizing the need of pretty much anyone who would ever use it, also embodied even more basic ideas about consideration, empathy, and comfort. And while the new vegetable peeler was certainly easier for people to use, whether they had arthritis or simply the limited strength and mobility of the elderly, its new shape had a kind of funky elegance that made it appealing to everyone; its congruence of high design and utility managed to establish a new standard for kitchen utensils.
The line of OXO Good Grips kitchen accessories that followed is widely available today and includes everything from pizza slicers, graters, and mincers to corers, spatulas, and whisks. All of them, the company notes, are designed “to make everyday living easier.” This is a simple statement, and one that probably reflects the simple origins of the vegetable peeler. It is probably worth remembering that despite the months of human engineering research, despite the facts that this is a “transgenerational product,” that production costs in Japan necessitated finding a new manufacturer in Taiwan, that this line of utensils is now sold worldwide in more than 30 countries, and that the vegetable peeler now resides in the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art and the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, it began with nothing more basic than a man wanting to help his wife. Call it a brand mascot for human empathy.
I wouldn’ t know what criteria were used to deem the vegetable peeler worthy additions to these museum collections, but I do know that objects favored by museum curators must often transcend their function. And a vegetable peeler, I learned, is capable of doing this. It was a lesson brought home to me when my sons were in middle school. When Noel was in sixth grade, his curriculum included a class called Home Careers. It is what was once called Home Economics, where students learned how to cook and sew and do laundry, that is, where they were familiarized with simple domestic chores. When he came home from school, I asked what sorts of things they had done in class. And he said with all the exasperation and world-weariness that only a twelve-year-old can muster, “I learned how to apologize.”
My first reaction was a mix of curiosity and horror. But as I thought about it more, it seemed to make its own kind of sense. It occurred to me that there is not nearly enough apologizing in this world. How different life might have been for Trent Lott, Pete Rose, Henry Kissinger, Cardinal Law, and a seemingly endless list of other public figures if only they had taken Home Careers with sixth grade teachers who could have familiarized them with the value of a decent apology, spoken sincerely at the right moment. Imagine a world where apologizing is taught, if not as a classroom skill, at least as one of life’ s necessary lessons. Imagine a corporate CEO knowing how to say, “I am just so sorry I plundered your life savings and robbed you blind with my yearly bonus and stock options and my accountant cooking the books. I’ ll live with regret till the end of my days.” Or, imagine, possibly, a manufacturer capable of the words: “I am just so very sorry that the stroller,” or tires or cars or carseats or whatever the product might be, “was so incredibly poorly designed and manufactured that it resulted in grave personal injury. I will live with shame for the rest of my life.” When an apology is publicly stated, it can get world attention: when Richard Clarke apologized to the 9/11 commission in the spring of 2004 for his part in the failure to anticipate the terrorist attacks, his words were met with stunned gratitude from families.
Truly imagining that Noel was on the threshold of a new epoch in human social relations, I asked him, “So, how do you apologize?” He replied, in a singsong voice accompanied by some eye rolling, “I’ m sorry I hurt your feelings.” It may not have been much of one, but it was a start. And while he clearly had not mastered the art of apology, the idea stayed with me, and it struck to me that there could be some genuine association between the domestic arts and ordinary behavior; and that somehow this sixth grade teacher whose curriculum had included the seemingly outlandish idea that there might be some connection between learning to prepare food and learning how to apologize was onto something; and that possibly ordinary household tasks can dovetail neatly with larger acts of human decency.
Which brings me back to the vegetable peeler. Not so long after this, I saw an article in the newspaper about an incident that occurred in Berlin in 2002 involving an object called a Gurkenhobel, not unlike a vegetable peeler, but in fact, a kind of cucumber slicer, made out of plastic with a steel blade, that is used in Germany. It turns out that the West Germans produce efficient, durable cucumber slicers, so on a recent visit there a family of East Germans had bought one for 25 euros. Once they got home, however, they were less pleased with how it worked, so they wrote an angry letter to the West German manufacturer outlining its failings.
More irritated correspondence ensued, a four-star chef tested the product, the exchange was written about in the press, and it ultimately became an international incident with political and cultural overtones, with the West German manufacturer writing, “I recommend you go back to using your former East German scrap metal because you cannot cope with the demands of a valuable high-quality product.” In the end, of course, everyone involved in the incident apologized. It turned out the West German manufacturer was, in fact, originally from East Germany, and the mayor of his town apologized to everyone in both the east and west. The manufacturer weighed in, stating, “I’ d like to apologize to the people in the East. It was not my intention to attack them.” Everyone just said they were sorry.
This episode, it seems to me, reflects some basic truth about design. Because it does seem apparent that the shape of the things we use, these ordinary kitchen utensils like potato peelers and cucumber slicers, can engender not only better living, but also better human behavior. When you think of it this way, it makes all the sense in the world that the OXO vegetable peeler came into being because a man wanted to help his wife; the result was an act of kindness disguised as a kitchen accessory. Possibly this is what the OXO company means when it talks about making everyday living easier, and maybe this is what my son’ s sixth-grade teacher had in mind as well.
I wonder if it is because these are hand-held objects that we use to prepare food—and by extension to nurture and sustain ourselves—that we are willing to attribute near human qualities to them. It seems inevitable that such items, almost in spite of themselves, are instruments not simply of food preparation, but of human behavior, coordinates that can help us calibrate our place in human relations. Whether they are talking mittens that try to improve the way you eat, Tupperware parties, or a Japanese woman trying graciously to ask visitors to leave and turning to her handkerchief and a broom, any and all of these can be the small agents of human decency.