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When Did Basic Kitchen Tools Get So Nice?

In the age of Instagram, hyper-functional kitchen items are more deliberately beautiful and on-trend

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Like many New Yorkers, I’ve acquired various odds and ends for my apartment from someone else’s stoop, where still-usable things often go when a person is done with them. Ideally they’re marked with a “NO BEDBUGS!” sign. I got my dish rack this way: I’d just moved into a new place, didn’t have one, and there it was on the steps of a brownstone, looking reasonably clean and perfectly serviceable. I took it home, Lysol-ed the hell out of it, and wedged it into the space between my sink and the wall. Two years later it’s still there, doing its job with quiet diligence.

This dish rack, metal coated in black rubber, isn’t cute. It’s not offensive to the eye, but it’s not doing anything for my kitchen other than storing my plates and coffee mugs while they drip dry. But if I wanted to level up, I could get a tubular green cutlery drain from Hay for $30, a rustic wood-handled dish rack for $65 at Food52, or a $78 spindly, gold double-decker one from Anthropologie.

In fact, for all the perfunctory tools in my kitchen, there are significantly more attractive alternatives on the market. This trend has been on the rise for a few years, with both boutiques expanding their kitchen offerings and mass market chains like Target and Bed Bath & Beyond upgrading the look of their products. The look of kitchen items, down to the most laughably mundane, has become more self-consciously trendy, and at a more affordable price point than before. Along with that has come a subtle, unspoken compulsion: that every household object purchased, however small, should be nice.

Of a Kind pale pink spice grinder
Hay Dish Drainer Cutlery Holder and Drainer Rack
Yamazaki Home Wood-Handled Dish Rack
Good Thing Richman Dust Pan

It’s no longer just expensive or traditionally decorative products that get to be stylish, like serving dishes and salt and pepper shakers. Cheap, hyper-functional, everyday kitchen items — spatulas, ice trays, trash cans, water filters — are more deliberately made to be aesthetically pleasing and on-trend. This is in contrast to the silicone or plastic tools to which many shoppers are accustomed, ones that have typically been boring shades of black or white or vaguely chrome, occasionally cosmetically jazzed up with bright colors (see: the classic KitchenAid stand mixer).

These new pieces hew more closely to the aesthetic of “artisanal” home goods — earthenware, wood, warm metals, subtle shades like sage green and oatmeal. Or they come in the fashionable pale pinks, rose golds, and corals that have risen to cross-category dominance; as today’s pink restaurant craze shows, the worlds of food, interior decor, and fashion have never been more in sync when it comes to design.

This change has happened for a number of intertwined reasons, the first of course being the influence of social media, which has made people’s lives and homes more visible than ever before. Serving dishes and glassware appear in photos taken by food bloggers; cooking video tutorials reveal their appliances, measuring cups, and bowls. It’s not limited to professionals: Vox reports that home cooking is increasingly popular among millennials who are health conscious, knowledgeable about food, and eager to cut costs by staying in. For this group, the act of cooking is tied to social platforms like Instagram: It’s where they find recipes (like cookbook author Alison Roman’s viral salted chocolate chip shortbread cookies and spiced chickpea stew) and where they post their step-by-step processes and final results for their friends to see.

Caught in the crosshairs of performative social media, ordinary countertop items have become products to consume conspicuously, as the supporting cast in imagery that shows the best possible version of a person’s kitchen.

“Everyone wants everything to look good for Instagram, but that has led to this wider awareness that all these everyday objects that we use around the house don’t need to be ugly,” says Claire Mazur, co-founder of the ecommerce site Of a Kind, which sells a selection of kitchen items like a speckled, cherry red ceramic sponge holder and a pastel pink spice grinder.

That can ramp up everyone else’s competitive anxiety (wait, now my dish rack needs to be cute??). Alternatively, wanting your kitchen to look nice can run deeper than getting faves on Instagram. Jojo Feld, the senior director of buying at Food52, connects the rise of aesthetically-oriented kitchen products to a growing attention to self-care.

“You want things in your life, even if you’re not sharing them, to make you happy — the ‘Does it bring you joy?’ kind of thing,” she says, referring to the main tenet of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

Simplehuman rose gold trash can
Brass dish rack from Anthropologie

Sparking joy is central to Great Jones, a direct-to-consumer cookware startup that launched last year. It sells colorful enamel Dutch ovens and stainless steel pots and pans with copper accents, all for under $145 — far less than comparable items from a brand like Le Creuset. Founders Sierra Tishgart and Maddy Moelis wanted their mixed-metal pots to have a “similar feel and excitement” to jewelry, Tishgart says. Their Dutch ovens were inspired by vintage cookware, with the enamel colors based on references like Michelle Williams’s buttery yellow 2006 Oscars dress and the blue shade of Tishgart’s favorite handbag. The tagline on the Great Jones website reads: “Outfit your kitchen.”

Tishgart says that functionality is more important than aesthetics in cookware, but notes that Great Jones’s look was a competitive advantage when she and Moelis went out to raise money from investors. Product and branding that sits at the nexus of classic and fashionable is great for marketing, and Tishgart sees covetable designs as a way to encourage people to cook more, especially those who may feel intimidated by a heavy Dutch oven.

“We felt like you’re more motivated to cook more if you want to display something, if you’re proud enough to put it on your stove,” says Tishgart. Indeed, Great Jones’ Instagram feed is filled with user-generated videos of regular home cooks and food world pros using their Great Jones Dutch ovens at home.

And if it’s not a Great Jones pot, there are plenty of other options. Whereas highly designed kitchen products used to be sold mostly in niche contexts like the MoMA Design Store (see: this extremely chic $200 trash can), the lifestyle-ification of home cooking means that kitchen products now live comfortably in boutiques next to candles, leather tote bags, and cashmere sweaters. One such retailer is Of a Kind, which started carrying a very small selection of kitchen wares in 2012 and began going after the category more aggressively a year and a half ago. Instead of stocking a full range of kitchen items, the company, which is owned by Bed Bath & Beyond, opts for smaller accessories and tools that one might buy on impulse or as a gift. A similar mix of items can be found on Goop, where Gwyneth Paltrow’s refined curatorial eye has found casserole dishes, spatulas, and measuring spoons worthy of inclusion alongside bronze oil diffusers and $125 exfoliator.

The proliferation of aesthetics-forward kitchen products is also taking place at the lower-end, including Bed Bath & Beyond, which sells rose gold trash cans and gleaming copper mixing bowls (along with plastic versions of the same). Target has artsy stoneware spoon rests and Chemex-like pourover coffee vessels. Walmart is tapping into the industrial and Scandinavian aesthetics that have had the design world in a chokehold for the better part of a decade with hammered metal water pitchers and light wood cooking utensils.

Walmart MoDRN cooking utensils
Gold CB2 grater

Mazur says that in the years since Of a Kind started selling kitchen goods, she’s seen an explosion in the number of small brands entering the space, like Hawkins New York and Brooke Wade. But when it comes to scale and name recognition, no player in the space has championed aesthetics as thoroughly as the cooking site Food52, which officially launched ecommerce in 2013 and today stocks a variety of brands as well as its own Five Two label. Food52 is a goldmine for beautiful kitchen wares that combine what Feld describes as a mix of old and new. Its offering tends toward rustic materials, neutral tones, and simple, elegant silhouettes: wide walnut spoons, porcelain-glazed butter keepers, gooseneck kettles. Compared to stylish products from retailers like Target and Walmart, these products aren’t cheap (a single spoon will set you back $34 and that butter keeper costs $50), but they’re also not the priciest options on the market.

“The most important thing is that the price point is attainable — because I think you see amazing design in the way of the kitchen in prior decades, but it was probably only available to a certain group of people who could afford them,” says Feld.

And while they may be a luxury, nice-looking kitchen tools are more within reach than many of the traditional trappings of adulthood. As the Atlantic’s Amanda Mull puts it, explaining the popularity of unnecessarily expensive water bottles, “For a generation with less expendable income than its parents’, a nice bottle pays for itself with a month of consistent use and lets you feel like you’re being proactive about your health and the environment.” Millennials aren’t buying houses, but they may be able to justify spending $80 on a lavender saucepan with a wooden handle that brightens up their rented apartment.

The placement of pretty spatulas, plastic containers, and trash cans alongside more traditional home goods in retail may also mirror the layout of our actual homes. Once sequestered spaces, kitchens became increasingly integrated into houses’ living quarters over the course of the 20th century, culminating in the current popularity of open kitchens. This format transforms the kitchen from a work zone into a social atmosphere, putting its contents on full display. Multiple experts, Feld and Tishgart included, cite customers’ desire for kitchen products that, when left out on the counter, would not only not embarrass you but enhance the space from a design perspective.

Indeed, the central tension in kitchen design comes down to work versus socializing, says Nancy Carlisle, a design historian and the co-author of America’s Kitchens. At one end of the spectrum, there’s the hyper-efficient, laboratory-like “Frankfurt kitchen” designed by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky in the 1920s. Today’s open kitchens are the other extreme: optimized for gatherings (island countertops) if not for workflow (impeded mobility due to said island, less overhead cabinetry). “That’s why I’d say you have so much interest in the aesthetics of appliances and utensils,” says Carlisle.

But the truth belying the matter of nice-looking cooking tools is that, unlike the stylish, sprawling rooms displayed in Architectural Digest, most kitchens are cobbled-together things. My cabinets and drawers are filled with chipped neon green and yellow Ikea knives that my best friend bought for our first apartment in New York, an enormous plastic Batman Returns cup that my mom saved from my first year on earth, a broken coffee mug signed by my high school friends. I keep these things around because I’m sentimental — they’re a reminder of all the people I used to be — but also because they’re functional. You can always use more clean cups.

Every designer and retailer I spoke to had similar items in their kitchens: plastic cups from college, glassware handed down from family members. Pretty stuff is nice, but it’s not everything.

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