words Sam Jacob
Not content with taking over telly, celebrity chefs are invading our kitchens with Nigella chopping boards and Anthony Worrall Thompson sandwich toasters. Do they leave a bad taste in the mouth?
You know that Philippe Starck lemon squeezer, a fixture on any Yuppie wedding list from the mid-1980s? Even all these years later, the Juicy Salif remains a really strange object, a high water mark of unrestrained design. It placed domesticity and design in a relationship that was both beautifully resolved and mysteriously dislocated. It used a functional logic to overthrow functionality – a surrealist tactic of Paranoid Critical method. It shows what happens when wild design meets dripping domesticity and remains a provocative statement about design for the home.
The Juicy Salif’s French flair and philosophical approach is the opposite of English design pragmatism. Fearing ideas, the English retreat into a simplistic shell of style (that’s flair without the good bits) and function (that’s use without the complicated bits). Don’t tell James Dyson, but I don’t need things to work any better. After all, I’ll only lose bits, break parts and eventually give up on it. His narrow design utopia is populated by people obsessing about vacuum cleaner performance – like car bores at the golf club, only more boring.
The problems in my life are not the revs per minute of my washing machine. Rather, I have a Juicy Salif-shaped hole where my soul should be. This existential lack is the thing that binds us all. It’s the thing that makes us human. And consumer design – more than art or poetry – speaks directly to our soul.
Design gives us leaps of joy and answers our unfulfilled wishes. Design functions like a medieval religious relic that also sucks up household dust. In the 1990s, lifestyle programmes began to address that feeling within us. They showed that rooms could be nicer, gardens prettier, food tastier. Their incredible popularity threw up semi-amateur specialists: Lawrence, Jamie, Nigella, Linda, Charlie: all doing things we do but better, quicker and more happily.
Once lifestyle had saturated TV it burst out of the screen into other media. First books, then cans of paint, sofas, restaurants … and now products for your kitchen. Jamie, Nigella and Anthony Worrall Thompson have come out with ranges of cookware.
At the heart of these products is an idea of personality. The personality of objects that’s so important for designerly appeal is here substituted for the personality of an individual. You can feel, or at least imagine, a sensation of Jamie-ness or an aura of Nigella-ness through them. A portrait of the artist as a shiny saucepan.
Nigella’s products are beautifully packaged. Their creamy coloured boxes make you feel like you are opening your wedding presents. A crest featuring a cupcake and a flowery N hints both at status and relaxation. The products have great textures, ceramics glazed on the inside and rough on the outside, chopping boards immaculate rectangles of walnut with inset stainless steel trays. Nigella’s mixing bowls have an egglike profile, a blunt spout that is great for pouring. Lined up on the draining board, though, they take on another characteristic. Like ceramic tits – Nigella’s ample chest duplicated at various scales – they pour forth the milk of the domestic goddess: cake mix, chocolate sauce, creamy custards.
Jamie’s saucepans for Tefal have a professional feel, a kind of solid clangyness and balanced weight that makes you want to shake those frying onions Jamie-style. Of course, Jamie’s presence is hard to ignore with his autograph glinting on every handle. The obvious endorsement undermines their professional feel. It makes you look at them slightly differently. Suddenly, the scale seems slightly too small – perhaps a function of the intended market of Lad’s First Saucepan.
Anthony Worrall Thompson has a range of really odd mechanical products, all styled like high-end hairdriers, bulbous and chromed. Of the three, they seem the least personality-related. A toasted sandwich maker? From a real chef?
Many of us learned a lot about being a consumer from Steve Davis snooker cues and Paul Daniels magic sets. With childhoods surrounded by Roland Rat mouse traps, He-Man oven gloves, Star Trek power tools, Nicholas Witchell lawnmowers, Anneka Rice defibrillators, and Terry Wogan rocket launchers, it’s no wonder that once we grew up we could only understand how to buy things through nebulous connections to celebrities. Jamie, Nigella and Wozza products are grown-up versions of an impulse we learned in childhood.