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Beauty and utility marry

The Baltimore Sun

When is a mop not just a mop? Or a coffee press more than just a morning wake-up call? Or a hand-held vacuum a work of art as opposed to simply being a lowly dust-sucker?

When design enters the picture.

The world of housewares gizmos and gadgets clearly has been stamped by design considerations.

Shape and color have been obvious ones since the day we discovered we could toast our bread with something other than a square metallic box.

But other forces now play into the design of products that we use every day in our homes: how it feels, size, mobility, fabrication, luminosity, longevity, aroma, ease of use and even humor. The most successful products are those whose design instantly engages the consumer, whether it be the clever pattern on the handle of a broom or the intense color of an upscale espresso machine.

Design drives the housewares market. That was the message from the International Home & Housewares Show, the world's largest home-goods and housewares marketplace, which took place recently in Chicago.

According to the International Housewares Association, which sponsors the show, design is not only front and center in the housewares realm, it also is everywhere in the home marketplace.

Design, as evidenced by the thousands of new products shown at the giant expo, is probably the most important consideration in jockeying for position on store shelves.

Design innovation can be the difference between big sales and big flops, the IHA says, and consumers are growing much more sophisticated and discerning at spotting good design, and bad. It used to be that a product simply had to work well to distinguish itself from the pack. Now it must look good, too.

Take, for example, a mop. Just needs to clean, right? Wrong. Method's Omop is a new ergonomic mop with a sleek, arc handle and reusable microfiber pads that can make kitchen cleaning sexy. At least that's what designers, who singled out the Omop at a panel on good design innovations, said about Method's groovy floor-cleaning system.

"Here's a great example of bringing really good design to an everyday chore," said panel moderator Rebecca Trump, a member of the Industrial Designers Society of America.

Trump's panel also touched on lifestyle factors that figure into good design. Those would be eco-consciousness (products that are planet-friendly), "fear factors" (health monitors, baby monitors, protection from germs and UV radiation) and pets (products that benefit pets and help owners live with pets).

Still, at the housewares show, where thousands of new products and designs from throughout the world were showcased, it came back to the idea of design and style as major forces in the home marketplace. In fact, the show's overarching theme was "Life. Styled." -- the point being that most things we decide to live with are scrupulously styled and designed (whether we know it or not).

Today's home consumer is acutely aware of color and design, said color specialist Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute. Homeowners are growing more aspirational and experimental with color and design; their "styled" lifestyles are driven by home-improvement and home-design television shows, housewares catalogs and design-focused shelter magazines, Eiseman said.

"It's an awakened sense and sensibility of style," she said. "Change and update is important. It's what keeps the consumer interested."

It also doesn't hurt when the well-designed objects -- whether it's an air purifier shaped like an animal, a countertop device that looks like a cartoonish happy face or even a sexy mop -- can make us feel good.

"We have to have a sense of humor in many of our products," Eiseman said. "Anything that can make the consumer smile is a good thing."

Greg Morago is a reporter for the Hartford (Conn.) Courant.

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