Kettle Call

The way things look.
Sept. 11 1997 3:30 AM

Kettle Call

The challenge of designing a container for boiling water.

Shaping a vessel in which to boil water shouldn't be that difficult--more a matter of "duh" than design. All you need is a place to put the water, a handle that doesn't get hot, and a spout that is well away from the user's hand. You can refine it by maximizing the surface that touches the burner, putting a whistle at the end of the spout, and providing a lever to open the spout. And what you have is a functional--if visually graceless--design, one that was perfected half a century ago and is now ubiquitous and inexpensive.

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In recent years, though, the mundane teakettle has become something else: an opportunity for designers to show off--and, sometimes, an object lesson in how easy it is for them to mess up. Today's kettle can often serve up a searing demonstration (searing to your fingers, that is) of how risky it is to redesign ordinary objects. Such things often work so well that you don't even notice the parts of their design that make them work so well. Sometimes, things look clunky for good reason.

You can buy a kettle whose whistle is in the shape of a brass-plated nightingale or a steam-spewing dragon. One has a handle in the shape of a bent tulip. There are kettles shaped like some of the major Platonic solids--cylinders, cones, and near-spheres. They come fluted like a Doric column and mottled and horned like a Holstein cow. And one--the best of the lot--sports a large plastic collar to ensure that you won't burn your fingers, no matter how clumsy you are.

The distant precursors to today's designer kettles were the cane-handled electric teakettles designed in 1908 by Peter Behrens for AEG, the German version of General Electric. These small appliances, with their clear round or octagonal shapes, subtle texture, and almost handcrafted look, were never sold in the United States. But photographs of them have been published and exhibited, and they represent an important step in the transfer of aesthetic interest from the teapot--with its long decorative history--to the kettle, which genteel people had kept out of sight.

But in recent decades, even as the amount of time families spend cooking has shrunk to nearly nothing, kitchens have become increasingly ostentatious. It was probably inevitable that the functional but dowdy model of the baby boom era would be replaced with something more stylish.

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I n 1983, the Italian housewares manufacturer Alessi introduced what is probably still the most outrageous teakettle ever made, the creation of the German designer Richard Sapper. Its vertical, domed shape has a certain hauteur, not to mention a geometric purity then rare in housewares. And it doesn't merely whistle when the water starts to steam. It plays a note, then a second note, and finally an insistent three-note chord with a sound somewhere between a train whistle and the Canadian Brass. Selling for more than 20 times the price of an ordinary model, the kettle quickly became a cult object for design-conscious consumers.

Gleaming, elegant, substantial, the Sapper design achieves its visual power at some expense. Its burner surface is low in relation to its volume, so it boils water more slowly than other models. Its chief failing, however, is that it allows you to easily pull the spout lever and release a plume of steam--aimed directly at your fingers.

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A design that departs radically from the ordinary may look great in a museum but fail in the kitchen. But that doesn't mean it can't do well in the store, where buyers don't get a chance to boil water. Sapper's design paved the way for what is still the most iconic kettle of all: Michael Graves' "Five O'Clock" teakettle, designed for Alessi and introduced in 1985, is conical in shape, with a long spout. Its most distinctive feature is the little pink ceramic bird at the end of its removable whistle. This removable whistle was actually a throwback to the earliest version of the whistling teakettle.

The chirping-bird kettle seemed to prove that high design could also be cute. Graves explained the little pink bird as a reaction to Sapper's kettle. Because the bird doesn't get hot, he said, it is possible to remove the whistling cap without burning your fingers. There is a danger that the bird might crack and break, but it can easily be replaced.

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T he little bird is what told housewares manufacturers that teakettles could be a hot commercial item and led to the current proliferation. The Graves model is still available, for about $125, though some might call it passé. It has been superseded by newer models, all less expensive--and, for the most part, less memorable.

The exception is the OXO Good Grips teakettle, designed by the New York firm Smart Design and introduced last year. It is part of a line of products intended to be usable by people with arthritis or hand injuries, as well as by those without disabilities. It is the ultimate answer to Sapper's kettle, because its form was generated by the desire to make it extremely difficult for users to burn their fingers.

Though it lacks the simple, geometric form of Sapper's pot and those of many of its competitors, it is unified in a subtler way. Its complex curves suggest that it was sculpted rather than drawn. You can think of it as two intersecting incomplete egg shapes, one of which is the body of the pot and the handle of its lid and the other of which is the protective collar. The lines of the handle and other elements derive from these implicit shapes. (It doesn't photograph well; it is one of those rare products that looks better than its picture on the box.)

When I first saw the OXO kettle, I resisted it. That big black steam guard looked so ostentatiously foolproof that I feared it would be clumsy, like a bicycle with training wheels. But as I handled it, used it, and carefully examined how it worked, it started to look better and better. This is indeed progress, both aesthetically and functionally--even though all it does is boil water.

Thomas Hine is the author of Populuxe and The Total Package: The Evolution and Secret Meanings of Boxes, Bottles, Cans, and Tubes.

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