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New utensils put kitsch in kitchen

(ran HP edition)

"Godjets," is what the architectural historian Reyner Banham called the household gadgets that Americans love so well as to almost worship. All those blenders, mixers, grinders and other appliances serve as mechanical gods of the American home.

Now, the godjets on our Formica prairies have been joined by another class of quasi-mythical devices,: spoons and spatulas and salt and pepper shakers that look like satyrs and nymphs, fauns and elves.

Personified pourers and peelers that are shaped to look animate are dancing and leaping across the counter tops, verging into cartoon characters. I think of Disney's dancing teapot from Beauty and the Beast, Mrs. Potts dancing about with her son Chips the Cup.

These "cutensils," as I will call them, made their first and high-concept appearance a few years ago in products by Alessi, the Italian firm known for architect-designed teapots and Philippe Starck juicers, bottle tops and napkin rings in bright plastics.

"Family Follows Fiction" was Alessi's name for the extended clan of insouciant, even insolent, plastic characters that ranged from Guido Venturini's grinning sugar sifter with eyes, snout and feet to "monster" napkin rings and bottle tops in bright plastics.

"Cutensils" have gone mass market, in such products as Urchin, a sort of molar-shaped vase, and Mano, a hand-shaped container designed by Roberto Zanon for Benza. Now come the creatures of Koziol, a German firm, romping in bright orange and red and blue through the displays at Fortunoff or Bed, Bath and Beyond.

"Ideas for friends" reads the slogan on the Koziol products, designed by the German design firm Orange, based in Darmstadt (otherwise best known for its particle-physics research laboratory). Koziol's line of items, such as a pasta tool that stands up on its handle to grin at you, grows out of the idea of lending character to ordinary things, giving personality to the mundane.

There is the Dolphin toilet brush, rearing on a little flipper tail, a scrub brush that looks like a hedgehog, and Tweetie the vegetable brush, no relation to the Warner Bros. characters.

The Koziol ice cream scoop named Scream, with wide eyes and open mouth, is part part Munchkin. Other makers are turning out shapes straight from Toontown _ Ren and Stimpy-shaped peelers for potatoes and asparagus.

These joke objects tend to polarize. Showing them around, I encountered a mixture of chuckles and shudders. Some products, like the snack bowls that electronically oink when opened, verge on kitsch.

Cutensils also literalize some of the ideas of "product semantics" as taught in the design schools in the 1980s, most notably at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Such semantic products speak visually of their functions, like a toaster shaped like a piece of toast or Sony's little hand recorder shaped like a cartoon speech balloon.

While cutensils seem to me as contemporary as flickering cartoon images, others see them as revivals. Peter Stathis, the chairman of the department of three-dimensional design at Cranbrook, says he believes they trade on a "latent nostalgia."

The Alessi products _ as carefully engineered as the company's Sapper or Graves tea kettles, he argues _ "threw down a gauntlet and challenged ideas of high and low design." The Koziol friends, by contrast, "enter the realm of the souvenir," Stathis said. "I find I don't take them seriously as objects. I park them on a shelf like collectibles."

All this cutting up on the cutting board grows out of an admirable enough goal, giving tools personality. We now invite friends into the kitchen, but the cute route may not be the best way to user friendliness.

The architect Moshe Safdie once criticized post-modernist buildings such as Philip Johnson's Chippendale clock-styled AT&T (now Sony) Building as "private jokes in public places."

Cutensils share the same sort of problem. The joke pales long before the building falls, and here the joke grows dull long before the peeler does. A favorite tool can be a friend, but sometimes the "ideas for friends" seem like products for people who have only ideas for friends.