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New houseware designs feature throwback to the '50s

Retro is hip at expo

By Howard Pousner

Cox News Service

Mr. Clean was in the house, neatly signing autographs. So was Lady Kit-Cat, a limited-edition Kit-Cat Klock resplendent in faux pearls and Austrian crystals. It was among hundreds of brand-spanking-new products at the recent 2002 International Housewares Show with designs that recalled, in ways subtle or overt, the 1950s.

Retro was surprisingly hip at the trade expo, where manufacturers annually trot out their hottest, newest, most improved, money-back-guaranteed-to-improve-domestic-life-in-America-as-we-know-it merchandise.

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Yet many of the coffee makers, toasters and bakeware pieces looked like they would have been right at home in Ward and June Cleaver's house or in the movie "Diner." Appliances, in particular, trickily hid up-to-date features under streamlined forms.

To be sure, not every product on view sported curvy shapes, stainless steel detailing and striped patterns. But this being a time when we're supposed to be breaking in a brave new millennium, the volume and variety of throwback designs was striking.

Realizing how collectible '50s vintage Jade-ite Fire-King has become -- you can find more than 3,000 pieces of it being auctioned on eBay most any day -- Anchor Hocking is reintroducing the green glass bakeware. While the mixing bowls, casseroles and other items have been "sized for today's lifestyles," the rounded, groovy silhouettes, color and opacity are the same as way back when.

Bodum, the Danish housewares maker, reinvented its '50s classic vacuum coffee brewer in an electric version. The Bodum Electric Santos, in which water is heated to a boil in a lower carafe then forced into an upper carafe where it slowly trickles down through the grounds, looks like something out of a high school chem lab.

Other manufacturers aren't duplicating designs from that long-ago decade so much as taking loose inspiration from it. Very loose.

For instance, Equator Corp. caught lots of eyes with its full-size round refrigerator-freezer with Lazy Susan-style shelves -- a design that seemed simultaneously retro and cutting edge. But no one has gone back to the future more than DeLonghi, which added two pieces to its Retro Collection of rocket-shaped percolators and curvy toasters, toaster ovens and an espresso-cappuccino maker.

Vicki Matranga, show program coordinator, says she's surprised retro remains so strong.

Throwback styling got hot for housewares, as it did in fashion and automobile design, when the turn of the century's approach turned Americans nostalgic. "I thought retro was going away," she adds, "that it was a millennial trend and would close out with the century."

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But now she believes that it's a look with legs, its popularity rising even after the dot-com crashes and Sept. 11 disaster.

"Rounded shapes are primal in their appeal -- they're natural, organic," Matranga says. "Objects in nature are not square-edged, and people are craving softness in their home environments now. The pleasures of the kitchen have returned."

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