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HOUSEWARES GET HIP AND HAUGHTY

Since when did we get emotional about our toasters?

And, for that matter, our blenders, irons, floor cleaners and timers?

When every mundane utensil is a canvas for brilliant color and design; when an entire industry explodes around the idea that it's cool to be homey; and when consumers demand that their can openers be useful and gorgeous that's when nesting becomes big business and every mop maker on the planet goes for our gut. The heartstrings were tugged aplenty at the recent International Home & Housewares Show in Chicago, the annual marketplace of all things to make homes more livable and efficient for their harried inhabitants.

After all, when your entire day is consumed by things you can't control, isn't it empowering when your trash can exceeds your expectations?

"You get this excitement when you're pleasantly surprised that something does what it says it's going to do," said Tammy Stokes of Uniondale, N.Y., who serves on a consumer panel sponsored by the International Housewares Association trade organization called HIPsters (Home Trend Influentials Panel). The national panel, five of whom participated in a seminar at the show, advises the organization about consumer needs, likes, wants and trends.

About those trash cans: Containing trash seems to be the least of what customers want. Oxo added a lock to tame unruly plastic bags, as well as step-up lids engineered so that they don't bang into your walls, creating unsightly marks. Simplehuman featured a "bucket park" that allows you to rest the liner midway inside the can for easier bag removal. And Umbra, the folks who infused high design in waste containers, trotted out arresting new colors such as marine, mango and root beer.

Many of the trends evident in recent years -- vibrant color; organizing and crafts; trophy appliances; coffee culture -- continued to assert themselves at this year's show. But instead of trotting out the next big thing, manufacturers were more akin to alchemists seeking to transform ordinary products into gold. Call it the year of highly evolved stuff.

What took so long?

In many cases, the most memorable products also seemed the simplest, evoking a reaction of "at last!" Serrated soft skin peelers, for instance, introduced by Zyliss ($9) and Oxo ($7), solve the problem of those pesky paring knives and fumbling fingers on peaches, plums, zucchini and tomatoes. The manufacturers are counting on products such as this to make life easier in our souped-up kitchens.

"People are into aspirational cooking," says Anastasia Mickelson, spokeswoman for Zyliss. "Instead of serving store-bought macaroni and cheese and frozen pie, they want to make their own peach cobbler."

Another "aha" moment came with the $3 plastic lettuce knife by Zyliss, possibly the best bargain at the show. For folks who don't like to tear but don't want to ruin the lettuce, this sharp, colorful plastic tool is the thing.

An affair to remember

As a rule, appliances are tricky gifts to give a woman. They don't quite express love the way, say, diamonds or spa retreats do. But the Jenn-Air Attrezzi blender and stand mixers are a different story. They are the sirens of the housewares category, romancing innocents and making them forget all about the little blender at home. The newest offering of the dreamy "Signature" line by Michael Weems is a pink shade called "iced coral." Bet Mom won't shove this in the closet after Mother's Day.

And there's more to love: The newest member of the Attrezzi family is a toaster that you can customize with a choice of five metal finishes and six glass bases.

Also in the "too cute" category is a set of apple-sized, stoneware dishes from Le Creuset known as the "petite garden collection" ($25 each). The company, known for its heavy, colorful cast iron, created the appealing collection as miniatures of its signature vegetable casserole dishes.

To take the one-cup coffee maker to the next level, Bialetti has created the Mukka Express, a stovetop cappuccino maker for $90 that brews the frothy drink in 4 1/2 minutes. Resist it if you can.

Complicated machines

How many of us have fallen decidedly out of love with housewares that don't work or are so complicated you want to throw them against the wall?

"You don't want a microwave that takes a manual to use," said Heather Fadden of Snohomish, Wash., who also served on the HIPsters panel. "You want a button that says popcorn."

Take the traditional timer, for instance. Who knew it's a hot category? According to Oxo spokeswoman Gretchen Holt, timers haven't fit the bill for a long time. You either can't hear them, can't see them or can't figure out how to work them on your oven. They also don't work well for long-term cooking.

Enter the Oxo double timer ($25): It has a longer ring when time's up, an angled face and two timers: one for longer-term projects such as roasting a turkey and the other for cooking at intervals, such as basting. "It's an intuitive design," Holt says.

Mixing it up

When a visitor remarked that it was interesting to see Amish buyers alongside Orthodox Jewish buyers at the Back to Basics booth, spokeswoman Melissa Clyne pointed out that the 34-year-old company focuses on food preparation items "that bring families together" such as popcorn makers, apple peelers, smoothie makers and hot-chocolate makers. "We serve both those audiences well," she says of the eclectic mix in her booth.

On the heels of the single-serving trend of last year, "Blender Express" has a jar that when turned upside down looks like a milkshake glass. Add the interchangeable top and voila, a smoothie or shake for one.

The company has also created the "Blender Solution," a multifunctional appliance with interchangeable bases for a blender and smoothie maker, as well as a food-processor attachment.

Other blender news was from Oster, which introduced the "blue chill freezer jar." Interchangeable with the company's existing blenders, the jar contains freezible liquid that can keep drinks cold for up to six hours.

On the go

With all these exquisitely stocked kitchens, people are cooking more, right? Only your utility bill knows for sure, but two products are welcome news for cooks who carry. Hamilton Beach has a "Stay or Go" slow cooker with handles for carrying, space for a serving spoon on the lid and a spot for labeling your dish at the potluck supper.

If you're bringing the chili and the fixings, too, check out the next additions to the young Gourmet Tote line. This soft-sided, shelved carrier was introduced last year, but this year the small Florida company has added a sport tote that can hold a 9x13 casserole dish, a pie and a bottle of wine. A new lunch tote solves the problem of dishes that need to lie flat on their way to the office.

After the glitz

Like all love affairs, the romance with our housewares has its darker side. Say you fall hard for grapeness, the new color from Hamilton Beach. But then KitchenAid's tangerine catches your eye and all of a sudden you're stuck when everyone else has moved on. Suddenly boring, reliable, retro white has new appeal, rather like a blank canvas for you to express yourself through your cooking. But wait, color was supposed to be the new black. Or something like that.

But one thing that doesn't change colors with the season is the fact that life isn't getting less complicated. Consumers aren't all of a sudden going to give back accessible, affordable design. Let's just face it you may get tired of the kiwi frying pan or the smoothie maker long before it gives out on you. And when that happens, hopefully you'll know a college grad starting out in a new home who would be thrilled to take your colorful castoffs while you chase after the object of your fickle affections.

It's what keeps Sharon Tindell prowling the aisles year after year, and what keeps customers coming to her store. She is executive vice president for merchandising and one of the founders of the Container Store. Since the store was founded in Dallas in 1978, she has had a front-row seat on how our lives play out at home.

"We find that with our customers, in an effort to simplify their lives, they're getting rid of things that don't have meaning.

"There are so many external influences e-mails, faxes, voice mails. Home is a sanctuary. A lot of people shut down when they get home. They start creating emotional bonds with their possessions."

A good houseware, after all, may be one of the most stable relationships in your life. It never lets you down; you brag about it to your friends; you don't have to change it and you can keep it for a while.

No wonder it's so easy to fall in love with a toaster.

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