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Small objects of desire
The Zena REX is both a humble vegetable peeler and a design classic. It is so easy to use and enduringly popular that in 2004 it was chosen to illustrate a postage stamp in Switzerland, where it was first made more than 60 years ago.
Inventor Alfred Neweczerzal’s great innovation was to give his peeler a swivelling steel blade that makes peeling root vegetables far quicker and less tiring on the wrists than using one with a fixed blade. The Zena company still make in excess of two million REX peelers a year.
The stories behind many taken-for-granted tools and other items of household equipment are surprisingly interesting.
Alex and Hazel Dexter share them with their customers through the unusually detailed labels that accompany the products they sell in Objects of Use, their shop in Oxford’s Market Street.
Everything the Dexters sell has a practical use, be it for cooking, cleaning, gardening, drawing or making music.
The smallest items are pins and buttons and the largest metal furniture designed by Ernest Race for the Festival of Britain in 1951, as well as made-to-order wooden sea kayaks. Perhaps the most unusual is a nightingale call from venerable Birmingham whistle and bell maker J Hudson & Co. The shop also stocks their Acme Thunderer referee’s whistle.
Mr and Mrs Dexter share a passion for modernist product design that is underpinned by the principle ‘form follows function’. They also describe themselves as being “against throwawayism”, hence their commitment to selling things that are built to last for decades, not a couple of seasons.
Hardly anything in the shop is made from plastic. Steel, enamel, glass, ceramics, wool and wood feature extensively, as do more unusual materials such as soft goat hair, used to make babies’ hairbrushes and ox horn, which is made into combs and bowls at Britain’s last hornworks, at Carnforth in Lancashire.
Sometimes it is the physical properties of an object that make it interesting.
For example, ostrich feather dusters, unlike those made from synthetic materials, do not create static electricity.
This makes cleaning more efficient as dust is not attracted back to the place from which it has just been removed, and renders them especially useful in certain industrial situations, where creating a spark could be catastrophic.
Mrs Dexter previously had her own graphic design business, while Mr Dexter studied art at Oxford University’s Ruskin School and Goldsmiths, then set up an avant-garde furniture-making enterprise in London.
Four years ago they moved with their young family to Ironbridge in Shropshire, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, to set up a shop selling traditional household items.
Although their choice of products was popular, sales proved to be too dependent on the summer tourist trade.
So last autumn they moved to Oxford, where they hope that trade will be less seasonal. For two years they have also had an online shop.
More than 90 per cent of their products are made either in the UK — linen towels from Northern Ireland and Welsh wool tapestry blankets, for example — or continental Europe, in Germany, Sweden, Finland, France, Italy, Portugal or Switzerland Several of their suppliers are the last of their kind, determinedly hanging on despite the decline of once-thriving manufacturing sectors.
Even in the short time they have been trading, the Dexters have seen British factories shut down or transfer production overseas.
“It is very sad to see them close —the loss of the jobs and the heritage,” Mr Dexter said.
He also highlighted the issue of very low pay in many of the factories in developing countries from which we now buy most of our household products. Cheap retail prices have hidden costs.
Mr Dexter disagrees with the widespread use of plastics in manufacturing because of the environmental damage involved, both during production and when the item breaks and is consigned to landfill.
It is also unsustainable, because oil supplies are going to run out.
“There is no need to buy a plastic brush. Wooden ones will last longer and do the job just as well, although they cost a bit more,” he said.
Many products are quirky and attractive, as well as practical.
“I liked our Portuguese universal whistling kettle, mainly because it looked like a 1950s spacecraft” Mr Dexter admitted.
He also particularly admires some Finnish tumblers which are made by blowing glass into wooden moulds which partially burn away, leaving unique striated patterns.
Although purely retailers, the Dexters can claim to follow in the tradition of 19th-century designer and visionary William Morris.
His golden rule was: “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”