Tools for Food: the design stories behind everyday kitchen objects

A new book showcasing over 250 cooking tools explores the design history of everyday utensils – from the Microplane to the mezzaluna.

When Corinne Mynatt was browsing a French flea market some fifteen years ago, a garlic press and pitter prompted a thought about her twin loves of design and cookery. Cooking utensils like this “tell entire stories of material, craftsmanship, developments in industry and also food systems”, the design writer and curator says.

Her new book Tools for Food explores some of the most significant objects of this kind, and the design stories behind them – a resource that was previously missing, according to London-based Mynatt. Her work began in the archives of British Museum, though the designs span both centuries and cultures, as cooking demands changed and new food trends arrived.

Mynatt was careful not to feature anything too trendy however, items she deems “gadgets”. “If you want to predict which object is going to last or not, ask ‘Can I do it with something else?’”. Spiralisers, to take one recent example, could be substituted with a knife, she explains. “Back in the day, it was pretty basic: you had a knife, spoon and a chopping board.”

A tale of four lemon squeezers

A uranium lemon reamer. Tools for Food by Corinne Mynatt (Hardie Grant, £20) Photography © Corinne Mynatt

“I love when there’s one object that’s doing the same thing for one food but comes from different time periods,” Mynatt explains, with reference to the four lemon squeezers included in the book. Each one tells a different story about material innovation, historical context, and the relationship between function and design, according to the author. The first is a rudimentary lemon squeezer from the 1820s, designed at a time when scurvy-preventing qualities made citrus popular. Some forty years later in England, a more ornamental device called a lemon treen was created in England “when time started to be taken in craftsmanship for it be more beautiful”, Mynatt says.

A collection of cheese slicers. Tools for Food by Corinne Mynatt (Hardie Grant, £20) Photography © Corinne Mynatt

Reamers became popular in the late 18th century, and Mynatt focuses on uranium versions made in the US, which glow green under black light. While these models were popular thanks to the material’s unusual colour variations, production was subject to societal flux. “They couldn’t make uranium glass anymore because they needed uranium for bombs,” Mynatt says. “Then they came back but by that time, people knew it was radioactive.”

The final lemon squeezer is Philippe Starck’s instantly-recognisable 1990 design for Alessi. Inspired by the shape of a squid, Juicy Salif is not the most practical juicing device – something Starck himself admitted – but remains a conversation-starting kitchen item. “It’s the most contentious design object of all time, as far as I’m concerned,” Mynatt says. “It is the object that describes the form over function debate.”

The “ingenuity” behind the Microplane

As Tools for Food show, kitchen utensils often combine different areas of product design. “Usually in the case of the kitchen, it comes from wood workshops or other workshops,” Mynatt explains, with cooks looking to different fields to speed up preparation time. Probably the most famous example of such cross-pollenation is the Microplane, designed by Lorraine Lee and Richard Grace.

Tools for Food by Corinne Mynatt (Hardie Grant, £20) Photography © Corinne Mynatt

Lee, a home maker, was frustrated by traditional zesters when she was cooking an orange cake. She instead used a woodworking tool and found it to be much faster than any of her utensils. The manufacturer of Lee’s tool had invented a photo-etch production process which created precise blades, and the design was refined for the kitchen utensil to feature many of these blades on a long rectangular device. As Mynatt explains, “It took the ingenuity of Lee to see the tool’s potential, and this change of context for their product altered the history of the company forever.”

Designing a soy sauce dispenser for Japan

Tools for Food by Corinne Mynatt (Hardie Grant, £20) Photography © Corinne Mynatt

As part of her research, Mynatt travelled to Japan to explore the utensils behind the country’s cuisine. She was drawn to one of Japan’s most ubiquitous designs: Kikkoman’s 1961 soy sauce dispenser created by Japanese industrial designer Kenji Eukan. The design challenge for the bottle was quite complex, according to Mynatt. The dispenser had to be easy to pour, not drip, and be comfortable to hold between the thumb and index finger. It was also a departure from traditional soy sauce containers, which were usually much larger.

Mynatt explains that Ekuan worked through hundreds of prototypes for three years before landing on the design (which holds a global, three-dimensional trademark meaning it cannot be replicated without permission). The resulting glass design features a 60-degree inward angle spout which prevents dripping, along with its iconic red plastic lid. While it breaks one of Mynatt’s rule for the books – the dispenser is really for dining tables not kitchens – it’s a good example of an object that fits within a wider cultural context. “It’s important for cooks, important for restaurants and important for Japanese people,” Mynatt says.

“If it’s working well, you shouldn’t even notice it”

Tools for Food by Corinne Mynatt (Hardie Grant, £20) Photography © Corinne Mynatt

Unsurprisingly, many of the kitchen-based objects were driven by domestic issues rather than company-set briefs. 1934’s Moulinex food mill was designed by Jean Mantelet to create smoother food mixes to fix his wife’s lumpy mash, for example. Happy accidents also abound, like the O-Series scissors, whose distinctive orange handles were the result of leftover coloured material (they were originally intended to be black, red or green).

Of course, many of us might not give a second thought to any of these everyday items, which is a sign of good design, according to Mynatt. “If it’s working well, you shouldn’t even notice it,” she says. “What I’m doing in the book is telling the stories behind those objects.”

Tools for Food: The Objects that Influence How and What We Eat, is published by Hardie Grant. It costs £20 and is available 16 September.

Hide Comments (1)Show Comments (1)
  • Daniel S. Hagy September 16, 2021 at 7:33 pm

    Hello Henry,
    Being a “creative” myself both a Graphic Designer and Photographer I appreciated this article because of it content about design function of everyday objects related to food. I got schooled today!
    Thank you,

  • Post a comment

Latest articles