CHICAGO -- There are few phrases in the English language that bore an 8-year-old more than “trade show.” “Agricultural field trip” might qualify, or maybe “indoor summer camp.” But to draw a truly blank stare, tell a second-grader that the two of you are headed to an expo on kitchen, bath and living-room accessories.
When I recently explained to my son, Jake, that we would be making a pilgrimage to the four-day International Home and Housewares Show in Chicago, he seemed completely stultified.
“Is it like furniture?” he asked. Then he added hopefully, “Are there, like, rides?”
Well, like, no. But the show offers its own brand of amusement, especially when you’re not a salesman or a buyer desperately trying to find an awesome smoothie maker or the world’s next Snuggie.
With thousands of new, old and sometimes bizarre products, the housewares show is an annual celebration of innovation and entrepreneurial optimism, with row upon row of ideas, from the sleek, high-end (like the elegant trapeze lamps from Light & Contrast) to the undoubtedly lowbrow (one example: the pet-potty accessory known as Cat Wipes).
My idea was to allow Jake to act as scout and product tester, on the theory that many decisions in the home are influenced by children, a hunch confirmed by Tom Mirabile, the senior vice president for global trend and design at Lifetime Brands, a housewares company, who believes that buying a blender can be a form of bonding.
“We’re entering a period when a lot of Gen X and Gen Y parents are teaching their kids life skills that they are realizing will be important, and that includes home-ec skills,” Mirabile said, adding that many on-the-go families consider time spent in the kitchen to be family time. “For boomers, cooking and baking wasn’t cool. Now it’s another point of engagement with their children.”
That was exactly the type of engagement I was hoping for when Jake and I arrived at McCormick Place, this city’s sprawling lakeside convention center, last week.
There were a few complications, of course — namely that Jake was suffering from a sore foot. It was a bad sign, because if there is one requirement for attending a housewares show, it is being ambulatory. But Jake’s pain seemed to ease shortly after he was introduced to another time-honored trade show concept: swag.
“So can I have that cup of hot chocolate?” he asked.
Yes, I told him.
Jake looked amazed.
One advantage of going to a show like this with a child is that children tend to see things that adults might easily pass by. Such was the case with one of the first things Jake noticed: the Mighty Mug, which advertises itself (foolishly, it turns out) as a device that is practically accident proof. “Never Spill Again” is its motto.
Jake took this as a challenge. “They say it can’t be knocked over,” he said. “How could it not be knocked over?”
En route to the Mighty Mug, mind you, we had already been waylaid several times. The housewares show is a big tent where brand-name manufacturers rub elbows with lesser-known companies like Arrow Plastic, a decidedly unflashy outfit from suburban Chicago.
It was there that Jake discovered the Sip-A-Bowl, a product whose name pretty much sums it up: It is plastic, it is a bowl and it has a straw that allows the user to consume the bowl’s contents without using those pesky spoon things.
I was unimpressed, but for Jake this was a major innovation. “So if you have ice cream in the bottom, you can suck it up,” he said, sounding astonished.
Indeed, many of the products he appreciated seemed to fall into one or more of the three F’s: food, fun and funky.
Firmly in the last category were the Duck Timers from Alessi. Created by the Finnish designer Eero Aarnio, they are just what they sound like: kitchen timers that look and sound like ducks. In other words, when they go off, they quack, something that delighted my son, who promptly decided to use several to set a “duck bomb,” whereby they would all quack at once.
“Those people are going to be driven crazy,” he said, grinning like a Bond villain.
We left the booth as the countdown neared zero and found our way to Room Copenhagen, a Danish design company. Jake’s attention was instantly drawn to the Lego-style oversize plastic storage units. His favorites were the decapitated Lego heads — just the right size for a brain, he pointed out — which the company’s representatives promised could be used to hold a variety of things, including lunch meat and dirty socks (but not, one would hope, at the same time).
He also liked the bricks that were big enough to serve as a toy chest, which inspired a postmodern revelation.
“You could put Legos in Legos,” he said. Whoa.
A similarly child-friendly ethos was on display at the booth for Areaware, a New York-based company with a number of hip items, including a sneakily elegant iPod dock that converts your phone into an old-school alarm clock and a series of American flag spatulas by Jacob Wasserman, good for subtly patriotic July 4 cookouts. Jake’s eye, however, was drawn to the Cubebot by David Weeks, a wooden action figure that folds into a small cube, just right for a boy’s pocket.
Real robotics seemed to be a big trend in housewares, from newcomers like Grillbot, which introduced a frantic little device outfitted with bristles that scrambles around and cleans your barbecue, to corporations like iRobot, which makes the remote-controlled Roomba vacuum that Jake enjoyed bossing around.
“Robot!” he shouted. “Clean!”
Nearby, Ecovacs was offering the Winbot, a nifty new gadget that combines suction and squeegee technology and promises to clean your window — inside or out — in about five minutes. Jake tested its prowess by writing “Dork” and “Jake Rocks” on a pane of glass in the display. And sure enough, moments later the scribbles were gone.
Not surprisingly, considering the state of his room at home, most of the other cleaning devices were not interesting to my son. Nor were adult-oriented items like coffee makers, wine accessories and high-performance steam irons.But plenty of things appealed to his stomach: we saw popcorn and snow-cone makers, and all manner of tabletop grills. At one point, I looked up to find Jake at the Nesco booth, getting comfortable with a plateful of mini-pancakes, bacon and toasted apple.
At the Isi display, a glass of peach lemonade topped with blueberry lavender cream, made by the company’s Easy Whip, suddenly appeared.
“Foam,” Jake said, sounding like a surfer. “Awesome.”
Chicago Metallic’s booth offered all manner of marshmallow accouterments — pans, dipping sets and cutters — as well as free marshmallows. Jake had seven before pronouncing himself in “marshmallow overload.”
There were also goofy Crustache creations by Fred & Friends, which, in an odd echo of the fake-mustache fad, make it possible to create food resembling facial hair. And Holstein Housewares unveiled a line of pastel-colored machines that produce miniature versions of whoopie pies, brownies and waffles.
Jake tried them all and then promptly ran a frosting-fueled 100-yard dash. (His foot was apparently healed by a sugar rush.)
Zoku, a Hoboken, N.J., company, offered a line of sleek, colorful ice-pop makers that can produce a Popsicle-like treat in less than 10 minutes, an advance the company’s co-founder Yos Kumthampinij described in historic terms.
“We saw the ice pop, and saw it hadn’t changed in hundreds of years,” he said. “And we were, like, how can we make it cool? And how can we make it fast?”
Kumthampinij and his business partner, Ken Zorovich, were just a couple of the many young inventors at the show. Another was Daniel Russo, who had combined a variety of shopping requirements — list, pen, coupon clip — into a single magnetized bag that sticks to the fridge. (Just take the groceries out first.)
Rita Floyd-Vester was responsible for the Solvetta neoprene lunchboxes, which won an innovation award at the show. Floyd-Vester, a teacher, said she hit upon the idea for the pyramid-shaped container after watching the madness that is your average school cafeteria. Her solution was a floppy zipped bag that folds out into a place mat, minimizing the spread of germy detritus.
I would have bought it for Jake on the spot (he liked the camouflage version), but it is still in production.
Along similar lines, a company called 3 Green Moms, founded by, you guessed it, three mothers, was looking for child-related solutions when it hit on the idea for Lunchskins: reusable sandwich bags that any budding environmentalist would appreciate. For artsier parents, there were compact and colorful bento boxes, complete with silverware and sauce containers, from Monbento, a French company.
It was far from the only international group trying to make a move in Chicago, something I decided to use as a teachable geography moment.
We found cool globes from Tecnodidattica, an Italian company; sleek salad bowls from Koziol, from Germany; and a variety of beverage appurtenances from Koala, a Spanish startup.
The lesson extended outside Europe when we met Dumile Ndlovu and Tigere Chiriga, who grew up together in Zimbabwe before starting a company around their so-called “floating mug,” which Chiriga said was inspired by the sight of a banana holder — and coffee stains on the couch.
“My wife was yelling at me,” he said. His solution? A mug suspended above a reservoir that catches drips.
Jake decided to test the theory with some water, and sure enough, no spillage.
“I get it,” he said, thinking it through. “It goes down the side, but there’s never enough to go over the edge.”
That’s right, kiddo, you nailed it.