Food & Drink: Up the function

Designer kitchenware may `express your personality' and provide a good talking point. But is it any better at actually doing the job? Photographs by Phil Ward
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The Philippe Starck/Alessi lemon squeezer has a lot to answer for. Has ever a kitchen gadget with such a limited function commanded so much area of a kitchen's work surfaces, spreading its three space-station legs and demanding a clear foot above it? It doesn't even filter out the pips and pith from the juice as it trickles down into the glass beneath.

But the lemon squeezer was something of a watershed in the Eighties. An icon of the decade's kitchen design, it also marked a new departure in equipment - it was the point where design beat function. Alessi was especially instrumental in this transition. "The Dream Factory", as it now styles itself, employs as product designers a variety of eminent names, such as Aldo Rossi, Michael Graves and Richard Sapps, with Jasper Morrison, Ron Arad and Marc Newson set to join them. It began life in 1921 as a plate-turning workshop, but only in the Eighties did the range of domestic living accoutrements begin to take shape. Today most of us are familiar with its quirky kettles and coffee-makers, peppermills and nutcrackers that tread a fine line between good taste and gimmickry.

Now, without wishing to be a spoilsport, as a cook I am primarily interested in function. Equally though I like equipment to be well made from beautiful materials and cleverly designed. I'm not sure where this puts me within the various consumer categories defined by Siemens, which divide people into "users", "time-savers" and "expressos", the latter being delicate, artistically sensitive souls who are primarily concerned with design features and style through which they can express their personalities. They sound like a pretty insecure bunch. We can at any rate hold them responsible for the emergence of the Siemens Porsche-designed toaster, coffee-maker and kettle. If only it had been Ferrari instead. Porsche remain uppermost in my mind as a victim of the Fun Boy Three song about "middle-age lechers" driving "clapped-out old Porsches".

The new generation of "designer" kitchen appliances were off to a tainted start, but not so tainted that I wasn't eager to test-drive these dream machines when they arrived. The Siemens coffee-maker seemed very imposing for the task it had to perform. Having become accustomed to cafetieres over the past 10 years, this towering steel factory seemed more than a little excessive. Having used it, though, I've become extremely attached to it. Not only does it make an excellent cup of coffee (I had forgotten quite how good filter coffee can be) but it's also nice and solid, and the vacuum flask is both highly functional and well constructed.

The toaster didn't fare as well. I liked the design, with its single, long slot, but despite its size it can only toast one slice of bread at a time: sliced Kingsmill seemed like a decent benchmark but the slot was about an inch short of comfortably being able to fit two pieces end to end. As to having 11 different settings, only one of them delivered good toast, unless you like it underdone in the centre or black around the outside.

I would rather have a Morphy Richards - in fact its current "retro" toaster is the exact one I grew up with, which means it was designed at around the same time that Ferdinand Porsche designed the 911 ...

On to Alessi. I set my sights on a green plastic Parmesan grater and a peppermill the shape of a corn dolly. The Parmesan grater, designed by Alejandra Ruiz, is held cupped in one hand while the other holds and grates the cheese. First off I could swear it was moulded around a man's hand - even with my long fingers I found it difficult to clasp. Not to mention that being left-handed made it almost impossible to use comfortably. And even if you are right-handed, Parmesan is a hard cheese to grate that benefits from the use of a work surface for support.

As for "Signorina Anna", the plastic corn dolly-shaped peppermill designed by Alessandro Mendini, it reminds me of those knitted loo-roll covers that people keep in the downstairs lavatory. It mills perfectly well, but I found it quite alien to be turning a flat metal screw instead of a nicely honed wooden dome. There's something about plastic peppermills that just doesn't work - it's a clever design but somehow trying too hard.

Feeling disillusioned by what now seemed like a sham of a marriage between industrialists and designers, I managed to get my hands on some Hackman saucepans designed by Bjorn Dahlstrom. Saucepans have long been a problem, dividing into domestic and professional, the former tending to be flimsy while the latter can be a little rough around the edges.

The Hackman pans are stunning, beautifully finished and incredibly heavy. Arguably too heavy - I actually like the weight but it's not to everyone's taste. They do, however, cook like a dream: the food sizzles and skids and caramelises and does all the things you want it to. So thumbs up to Hackman. What is apparent about them is that they are the result of analysing logistic and ergonomical demands. Design has followed on from that.

Hackman for me sum up the dilemma in kitchen utensil design, declaring as its mission statement that, "If new products are developed without any concrete need, or made by people who do not understand how they should be used - then the product will be changed from being a tool to a mere gadget, design for the sake of design itself. If the knife cuts badly it doesn't matter how good-looking it is."

Only 50 per cent of the equipment I tried was as good as, let alone better than that made by a decent mass- market manufacturer such as Krups or Russell Hobbs, or the bog-standard utensils, which I tested them against. By all means love Alessi products because they are frivolous, witty, a talking point, or because you are a gadget junkie, but as a serious cook this is not the equipment for you.

Robin Dawson of Oggetti, that design-led temple in the Fulham Road, west London, says it buys on the basis of design, without testing the products. "The fact that something has a designer's name attached," he says, "can lead people down the wrong path. A lot of designs go on to paper, then into production; the functionality is something that is added in afterwards." So now you know why that lemon squeezer doesn't work

Siemens Porsche coffee-maker, pounds 129.99, Porsche toaster, pounds 99.99 (for stockists call, 01780 722123). Alessi Parmenide Parmesan grater, pounds 22, Signorina Anna peppermill, pounds 37 (01920 444272). Hackman Tools Dahlstrom 98 range, 32cm frying pan, pounds 69, 26cm casserole pan, pounds 155 (01428 647639). Morphy Richards (0800 424848). Krups (0121 3800590). Russell Hobbs (0161 9473000). Oggetti (0171-581 8088).