Judy Auchincloss used to work at fashion design. Julia McFarlane specialized in fabrics and wallpaper. What they shared was a passion for unusual housewares -- particularly the gleaming, streamlined utensils designed for industry, restaurants, and institutions.
Why, the two friends kept asking themselves, couldn't those durable, beautifully practical tools be made available to homemakers? Five years ago they determined to answer their own question. They rented an old drugstore at 842 Lexington Avenue. With the help of a couple of architect friends and a lot of fresh paint, they set up their own business - Manhattan Ad Hoc Housewares.
''We looked about and saw contradictions,'' the partners now recall. ''Overdesigned, expensive, often pretentious products choked the market. This, at a time of skyrocketing inflation, shrinkage of living space, and increasingly busy lives. We decided that what was clearly needed was simplification and clarification, and less, not more.''
In a word, ''adhocism'' -- the art of working with the best, the most appropriate materials at hand.
The owners' timing was excellent. They opened their doors shortly before publication of the book ''High-Tech: The Industrial Style and Source Book for the Home,'' by Joan Kron and Suzanne Slesin -- just in time to be mentioned approvingly in it.
Some of the purposeful products from the high-tech world that they offer today include heavy-gauge stainless steel carts, hotel bellman's hand trucks, metal wire shelving for storage, auto mechanics' roller seats, policemen's flashlights, photographers' studio lights, laboratory glass containers, and bullet-shaped indoor-outdoor trash cans.
The store opening also coincided with the gourmet cooking movement, which has made everyone more particular about quality cookware and equipping kitchens properly. ''The Cuisinart market has faded somewhat,'' Julia McFarlane says, ''but everyone seems to be cooking now at a higher level, so we just try to make sure we have the best pot for whatever specialty they are preparing.''
It is, however, the ''storage and organization'' department that intrigues New Yorkers even more. City dwellers, Judy Auchincloss says, are constantly in search of things that subdivide and organize space. ''So we have organizers for everything, from pan lids to pencils, and storage shelves and containers for any room in the house.''
The shop draws customers not only from New York, but from other states and other countries, including Japan and Germany, where Manhattan Ad Hoc Housewares has been featured in national magazines. The partners are now assisted by eight employees, but they still heave cartons around on occasion, and help unpack stock and fill shelves. They both enjoy selling on the floor because that keeps them in touch with people and with what they want. So does their practice of running to housewares, sports, and china and glass trade shows.
''It's the most work for the dollar that I can imagine,'' Julia McFarlane sums up. ''But it's fun. We work a six-day week and come by on Sunday afternoons to see that the windows get changed. Making sure that merchandise gets ordered and put out, keeping in touch with sources, watching the bottom line, and working on display as well as sales means that we work every minute of every hour we are in the shop. Day-to-day routines and problems do get tedious at times, and it does not allow us a very orderly life. But we love it. We like the contact with the public. And we would like to expand one day to include soft goods, like bath and bed and table linens.''
Ad hoc, of course.