A housewares show is a sociologist's delight. Unlike other mega-trade fairs that focus on the latest advances in a single category, such as automobiles or computers, the 101st International Housewares Show held last week at McCormick Place in Chicago offered an overview of the state of the nation, domestically speaking.
With its eclectic collection of thousands of mostly low-tech products - adding up to a $53.7 billion industry in the United States - it reflected the prevailing mood of late 20th-century America.
This year that domestic mood included a longing for 4 C's: control, convenience, cleanliness, and comfort. Manufacturers are marketing not just products but "systems" and "centers," from laundry and cooking centers to closet and pantry systems. The professionalism of the office is coming home.
That is not the only spillover between work and family. Spurred by the comfort of "casual Friday" in the office, many Americans also want a relaxed atmosphere in the home - a less formal approach to entertaining and living. Accordingly, marketers are offering mix-and-match designs in dishes, lighter woods in furniture, and softer colors.
For the increasing number of cooks who are as short on culinary skills as they are on time, the emphasis is on single-dish meals in stove-to-table cookware. One multipurpose pan can be used as a skillet, casserole dish, and serving piece. For those who work late, there's even a barbecue light for grilling in the dark.
Beyond order and comfort, Americans long to be pampered. One category that produced a "big buzz" at this year's show centers around home health-care products, including aromatherapy, sound therapy, massagers, water purifiers, and air filters. Antibacterial products range from cutting boards and meat thermometers to trash bags that eliminate mildew.
But people aren't the only ones being pampered. The philosophy that a man's home is his castle now extends to pets as well. Fido and Fluffy are getting VIP (Very Important Pet) treatment in everything from "gourmet cuisine" to "educational" toys and modular pet furniture.
Consider the Cat's Palace, which is billed as a "state-of-the-art playland for cats," or the Cat Castle, a $169 "cat activity center."
Other indulgences include a Christmas stocking for the feline who loves to celebrate. "Wonderful gifts to brighten your cat's holiday," the label promises.
No wonder one exhibitor of pet supplies smiled and said, "Seeing some weird stuff, aren't you?"
Of course. But for every offbeat invention, there are hundreds of other practical designs to help Americans clean up, control clutter, and get organized. As manufacturers roll out record numbers of products for storage and home organization, they appear to be turning an old phrase "A place for everything and everything in its place" into a maxim for the millennium.
"Consumers are trying to simplify their lives," explained Lisa Casey Weiss, lifestyle consultant for the National Housewares Manufacturers Association. "They're very busy and time-pressed. They want anything they can find that makes their life more organized, less cluttered."
According to futurists at Rubbermaid, Americans plan to reorganize more than 8 million kitchens and nearly 9 million garages within the next two years. Add to those figures all the householders who are tired of Fibber McGee closets that unloose an avalanche of possessions when the door is opened, and the need for such items becomes obvious.
One solution lies in what marketers call "space creation" - using every inch in a home to stack, crate, file, hang, and hide belongings. Products range from behind-the-door laundry bags to under-the-bed boxes.
Rafter-hugging racks promise to free floor space in attics and basements. Plastic "patio trunks" and garage bins are designed to hold sports, lawn, and pool equipment.
In contrast to earlier storage products made of inexpensive plastic, many items today are of higher quality, Ms. Weiss noted. "Consumers are not embarrassed to leave them out in their home."
Quality is, in fact, the "biggest trend change" at the show in recent years, Weiss said. Whatever the item, consumers "will spend more money on a product that they see has a significant value and will last longer."