Practical won't cut it; tools turn cute

Everywhere you look these days, the functional is getting a coat of froufrou. Let's call it "cutility."

Keys, hammers, and door knockers are no longer dull, straightforward, undecorated things. They're gussied up with polka dots, flowers or Disney characters to reflect the owner's personality and to make the mundane fun.

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"Nemo" whisk and princess grater, both from the Sarut Group, which says it brings "whimsy into the home."

Everyday tools and objects are receiving total makeovers. Orvis sells a tool kit that includes flower-patterned pliers, scissors, and utility knife. Target offers a toilet brush holder shaped like a black bear.

A pink Traeger barbecue grill in the shape of a pig greets customers outside Stronsiders, a Washington-area hardware store - for eons a refuge from cuteness. Now, you see screwdrivers covered with stylized American flags and racks of colorful designer house keys - happy ones with smiley faces, daisy displays, multicolored jigsaw-puzzle pieces.

For about $5, you can buy Disney keys touting Mickey Mouse, the Little Mermaid, and other characters. There are keys representing college and professional teams. And for your motorboat, a NASCAR key.

Personalized keys are explosively popular, says hardware and tool manager Jim Lovaas. "We're expanding all the time."

One company at the center of cutility is the Brooklyn-based Sarut Group. The firm distributes practical items with fanciful designs, such as cheese graters shaped like princesses in long skirts, vegetable peelers that are Asian characters, and "Nemo whisks" shaped like fish.

"Everything we do is very functional. But it brings an element of whimsy into the home," says company spokeswoman Sharon Hitchcock. In this same-old, same-old world, "it's an attempt to make your home an oasis."

Alan Andreasen, a marketing guru at Georgetown University, says the trend toward cutility is "an attempt by lots of people to individualize both themselves and their possessions."

He equates the cuting-up of the commonplace with "tattoos, customized cell phones, and ringtones as a way to step away from mass commoditization." Credit, he says, goes to the clever marketers who found ways to breathe life into mundane commodity categories.

"Sure," he says, some "people have lots more discretionary money to spend on these things, but I think it's more about the idea of trying to be your own person."

Karen Matthias had such a desire for attractively designed tools that she and her husband, David, started Ladies Tools Online in 2005.

"The biggest thing we hear," David Matthias says by phone from Worthington, Ohio, "is, 'I want a tool set my husband won't touch.' "

So the Matthiases offer a peaches-and-cream-colored tool set and several pink versions. "Cutsey is good," David says, "but [women] want good quality, too."

Cutility is spreading preciousness, syruplike, over even classic Swiss army knives, now marketed in pink, purple and blue.

Where is all this going, this pursuit of sappiness? Can daisy-adorned Leatherman tools, Crayola-colored tenpenny nails, and Burberry jackhammers be far behind?

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