Designers of Cutlery, This One’s for You

Eating requires either using hands or implements intended for some specific use, but not all designers follow that rule

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Photo by Greta Schölderle Møller

Form follows function is a principle associated with late 19th and early 20th-century architecture and industrial design. It means the shape of a building or object should primarily relate to its intended function. The phrase was first used by architect Louis H. Sullivan, seen as the “father of the skyscraper, in his 1896 essay “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered.”

But shouldn’t every design, not solely restricted to buildings, be following that caveat? Why would only architecture be the only design element that pays attention to the function of an object? It doesn’t make sense, and it certainly doesn’t make sense when it comes to eating and cutlery.

The knife, the fork, and the spoon are all members of the cutlery family in America, and it is here that the design battle rages. Should the design of these items make them more elements to be envied or functional with a simple, practical purpose, eating?

A Blizzard of Design Impeding Eating

Forks generally thought to serve only one purpose in the average household, come in various sizes, and present particular dilemmas at dinner parties where the intention is to show extravagance.

Forks are designed for salad, fish, dinner, dessert, and oysters. The tines have a bit of history behind their form and function.

The different number of tines in the forks can be attributed to a change in habits and customs at the table. The first forks introduced in the Eastern Roman Empire had two tines, they were a miniature derivation of agricultural tools and they were used only to pierce food and in case to cut them firmly. The introduction of more tines is explained by the use of different dishes at the table, which did not necessarily have to be pierced or blocked, but just collected and accompanied to the mouth.

Each fork is laid out in a particular fashion so that the diner begins using the fork farthest from the plate first — no need to look around to see who is using which fork because the order tells you. The problem is the design of some of these forks has lost the element of function.

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Photo by Fallon Michael

Salad Forks Lost in the Design

Consider the salad fork, which should have a broad shape with perhaps four tines, each of which enables the diner to pick up elements in the salad easily. Designers have lost sight of this and too many design their salad forks relatively narrow, making it difficult to pick up anything except, possibly, a chopped salad. IMHO, it’s like trying to eat a salad with chopsticks, which I’m sure Asians have the expertise, but I don’t.

Shouldn’t salads please the eye as much as the palate? The beauty of the salad is in the elements it contains, and these elements are all lost in a mélange of chopped bits, making them much like adult baby food.

Consider radicchio, a beautiful leaf that can adorn a salad and make it more of a treat to the eye. Chop it up, and what does it become? It looks like ordinary red cabbage, which it’s not.

There once was a fabled silver shop on Fifth Avenue and then Madison Avenue in New York City, George Jensen, that sold beautiful cutlery that had unique designs. These beautiful, shimmering creations were meant to alert the diner that they were eating with a very special implement.

Unfortunately, Jensen designers loved to go to long, thin tines. These implements looked more like they were suited for spearfishing in the ocean and piercing anything that swam by.

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Creative Commons Photo: Brooklyn

Utility Lost in the Creative Fire

Indeed, anyone who wishes to express their creativity through cutlery design would adhere to the “form follows function” edict, but they don’t. Any fork that has tines that are more appropriate for tossing away at a carnival is not design. It’s a copout of design and unworthy of the designer.

Take a look at the “fork” (second from left) in the illustration at the top of this article. A battle royal would ensure with any morsel that was sought for consumption at a dinner table. The handle of the one shown here is so slender, you wonder how you would hold it if it had salad on it.

Conversation would be impossible as the diner repeatedly poked at the food and lost on each attempt. Once caught, would it remain on the implement? I doubt it.

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Creative Commons Photo: Brooklyn

Slender and polished, what purpose would this delicate fork serve on a dinner table? Yes, of course, it’s the ever-necessary pickle fork. It was probably placed near the silver cucumber knife recommended by Edith Wharton in “The Age of Innocence.”

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cco Image: Gorham Ice Cream Hatchet, RISDmuseum. org

What Role Have Museums Played in Cutlery Design?

Professional profiles are created by winning contests or achieving the incredible task of having your designs in museum collections. I don’t know if there is a design contest for cutlery, but if there is, we’ll see more utensils that are meant to be seen and not used.

Pickle forks, alas, have gone out of fashion as has the haughty silver cucumber knife. Of course, if you insist on serving your Haagen-Dass ice cream with style, there’s nothing like a silver hatchet. How do you wield a silver hatchet with style at a block or carton of ice cream? Emily Post, please respond.

So, what am I saying here? Please, please, designers, let the creative juices flow but remember the function of dinnerware. I beg of you.


Written by

Dr. Farrell is a psychologist, WebMD consultant, SAG/AFTRA member, author, interested in film, writing & health. Website:

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