A Knork In the Road
Wednesday, March 5, 2008
Until the early 17th century, it was considered good English table manners to stab your meat with a knife, then rip it apart with your hands. Why use a fork -- that newfangled Continental invention -- when you could just as easily use your fingers? It took 100 years before good manners made forks de rigueur at the table.
Then, innovation pretty much stopped.
At the International Home and Housewares Show next week in Chicago, 28-year-old Wichita inventor Mike Miller will try to change that. His product, the Knork, is a knife-fork that looks like any other fork but can easily cut through a raw carrot. Despite its name, the Knork is far more ingenious than the retro but not terribly useful spork (spoon-fork) or the splayd (spoon-blade), neither of which really caught on. Miller, who is in discussions with a national retailer, says the Knork could be the answer for cutting your food on airplanes, for the blind or disabled or for just eating in front of the TV.
Miller is one of about 2,000 vendors going to the show with hopes of selling the next big thing. But it's not just numerical odds that are against the Knork becoming this year's DustBuster, breadmaker or pod coffee machine -- all products that made a splash at the annual event. It's history. For centuries, designers have sought to improve the fork, knife and spoon. All have remained stubbornly unchanged.
But in an ever more casual and fast-paced world, a new era of cutlery could be dawning. Technology and production methods have evolved so that flatware no longer has to be flat. Culture, too, is changing. Hard data are sparse, but a U.K. survey by grocery store Sainsbury's revealed that only 10 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds in Britain use a fork, knife and spoon at dinner, while 10 percent skipped cutlery entirely and ate with their hands.
"Cutlery has always been dictated by culture, not common sense," says Donald Norman, a professor at Northwestern University and the author of "The Design of Future Things." "We're much less formal. Even formal dinners are much less formal." A century ago at formal meals in Western society, diners used 12 or more utensils. Today, a standard formal place setting is five pieces.
Shifts in culture and fashion long have done far more to dictate changes to eating utensils than utility or ergonomics. In the Middle Ages, knives were designed with sheaths for easy transport, as silverware was too expensive for innkeepers or hosts to provide it to their guests. In the late 1500s, when stiff lace collars called ruffs came into fashion, most spoons had short stems. The stems were made longer to get the food past the collars and into people's mouths.
It is said that it was sheer force of personality that erased early knives' dagger-sharp points. In the early 1600s, Cardinal Richelieu, the French king's first minister, ordered all the knives in his palace ground down to prevent his guests from the common but unseemly habit of picking their teeth, according to Henry Petroski's "The Evolution of Useful Things."
In contrast, design innovations, even clever ones, tend to make limited headway. The spork, for example, has been around since at least the 19th century -- the first patent was registered in 1874 -- but remains a novelty. The same goes for more modern innovations such as Michael Schneider's sexy Zeug "tools," which are based on primitive cave-man designs; the spoon scoops liquid like an oyster shell, and the knife is modeled on a honed flint. Next up: the Museum of Modern Art's ramen spoon, a traditional spoon crowned with four tines, which goes on sale in May. It's brilliant, in its way. But do enough people eat enough ramen to make it a sensation?
"Cutlery took centuries to catch on. The fork was particularly unwieldy and hard to use. It was societal aspiration that persuaded people to learn," says Darra Goldstein, a professor at Williams College and the curator of "Feeding Desire: Design and the Tools of the Table, 1500-2005" a 2006 exhibition at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York.
A cultural shift is what Knork inventor Miller tapped into when he conceived of the utensil back in the eighth grade. After a basketball game, he was struggling to cut a very hot slice of pizza with a fork. Because forks are stamped from a piece of stainless steel, they are the same thickness throughout, and no amount of seesawing would easily cut through his crust. The same was true, he realized, when you ate standing up at a party or on your lap on the living room sofa.
At 14, there wasn't much Miller could do, but he never forgot about his big idea. During college, he began to experiment with an improved design. He borrowed a few forks from his mom's silverware drawer and used Bondo, an automotive putty, to reshape them. He added thicker areas to provide leverage and a smooth beveled edge to cut through food.