There was a time when a husband's answer to his wife's question "where are the salt and pepper shakers, darling?" may legitimately have been: "I gave them the night off." In Victorian times, before the profusion of the handy little tabletop devices we know today, domestic staff in wealthier households would spend at least part of every day chipping away at blocks of rock salt, reducing the grain size with a mortar and pestle and delivering the salt to the table in bowls.
They were relieved of this unenviable chore only by the invention of the salt mill, a hand-held machine that ground smaller blocks of salt into pieces suitable for sprinkling on food, enabling the wealthy to do their own shaking. Suddenly the world had a labour-saving device that was not only practical but also had design potential. As a result of this new gadget an explosion of design ensued that involved the serving not just of salt but also its inseparable twin, pepper.
The salt and pepper shaker really took shape just after the Second World War, when durable and mass-produced everyday materials (notably ceramics) became more readily available. Since then shakers have been produced in myriad designs and made from every conceivable material. Perhaps more strikingly, these relatively practical and mundane devices have spawned a global following. There are shaker websites, shaker clubs, discussion groups, trading centres, international conventions and even a Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum in Tennessee with more than 20,000 exhibits.
Devotees have diversified the product into a range of design sub-species with nicknames such as kissers, bobbers, squeakers, go-togethers, hangers, nesters, stackers and tallboys; when shaker-folk talk shop it is a form of code. Unsurprisingly, the home of consumerism - the US - led the way in ensuring that virtually every possible known thing was represented on a shaker, and that adults and children became obsessed with owning entire sets of designs. Disney heroes, animals, guns, cigarettes, chicken's feet, dice, space rockets, doves, maracas, shark fins, light switches, bongos, bamboo sticks, spinning tops, clouds, pandas, Muppets (Kermit and Miss Piggy on their wedding day to be precise), dachshunds and even a Mr & Mrs Snowman set are among the thousands of designs.
Somewhere there must be shaker-dynasty families luxuriating in Bahamian beach-front mansions on the proceeds from the sale of several million shakers. Sadly, this fascination with shakers has left the world awash with some of the ugliest examples of design known to mankind - but fear not because our modern design heroes and heroines are saving the day with some stylish samples, which we have grouped into three design sub-species of our own.
First up is the Fun group, a perfect example of which is the Russian design star Yar Rassadin's Angel & Devil set (white angel with halo and red devil with horns) designed for the German manufacturer Koziol, which calls the pair "Spicies" on its website (www.koziol.de) and ships the little gems worldwide. Antrepo Design Industry (www.antreposhop.com) from Istanbul brought us a pair of replica D-size batteries called Salt & Pepper Cell, while Alessi produced the youthful Banana Bros Salt and Pepper Set, which involves two smiling apes sitting in a thermoplastic resin banana - inspired, says Alessi, by art works in the National Palace Museum of Taiwan (in Dubai, 4 Homes on 27th Street in Deira, Tavola (Mall of the Emirates) and Boutique 1 (The Walk at JBR) all stock Alessi).
Next is what we're calling the Zen group, which includes a pair of levitating shakers that magically hover above their magnetic base, conjured by the Italian designer Son Mocci. The legendary Danish design house Georg Jensen (Jensen products available in Wafi Mall, Dubai) can be added to this group with two delightful designs - Twist Salt&Pepper designed by Philip Bro Ludvigsen and the miniature Castors created by one of Jensen's most prolific designers, Henning Koppel.
Harder to come by is the charming set of porcelain stacker "stones" by the designer Woody Hsieh (for Toast, www.toastliving.com) including a smooth white salt shaker, a rough grey pepper shaker, and a white base that doubles as a bowl for oil, syrup, or dipping sauce. Bringing us bang up-to-date is the Modern group of shakers, which boasts the two graceful pewter towers (RS salt&pepper shakers) from Zuii Design Studio (www.marcelsigel.com) and the graceful and ergonomic beechwood salt-and-pepper mills called Plus designed by Norway Says for Muuto (buy online at www.scandinaviandesigncenter.com), which resemble irregular chess pieces.
Perhaps the best of the bunch is the Boogie Woogie, designed for the Danish design collective Menu (see www.menu.as for list of stockists). Boogie Woogie is the Berlin design team Murken-Hansen's take on the Segway: an anodised aluminium container that "rides" on two wheels, balanced perfectly to allow it to nod forwards and backwards satisfyingly. Pass the salt, will you please?