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VM choice: Utility in Brighton

Just behind the Lanes, in sunny Brighton, is a lovely little store that is definitely worth a visit. Utility has an online store too.

Owner Martha Tiffin has been running the store for five years now, and describes it as a ‘houseware and homeware store.’ It might be described as a ‘curated hardware store’ but that would be to miss out on its gentle but distinctive sense of humour and excellent customer service.

The store offers a mix of Utility-own brand merchandise, as with these enamel mugs, slightly smaller and in solid, bright colour rather than the original flower-patterned Chinese designs, and best-of-category bought-in merchandise.

We have all owned mugs like these and this, of course, is the key to the attraction that all hardware stores exert: a pleasurable mix of nostalgia and practicality. At Utility innovation plays a part too. The enamel mug comes in a useful espresso-sized version.

Still with coffee, a slightly predictable collection of coffee percolators is lined up on a wooden shelf and, most importantly, a replacement rubber gasket is offered for each size, all displayed above a simple alarm clock. This is Visual Merchandising by association: we want coffee after the alarm clock wakes us up. And probably breakfast not long after, hence the adjacent bread knives and salt-cellars.

The display of the blue & white china with designs based on sailors’ tattoos is endearing too. Seen here against a pea-green painted, tongue-and-groove wooden wall, with a small poster explaining their provenance, they look great.

Occasionally, the captioned notice accompanying the merchandise includes an image, as here with an image of the Coronation Street television character, Ena Sharples (Violet Carson). For many years Sharples was famed for making half a pint of milk stout last all evening in the snug of the Rover’s Return. Simply hanging the mugs from cup hooks again suggests kitchen dressers, larders, or cabinets of the past. Note the plain wooden peg used to clip the image to the mug too. While a carefully chosen image and a hook might not resonate for Brighton’s hoard of visiting language students, it would certainly evoke the past for a UK population.

Where Utility differs from other similar retro household stores, think Labour & Wait, Perigot or other Scandi-origin European equivalents sold in London’s department stores, is in its focus on small household items that are increasingly difficult to find today. Martha’s original inspiration for the store was the difficulty she experienced in finding many of these products. For example, the time-served solution to chipped ceramic teapot spouts was a rubber spout that eliminated mis-pouring.

Distinctively, Utility also offers an edited range of second-hand household merchandise, including cutlery and Woodsware. This Stoke on Trent brand manufactured (1950 - 1980s) a range of plain blue, green, or yellow china used in church halls, first-aid posts, and village fetes all over the UK. True nostalgia! Here the tongue-and-groove paneling has been painted a matte olive, which lends a glow to the shiny blue china. A matte mallard-blue paint used on the shelves below the cash desk contrasts nicely with the pea-green and olive too.

Sometimes current need has given a new lease of life to a classic item. For anyone making coffee on a gas hob using a small expresso coffee pot or an Turkish coffee pot, this gas ring reducer is a must-have. It is indeed, as justifiably described: ‘pure genius!’

In a utilitarian variation on baskets of merchandise, Utility also displays products in buckets, as in the rubber tap swirls shown here, and wooden crates, both of which they also sell.

This table of brushes and kitchen equipment is a delight for both the eye and the memory, with a mix of small metal and wooden kitchen merchandise. The glass jar of the wine bottle stoppers at the back asks if the customer has ‘thrown away the cork of a goodish bottle of wine by mistake?’ A stopper (for just 75p.) will keep the wine for a few more days. Behind this are the classical Kaymet tea trays in a range of colours, so redolent of the 1950s.

The soap shelves, also painted in pea-green against which the mostly-pink soap contrasts perfectly, are a delight to the soul. Lifebuoy, a body soap, and Bomber and Sunlight, laundry soaps, were early established brands and examples of product diversification. Add soap remembered from children’s fiction: carbolic soap would have been Toad’s only tool during his brief time as a laundress in ‘Wind in the Willows,’ and an image of Alfred Steptoe (Wilfred Pickles), the character from the television series ‘Steptoe & Son’ famed for his son’s accusation that he is ‘a dirty old man,’ asks if it is “time for a bath?’

Utility offers a few items that are curiously unfamiliar. The Ghillie kettle is a picnic kettle with an integrated space for a small fire at the base. When filled with water it boils much as an espresso coffee maker does. It is displayed with a retro cut-away diagram and instructions.

The friendly helpful sales staff look the part too, purchases are wrapped in kitchen paper. It is years since this was a common sight, used by butchers when wrapping meat. It made wonderful, free drawing paper for small children.