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A Brighton emporium channels the spirit of wartime austerity with witty designs and lots of jolly useful household items.

June 22 2010
Dominic Lutyens

Cleaning is probably the last thing you’d expect a hip young thing to like. But Martha Tiffin, owner of Brighton hardware and household shop Utility, positively rhapsodises about it: “I once signed up to a cleaning agency. I love cleaning. Something I didn’t see coming when I opened the shop was that people of all ages love popping in to pontificate about different cleaning methods.” Customers range from trendy Mr and Ms Mops to “a biddy who came in with her Zimmer frame and attracted a lot of attention by dancing to [singer and composer] Hoagy Carmichael”.

The main inspiration for the shop is the second world war Utility Furniture and Clothing Scheme (designed to cope with shortages of materials and rationing). “My stock is functional and hard-wearing,” says Tiffin. This reflects her own taste: “I’ve never been girlie, always pared down. With this shop, I’m trying to be like a British Muji, the way it minimises packaging just as the original Utility design avoided wastage.” In another nod to the original Utility ethos, the stock is well priced – which also explains why it’s so popular.

Tiffin, who initially dreamed of being a pub signwriter for a brewery, worked for the store’s previous incarnation, a T-shirt-printing shop, doing the graphics. “I love type and print,” she says. She then set up a wholesale operation touting tea towels emblazoned with Edwardian and 1940s typefaces and imagery, which she now stocks in her shop, which opened last October. A typical tea towel sold today (cotton £9.50; linen £10) wittily parodies the first world war Lord Kitchener recruitment poster: “Britons Want Tea... Put Your Kettles On!”

Entirely glass-fronted on three walls, the interior creates the impression of being inside an old-fashioned phone box. And the décor – pea-green and dark battleship-grey walls and a pulley maid displaying tea towels – feels distinctly 1940s.

Bestsellers include char-lady pinnies (£25), apparently popular with stallholders at London’s Borough Market, plain buff and coloured notebooks (from £5.50), former-army silver-plated teapots (£30) and pre-war posters advertising house and livestock auctions (£20-£40 unframed).

Things are “preferably British”, but Tiffin isn’t precious about this: she sells ostrich-feather dusters (£16), cane carpet-beaters (£8) and ultra-utilitarian scrubbing brushes (£2.50) by Redecker in Germany. Some objects are downright arcane, even if still practical: surprisingly popular are some glass eye baths (£2.50) and handmade pince-cornichons (wooden tongs for fishing pickles out of jars, £14).

Tiffin doesn’t want Utility to become “too 1940s-themed in a ‘Dig for Victory’ way. I’m not just into that era.” To remind herself of this, she says, she has a 1970s Rod Stewart poster behind the counter. Austerity-period design might be the main inspiration, but humour gets a look-in, too.