Silicone household use ventures beyond the kitchen

The material is the new vogue for a range of household goods ranging fromsalt-and-pepper shakers to furniture upholstery

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 February, 2013, 4:59am

Silicone, once the material used to make spatulas, now has myriad home applications, such as lamp-shaped salt-and-pepper shakers, pads that adhere to any surface and can hold car keys, spare change and shopping lists, and even as upholstery for large items of furniture.

And at the forefront of the movement persuading people to think of silicone differently is a Hong Kong-based company that is now in some of the world's best stores (Harrods, La Rinascente and Sur La Table), and is continuing to align itself with notable names. In Hong Kong it is sold at Sogo.

"Silicone is not just about the kitchen any more," Ken Yeung, founder and chief executive of Silicone Zone, says. "It's in the living room, bathroom, outdoors. It can be used in unique ways."

A synthetic compound that is used in medicine, electronics and construction, silicone has been rising in popularity and visibility as an aid in the kitchen at a time when consumers are concerned about the potential toxins in plastics and non-stick cookware.

The fact that it is reusable, unlike foil and parchment paper, makes it an eco-conscious choice for baking. With its pliant, rubbery texture, it is heat resistant and food is less inclined to stick to it - a boon for anyone who has ever had to scrape burnt banana bread out of an aluminium baking dish. As a result, it is popular as loaf pans, muffin tin liners or to line a cookie tray.

"There is a function and quality to silicone that people started discovering, and it became a real option for them in the kitchen, in addition to tin or aluminium," Yeung says. "It was something fun and different to use."

Yeung was working in the finance industry in New York when he noticed that silicone was beginning to be embraced by home chefs. He started the company in 2001 but legal problems with his United States partners led to the dissolution of that relationship, and the need to close the business and make new plans.

"We had to give everything a break before we could move on," he says. "After we restructured, we diversified, offered new products and wanted to focus on what was innovative, fun and unique. Now, for us, every day is about creating something new."

He began his relaunch in earnest in 2009, when silicone was being widely embraced as a useful kitchen tool and a few people began looking at different uses for it.

Silicone is now showing up selectively in items such as vases, coasters, decorated place mats and trivets, and easy-squeeze containers for liquid seasonings. German designer Sebastian Herkner even covered the base of his Coat armchair, created for Moroso, with polka-dotted silicone, endowing them with a futuristic feel while giving them a non-slip function.

"The market and demand are so different now from what they were 10 years ago," Yeung says. "Yes, people need products that are practical, but they want innovation also. They would rather spend a little bit more to buy something that has something unique about it.

"For us, that was step one, making products that everyone needed but had to spend a little more on because they were different. We knew that was the direction we had to head in.

"Silicone is one of the most durable materials ... and it's good for the environment because it is reusable and non-toxic. But it's more than just about food contact and food storage."

To that end, Yeung went to New York-based designer Karim Rashid, who previously designed for Christofle, Veuve Clicquot and Alessi, and who created a line of products for Silicone Zone in his trademark modernist cool.

The nine-item series, in white, cement grey and pale sky blue, is focused on the functional (think ergonomically designed scrub brushes, paper-towel holders, soap dispensers) but expensive-looking and perfect for high-end sophisticated kitchens. The line, which includes a cup tree that holds multiple drinking vessels, has won numerous design awards, retails for between US$15 and US$50.

"We started to think about creating things that belonged in the kitchen but that we hadn't done before," Yeung says. "We were led to Karim and were surprised at how open he was to doing this, at the unlimited range of his ideas.

"We sat down together for an hour and got so many ideas, and it was fun and exciting to work with him."

That relationship will continue, although Yeung says he is looking to take the Silicone Zone/Karim Rashid repertoire out of the kitchen and into other categories, including products for home offices.

He also forged an alliance with Hello Kitty, arguably the world's most beloved feline character, for a series of products that Yeung says are equally popular in Asia, Europe and the US.

These include cutesy pink muffin and baking moulds that turn out Hello Kitty-shaped desserts. The line is now being developed to include silicone iPad cases.

"It's a name that is very well accepted by consumers everywhere," Yeung says. "We put that image on the product - even note holders and spatulas - and it's so popular.

"We are going to spend the next three to five years developing more Hello Kitty and Silicone Zone designs."

In the meantime Yeung believes that more of these alliances are the future of Silicone Zone - being able to marry the functionality of the product with the aesthetics of a designer. So while he is on the lookout for more creative people to work with, he says he is also looking closer to home, and employing new technology: a series of silicone pads that can stick to any surface and can be used to hold keys, coins, a phone, is two years in development.

"We don't limit ourselves to just working with international designers," Yeung says. "There are so many talented designers here in Hong Kong, and in Asia. They might not be famous, but that doesn't mean they don't have good design ideas." Yeung has been looking at the work of graduating design students and working with them with a view to future collaborations. "We can help young students have a more mature feel for products like this," he said. "It's more about the ideas, and not just about the name."

Yeung also wants to focus on the eco-friendly aspect of silicone - in keeping with Silicone Zone's recently introduced My Animals range, a line of chocolate moulds in the shape of animals at risk of extinction: polar bears, rhinos, tigers, pandas.

The moulds were designed to bring attention to animal conservation causes. Yeung adds that there is also the potential for fusing silicone with other materials, such as glass and metal, to add versatility to the line.

"Silicone is our brand, and a great material to work with, so we're not going to move past it and it will continue to be our focus," he says. "But it's not necessary only to use silicone. We are looking at using plastic, glass and metal in conjunction with it, in a way that matches it.

"That way, we can continue to develop different uses for it."