Consumers love decorating with words and sayings. Rae Dunn pottery is the latest craze. Why are we so obsessed?
Nearly three decades later, that small act of self-expression has exploded into a major business with a cult following. “Dunn hunters” stalk the stores that sell Dunn’s products, namely T.J. Maxx, HomeGoods and Marshalls, looking to amass as much as they can, sometimes to resell at a markup. Former employees of those chains have described fights breaking out over the pieces.
Dunn finds it all a bit overwhelming and says she never anticipated this outcome when she agreed to license her art to a company called Magenta back in 2003. The products distributed by that corporation still feature words, often tied to their literal function. A bowl and plate set, for example, reads “soup” and “sandwich.” Dishes proclaim “eat,” “devour” and “taste.”
While the Rae Dunn craze is especially intense, the brand is just one part of a larger category of home decor whose popularity has persisted since the early 2000s. You know the stuff. We’re talking about the “Gather” sign above your friend’s dining table. The “Live, laugh, love” decal on your aunt’s wall. The “Lake life” throw pillows at the Airbnb you rented last summer. Other fads have come and gone, but consumers can’t seem to get enough of this one. Surely, no one needs a “Family” sign to know that they are, in fact, in the family room. So, the question is why?
Kelly Ray, a Rae Dunn collector in Alabama, says the messages on some of her favorite pieces got her through hard days when she was dealing with fertility issues. She particularly likes items with religious sayings, such as “amen” or “grace.” “Those things kind of helped me every morning when I made my coffee,” says Ray, 34, who just had her second child. “I could look at it, and it was just encouraging.”
This type of merchandise, known in the retail industry as “word art” or “sentiments,” has been around for so long now that it doesn’t qualify as a trend, says Tom Mirabile, founder of Springboard Futures, a trend-forecasting company for retailers and manufacturers. It’s “so much more than wall art or dish towels,” he says. “It’s usually a strong reflection of our culture.”
Not long after Dunn licensed her work to Magenta, American shoppers started gravitating toward decor with “sweet, saccharine” sayings — including the ubiquitous “Live, laugh, love” — Mirabile says. The motto’s origins have been traced to a 1904 poem, but in more recent history, Mirabile estimates its popularity peaked around 2008, when millions lost jobs and homes because of the Great Recession. Google searches for “live laugh love” were at their highest between 2007 and 2012. “It started around the time when we needed to center ourselves on intangibles, on things that delivered value other than monetary value,” Mirabile explains.
As the recession waned, another cultural phenomenon arrived: The HGTV series “Fixer Upper” and its charismatic stars Joanna and Chip Gaines. The show’s first season aired in 2013, quickly amassing mega ratings. Many of the houses Joanna designed featured pieces from her trusty, metal-sign designer Jimmy Don Holmes. Among them: “grow old along with me, the best is yet to be” for one homeowner’s bathroom, and “I love you to the moon and back” over the mantel of a ranch home. Oftentimes, the pieces served as ways to personalize houses that had otherwise been completely gutted and decorated from scratch.
Indeed, part of the reason this trend has endured, say retail-industry watchers, is because it’s something of a shortcut for homeowners seeking to inject personality into their spaces. “It’s about people … being like, ‘yeah, this speaks to me,’” says Hannah Craggs, head of subscription and content at trend forecasting agency Trend Bible.
Before “Fixer Upper,” Holmes ballparks that his Valley Mills, Tex., studio produced two custom signs a day. Now he’s up to about 10 a day, or 300 a month, on top of the mass-produced signs his team has made for Magnolia, the Gaineses’ brand. “People like something cut out of metal because it won’t change,” says Holmes. “Three generations down, when you’re getting rid of all great-grandpa and -grandma’s stuff … that metal sign is going to look exactly the same, even if it rusted.”
The use of words and typography in the home has actually already endured for generations, says Cassandra Gagnon, an interiors analyst with consumer trend forecaster WGSN. Before millennial and Generation X women became Rae Dunn and Joanna Gaines obsessives, their grandmothers were framing crewel embroidery or needlepoint pieces with Bible verses and phrases like “bless this home.”
Thanks to internet culture and social media, the “flowery language” of older generations got ditched for “snappier points,” Gagnon explains via email, noting that recent popular phrases have included “choose kindness” and “good vibes only.” Such optimistic sentiments, she surmises, are likely a response to pandemic burnout.
There’s no doubt the internet has catalyzed the frenzy around Dunn’s pottery. The artist herself attributes its popularity to platforms such as Instagram, where more than 1 million posts are tagged with #raedunn. On Facebook, thousands of collectors buy, sell and trade the pieces. Though Dunn finds the more unsavory behavior distressing (the fighting, the reselling), she says she also hears from fans on social media who say her work has changed their lives or helped them form friendships while collecting it.
“It’s about community,” says Michele Martino, 49, of New Jersey, who owns about 300 Rae Dunn pieces. She acquired one of her first while decorating for Christmas in 2019 — a canister that says “reindeer snacks.” Now she runs two Instagram pages for fellow Dunn enthusiasts, one dedicated to new releases and another sharing a Rae Dunn mug of the day.
Though rare Rae Dunn pieces may go for several hundred dollars on the secondary market, word decor in general is inexpensive and widely accessible, which of course adds to its staying power. Stores like Target and Bed Bath & Beyond dedicate entire sections of their websites to wall art with “sentiments” or “typography.” For under $30, shoppers can buy decor with such aspirational phrases as “work hard and be nice to people.”
As with many oversaturated markets, though, this one has spurred a backlash, especially among Gen Z. On TikTok, users post tours of their families’ houses, reading the seemingly endless litany of phrases on decor throughout the rooms. Or, they head straight to the source, reading from the signs and other items for sale at stores such as Hobby Lobby.
Karleigh Norris, a social media marketer in Decatur, Tex., experienced a brief moment of internet fame when she posted a video poking fun at “live, laugh, love” in August 2021. She was working an exhausting job for a repossessions company and recorded a TikTok of herself in a gas station parking lot, crying out: “How am I supposed to ‘live, laugh, love’ in these conditions?” The sound bite took off, used in videos posted by national brands such as Mattel.
Amid the political and pandemic chaos of the past few years, treacly phrases don’t seem authentic, says Norris, now 28. “I don’t think we’re in the business of faking it, as much as previous generations are.”
But even the backlash has turned into its own kind of word art. Norris sells stickers and T-shirts with the viral saying. For a while, comedian and artist Shawna Jarrett sold housewares mocking Rae Dunn under a brand she called “Stae Dumb.” Offerings included a container inscribed with “Not weed.”
The actual Rae Dunn says her work is very different now than when she made it all by hand. She now works with an entire team at Magenta to decide which words go on each piece. The artist compares living through her brand’s evolution to being at a party where you gradually have to talk louder to make yourself heard.
“I don’t even know if I should say this,” Dunn says, laughing, “but I just feel like I’ve put so much product into the world. Me, personally, I want to get back to being more quiet.”
Courtney Vinopal is a freelance journalist based in New York City.