brooding

Rae Dunn Pottery Shards Will Form the Archaeological Record We Deserve

Illustration: Hannah Buckman

Like many people, I’ve been having my mind slowly and satisfyingly blown apart by David Wengrow and David Graeber’s recent book The Dawn of Everything, which argues, among many other things, that early human societies were more dynamic and egalitarian than historians have always believed. Exploitation has never been inevitable, and we were never destined to be sheeple.

It’s an idea I’ve kept returning to while undertaking my own anthropological mission focused on the subculture of devoted Rae Dunn pottery collectors. For the past few months, I have lurked attentively in a handful of Facebook groups dedicated to the buying, selling, and trading activities of Dunn Hunters, as they sometimes call themselves. I admit I joined the groups in the spirit of “👀.” The goods themselves are very bland, and I wanted to understand the appeal it has for its collectors. In a thousand years, maybe shards of Rae Dunn will help archeologists and anthropologists piece together what life was like in 2022. What story will the Dunn-shards contain?

Many interviews and rabbit holes later, I have not become a fan of the aesthetics of Rae Dunn, but I’ve come to understand that its appeal goes way beyond its appearance. I met Angie (who requested to be named with a pseudonym), who joked that after her collection had taken over her garage, her kids came downstairs one morning with the word Kid stamped on their foreheads. Collectors DM’d me with shade, gossip, and economic predictions for the nation’s future. Not a single Dunn Hunter I spoke to took themselves very seriously.

Dunn Hunters have received sporadic media coverage over the years. Physical fights have been known to break out over the goods, and everyone loves the lurid spectacle of middle-aged women behaving badly. Angie herself was part of one of the infamous aisle fights. Reaching for a coveted ceramic birdhouse, she was pushed by another shopper. “I had to have 63 stitches in my head. That was back when HomeGoods didn’t have cameras in every aisle. That incident had them put cameras up by the Rae Dunn … When I went home from the hospital, I was done. But then Halloween came out, and that’s my nemesis. I couldn’t resist.”

While capitalism as we know it frays and inequality warps daily life into something 20th-century people struggle to recognize, unexpected seedlings of a future kind of life are sprouting up in the miasma. I might have found some in these Rae Dunn Facebook groups.

The Goods

A quick Rae Dunn rundown: Dunn is a potter based in Northern California who became well known making simple housewares with a distinct hand-shaped texture, stamped with simple words in a signature all-caps font. Since 2003, her pottery has been mass-produced by Magenta, Inc. It became wildly popular in the 2010s as part of the now hegemonic HGTV–“modern farmhouse”–Chip and Joanna Gaines domestic aesthetic. Today, newly released Rae Dunns are sold exclusively at HomeGoods, TJ Maxx, and Marshalls. You’ll often see Dunn Hunters waiting outside these stores before they open for the day, poised to rush in and grab whatever new Dunn has hit the shelves during the nighttime restock.

Since about 2016, a voraciously focused secondary market of resellers, traders, and collectors has grown around the brand. Dunn Hunters gather on Facebook groups and on resale sites like Mercari and eBay, where a complex subculture with its own shorthand and practices has emerged.

Photo: Liz Hafalia/San Francisco Chronicle/via Getty Images

Why did Rae Dunn pottery become such a sensation? I think the “handwritten” font on a slightly irregular neutral surface did important visual work at a time when the speculative real-estate market and social media were converging in an economic tsunami across the United States. House-flippers were looking for efficient ways to create familiar, welcoming atmospheres that would immediately read “homey” within interior spaces that had been built overnight by underpaid teams of itinerant drywall guys.

Have you ever been inside a recently flipped house? It does not feel cozy. You can still smell the Home Depot fumes off-gassing from the fixtures. In the absence of any sense of history, craftsmanship, or patina beyond the shreds of plastic wrapping still clinging to the corners of the windows, a set of mugs labeled with “CUP OF HAPPY” in a familiar font provides a rare and welcome human touch.

The font itself is meant to look handwritten — or, at the very least, not exactly the product of a machine. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger argued the meaning of writing was transformed forever when typewriters replaced handwritten correspondence in the late 19th century. The absence of human embodiment in the act of writing made the words themselves mean something different. What if the slight irregularity of Rae Dunn’s font and surfaces gestures to a collective saudade for a more embodied, sensual existence?

Meanwhile, aspiring momfluencers were rushing to create visual stories that conveyed humor and relatability as influencer marketing budgets exploded. The Trump years marked the height of the words-on-the-wall aesthetic, meant to make real life feel like Instagram (“dream” above the bed or “gather” in the living room). Neon-lit phrases are now fixtures of every nominally cute fast-casual restaurant, and it all emerged out of this need to punch up pictures to tempt the algorithm. Rae Dunn pottery worked the same way, just on a smaller scale: A photo of a kitchen with cute labeled storage containers has a way of arresting the scrolling eye.

Halloween is widely considered the most beloved of the Rae Dunn holidays. She (collectors all refer to a “she” despite knowing that Dunn herself has very little creative involvement nowadays) releases new designs for every holiday every year. The accumulation of Fourth of July mugs, Christmas canisters, Easter chick–themed containers, gobble-gobble Thanksgiving stuff, and of course the coveted Halloween line explains why most of the collectors I spoke to have collections much too large to store in a single room in their house. Most rely on giant plastic Rubbermaid bins stacked five high in their garages and basements.

Some people have compared Dunn Hunters to contemporary sneakerheads or Beanie Baby collectors of the late 1990s, but I think that’s reductive and maybe … a touch misogynistic? The Beanie Baby bubble burst in the late ’90s after Ty Warner, the company’s CEO, created market scarcity by limiting production and “retiring” certain designs each year. Coverage of the bubble’s burst characterized the collecting frenzy as “dark,” pathetic, even stupid. If anything, the “dark” part was his playing puppet master over an empire of plush animals. There are plenty of “dark” networks of trade — diamonds, anyone? Meanwhile, Magenta, Inc., produces more supply than collectors want, keeping price increases fairly modest overall. Yes, fights have broken out in the hallowed halls of HomeGoods, but at this point in American history, show me an aisle where a fight hasn’t broken out.

Long-term booms and busts aside, the collector culture of Rae Dunn is most compelling from up close. Here is a subculture that operates apart from any celebrity endorsement or elite imprimatur of status. For all the blandness of the pottery, the meaning that they make out of it feels real and important, their expertise vivid and passionate. Something about this pottery makes collectors feel connected to a sense of homeyness and warmth, and that feeling of belonging animates the whole community. Rae Dunn collectors are not snobs, but that doesn’t mean they’re not connoisseurs.

The Best Friends

Michael and Samantha are best friends in neighboring states who both collect. “Michael got me into it,” Samantha told me. “I honestly thought it was silly at first, but it’s kind of addicting. Once COVID hit, being home all the time, I wanted my place to feel more homey. I got really into the farmhouse look, and it feels like you fall down this rabbit hole. It’s goofy, honestly. I think some days, Why am I wasting money on this? But it’s ‘our thing.’”

Michael begins every day, seven days a week, with a trip to Starbucks followed by a visit to the local HomeGoods in Pittsburgh. He usually arrives around 8:45 and waits outside until the store opens at 9:30. There are almost always fellow Dunn hunters waiting with him, some of whom he sees every morning.

Michael used to run an Instagram page where he’d resell the Rae Dunn he bought at HomeGoods at a small markup. In the world of Rae Dunn Buy/Trade/Sell, many sellers hold “waffles,” code for raffles, which are prohibited by Meta’s terms of service. Sometimes sellers will use the waffle emoji to alert their followers.

A waffle starts with the seller announcing the number of items they’ll be selling, the number of tickets they’re selling, and the ticket price. For highly coveted rare items, sellers can ask for as much as $50 per waffle ticket. Buyers reserve their ticket numbers in the comments — “I’ll take 1, 5, and 20” — and then the winners are announced.

Michael had over 6,000 followers and was earning hundreds of dollars in profit for every waffle he held, but Instagram caught on and shut him down. “I should have been using the word points instead of dollars in my captions, I think — that’s how they found me,” he said.

For a while, Michael was a personal Rae Dunn shopper for a woman who was too busy with work to make it to the stores. “She wanted everything and had no cap. She was my No. 1 customer, and I was making $700 dollars profit off her a month.” Michael would charge a small markup on the purchase price for his time but not more.

The SKU-Searcher

Serious collectors have a functional knowledge of the Rae Dunn supply chain. They track new releases on Facebook groups. “You can figure out when it’s gonna hit your store,” said Angie from her home in Knoxville. “It always starts in California, then it moves to the Midwest. And once it hits Tennessee, it’s two days until it hits Knoxville.”

Within your own town, you might have a friend working at the TJ’s or HomeGoods who has agreed to hide new items for you for a fee. But if you’re really serious, you’ll become a SKU-searcher, like Kelly from Pennsylvania. SKU-searching involves running “a crap-ton” of different SKU codes through the websites of Dunn retailers during periods when new products are expected to be released.

“With a SKU code, you have a 20-minute window where you can purchase something before anyone else can. You can purchase it before it even shows up on the website,” explained Kelly. “SKU-searching requires a lot of time and dedication,” she said. “The amount of time that I’ve put into the online game is insane. I probably know the TJ Maxx and Marshalls website better than the people who run them. I would spend hours, days, weeks, doing this stuff … We know when the trucks run, what time they come and go.”

Then came a market for the SKUs themselves, which led to the demise of the competitive advantage for SKU-searchers. “These girls created Facebook pages, where they’d drop SKUs to everyone, so the items would be sold out before they even hit the websites. Some of them — a very few — were charging people for the SKUs. The majority of them just wanted it for, I don’t know, for the fame? For the recognition. ‘I have all these SKUs, and if you kiss my ass, I’ll share them.’”

Dunn to Death

Plenty of journalists have tracked down Rae Dunn herself. The cultlike following that has grown around her designs bewilders her, but whoever’s calling the shots at Magenta, Inc., is dialed into the popularity. Dunn Hunters today are noticing a marked increase in the amount of Rae Dunn hitting the shelves, and some of them worry that by opportunistically flooding the marketplace, Magenta is killing the Rae Dunn investment market. One woman I spoke to advised me to title this article “Rae Dunn Is Dead.”

“Is it okay if I use the word crap?” asked Cathy, a collector in Atlanta. “They partnered with Disney for a new line coming out, and I don’t like any of that crap. It’s made cheaply. If you pick it up, you can feel the weight difference … The stuff in the stores now, it’s going to have a very smooth finish. No waves, no nothin’. In 2017, the surfaces were dimpled. Everyone wants those dimples.”

Kelly in Pennsylvania agrees. “Collections are not holding their value. I have spent thousands of dollars on my collection, and I would be lucky if I could sell it and make back $500. This is the end. You can feel it; you can see it. And I do think that the fate of our country does play a part in it. Gas is so high; prices have jumped on everything. People are just like, I’m not willing to spend that much on a mug.”

Michael hesitated to declare an end to Rae Dunn — “It’s beautiful, and I love it,” he said — but he concedes that Magenta is releasing so much of it that collectors are suffering. Although he isn’t observing a cooling in demand, he conceded that the market is getting flooded. “She’s sending out too many of the rare pieces. And that hinders what me and a million other people do.”

Rae Dunn has never been anyone’s get-rich scheme, which might explain why its collector subculture has been relatively sustainable. “I don’t know how long this will last,” admitted Michael. “I hope I can continue for a few more years because it helps me pay down a lot of debt, to be honest — credit-card debt and student loans and things like that. It’s great for me.”

There has never been a Rae Dunn mogul. Despite what collectors told me, I’ve never seen a rare piece on eBay for more than $1000, and most “rare” pieces are well under $100. A lot of Rae Dunn gets passed around in trades anyway. “I like to buy it and give it away,” said Trina, a collector from Wichita. “My cousin loves the Disney stuff, so I’ll buy him something if I see it. If I sell something, I never mark it up more than three or four dollars.”

Shard Lessons

It’s 3022, and you’re scavenging an excavated landfill for metals you might melt down to help refurbish the crude power system that runs the shantytown where you live with your family. In the dirt, you come across a seam of uniformly cream-colored pottery, and wiping the sludge from the surface of several vessels, you see that they form a set of three canisters: “Keep,” “Store,” and “Hold.” This will mean nothing to you, and you’ll cast them aside, looking for more metal. But if you had the privilege of time to dig deeper, you’d find that “Keep,” “Store,” and “Hold” containers were released annually for nearly 20 years by Magenta, Inc., and that they held particular meaning for Dunn Hunters.

“The ‘Keep’ will come out first, and you’ll have two weeks before the ‘Store’ and the ‘Hold’ come out next. It’s almost impossible to get the three that match before they all sell out. It’s the thrill of the hunt,” said Samantha.

“It’s definitely about the hunt,” said Angie. “I can’t explain it any other way.”

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