[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
My boyfriend has a Rae Dunn mug that says "you grow girl" on one side and a cactus on the other. He didn't know when he bought the mug that it was a Rae Dunn mug. To be sure, I'm not sure why he bought a "you grow girl" mug in the first place, but that's a topic for another day. Rae Dunn is ubiquitous, equal parts loved by middle class suburban mothers and despised by TJ Maxx employees. I personally don't understand the appeal of a coffee mug that says "coffee" or a bowl that says "jelly beans" or a cat dish that says "meow." But, I am fascinated by the way the brand has gained traction in recent years, and I'm here to distill what exactly is so appealing about the white, dimpled, ceramic goods with kitschy comic sans adjacent lettering.
I first heard about Rae Dunn online. Videos like this one started surfacing on Tik Tok, exposing hordes of women (and a few men) descending on Marshalls, TJ Maxx, and HomeGoods every restock morning, hoping to get their hands on some Rae Dunn. Scoring the best piece is a badge of honor. What constitutes the best pieces is a grey area but generally, the seasonal, limited edition items are the hottest. Store employees have complained at length about the way Rae Dunn connoisseurs conduct business. From hiding goods throughout the store, to pestering them about delivery dates, to straight up fighting with each other over pieces. There are entire Facebook communities of people looking for Rae Dunn pieces, and a whole community of people buying and re-selling the goods at incredible margins, sometimes listing pieces for twenty times their original value.
The most compelling thing about Rae Dunn items is that they're not extremely expensive. Mugs can cost five to ten dollars, especially the most common ones (the "but first, coffee" mug comes to mind). Collecting Rae Dunn doesn't have to break the bank, which I'm convinced is part of its widespread appeal. Any suburban housewife can afford a few Rae Dunn pieces. The dark underbelly of collecting Rae Dunn is when it becomes an obsession. One women went into debt close to $15,000 to feed her obsession, causing marital problems and isolating her from her children.
It might be tempting to dismiss the "Rae Dunnies," as they call themselves, for their enormous devotion to kitschy pottery, it's not altogether rare for people to go mad for a limited item. We all remember when mobs of Black Friday shoppers stampeded a Walmart employee on Long Island. When stores advertise an incredible deal, they often don't mention the limited supply. Sure, there might be a flat screen TV on sale for $49.99, but there are only two, and you'll have to fight a mob to get one. The scarcity principle states that we want things that other people can't have, and we attach more value to things that are hard to get. The way Rae Dunn fans have to "hunt" for rare items is a natural effect of the scarcity principle in action. That doesn't make it any more sane though, especially to apathetical onlookers or underpaid employees. To the rest of the world, Rae Dunn hunters look mildly insane.
What I didn't know before setting out to write this, is that Rae Dunn is a real person. A San Francisco based artist, she has a B.A. in Industrial Design and has been working with clay since 1994. According to a few different sources, she never intended to build such enormous brand loyalty or hype. I'm not sure anyone could have predicted the fierce dedication some shoppers bring to scoring the next Rae Dunn piece. According to her own website, Rae Dunn's work is strongly influenced by the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. She writes, “I don’t strive for perfection in line and form in my work, because for me the balance I’m trying to achieve can’t be represented that way. The incompleteness and imperfection of my work is part of the story. Just as the absence of something in our lives can stir powerful feelings and show us the way to wholeness.”
P.S. Read one collector's tips for building your own Rae Dunn collection here, watch a video detailing one woman's impressive collection valued at over $7,000 here, or read more about Rae Dunn (the person behind the cult) here.