- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Every time Dawn James and her husband, Anthony, travel, she buys a couple of refrigerator magnets that help her recall the experience.

A cheese-wedge magnet reminds Ms. James of Wisconsin, and her magnets of old buildings recall Charleston, S.C. She has a few magnets reminiscent of her love of food and cooking, including a food scale, an old-fashioned hand mixer, and pots and pans.

“It’s a reminder of places we’ve been,” says the Gaithersburg woman, who has been collecting magnets for 15 years and has more than 50 of them, primarily adorning one side of the fridge. The magnets, Ms. James says, are inexpensive and take up little luggage space.

Magnet collectors have the world at their fingertips when it comes to selecting refrigerator decorators — anything from word kits to silver cat or dog picture frames. Magnets can be three-dimensional or flat and come in all shapes and sizes, from flowers to the 50 states. There are magnetic display boards; dress-up kits for President Bush and Michelangelo’s David; magnets with quotations; and picture magnets that show off sports teams, celebrities, television shows, comics and superheroes.

“It’s like a little piece of art. It’s inexpensive, and it can jazz up your refrigerator,” says Chris Gwynn, owner of Fridgedoor Inc., a mail-order company in Quincy, Mass., that sells magnets and includes an online business at www.fridgedoor.com.

In addition, the refrigerator serves as the focal point in the kitchen, Mr. Gwynn says.

“It’s one thing everyone uses. It’s a great place to put messages,” he says.

Refrigerator magnets are pressed into service to hold up lists, notes, coupons, greeting cards, photos and children’s artwork. For collectors whose collection has gotten out of hand, the magnets do not have to be confined to the refrigerator. They have been known to migrate to dishwashers, stoves, toasters, microwaves and metal cabinets. But the magnet does not stop there. It also heads over to cars, offices and rooms painted with magnetic paint. Magnets, really, are omnipresent, on sale at big-box stores; kitchen, craft and card stores; and souvenir shops.

Not just for fun, magnets do serve a purpose.

“We really encourage our customers to use them wherever they have a magnetic surface to help them get organized,” says Audrey Robertson, spokeswoman for the Container Store, headquartered in Coppell, Texas.

Magnetic clips and hooks can help with the organization of kitchen utensils and other objects, Mrs. Robertson says.

The magnets themselves can be organized according to color, theme, season, year acquired and, for the neat freak, in rows and columns, Mrs. Robertson says. Magnets that break easily can be placed higher up on the refrigerator to avoid having them knocked off and damaged, she says.

For the collector who runs out of space but does not have the heart to throw away the magnets, storage is an option. The magnets can be wrapped in tissue paper, organized in compartmentalized collection boxes and kept away from extreme heat to protect them, Mrs. Robertson says.

Mr. Gwynn says his suppliers tell him refrigerator magnets became popular in the 1980s.

“It’s one thing everyone uses,” he says. “Flowers are big. Cats and dogs are always big. Drink magnets are big.”

Three by Three, a wholesale manufacturer of magnetic products in Seattle, makes a line of magnets that are small and strong, able to hold eight to 12 sheets of paper at once. The Mighties are available as quarter-inch dots or tiny cubes and pegs.

“A lot of people have fancy refrigerators and still want to stick things to them. They’re very discreet-looking,” says Kelsey Heebink, spokeswoman for Three by Three.

Blue Q, a gift manufacturer in Pittsfield, Mass., makes a line of themed magnet packages, such as “coffee time” with a doughnut, coffee cup and other coffee items; a variety of telephones; a set of kitchen items; and handbags.

“We bring a different wrinkle to the magnet business. Some of our stuff is edgy, some less so,” says Mitch Nash, artistic director and co-owner of Blue Q.

Humor is a big driver of the magnetic business, says Victor Jockin, owner of FunkyFridge.com, an online retailer of refrigerator magnets in Los Angeles that sells more than 1,500 magnet designs and magnet kits.

“For a lot of people, it’s to have something that adds a little bit of flair and interest to the fridge to hold stuff up rather than a regular magnet,” Mr. Nash says.

Magnetic word sets, however, often are not used to support objects but as games, toys or a way to create sentences and poetry.

Magnetic Poetry Inc. in Minneapolis, Minn., has more than 100 word kits ranging from the original kit to kits for the artist, gardener, genius and animal or food lover.

“It’s sort of training wheels for the poet in you. It makes coming up with quirky turns of phrase easy,” says David Kapell, founder and chief executive officer of Magnetic Poetry. “Putting words next to each other to see how they bump up and react with each other, trying to find new ways of saying things, is what poets do.”

Mr. Kapell founded Magnetic Poetry in 1993 because of a sneeze, he says.

An aspiring songwriter, he had trouble coming up with ideas for lyrics, so he cut out words and arranged them on pieces of paper. A sneeze scattered the slips, which gave him the idea of gluing them onto magnets and sticking them on a cookie sheet. When his then-roommate needed the cookie sheet, Mr. Kapell figured the refrigerator would be a good place to put his homemade magnets.

His friends were attracted to the fridge during a party, congregating there to play with the magnetic words. From there, Mr. Kapell developed the Magnetic Poetry kits, selecting words used for various parts of speech, such as nouns, verbs and adjectives, and that allow for word associations.

“Magnets are tactically fun and cool,” Mr. Kapell says. “The fact they stick, it’s almost miraculous. This hidden force in a magnet is interesting.”

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