You may not know who Rae Dunn is. But you know Rae Dunn.
The artist's products, which feature a distinct, thin black font on minimalist home products, can be found in stores across the country. Even if you don't know Dunn's name, chances are that her items are in your home. Or in your cousin's home, or your best friend's home. And once someone points out her distinct style you will simply realize that Rae. Dunn. Is. Everywhere.
"Rae Dunn has turned into a cult brand in the home goods space, with loyalty and following that brands dream of, all while staying relatively quiet in the mass advertising space," said Aleena Mazhar, managing director of experiential at Fuse Create. "Their lack of mass advertising is a contributor of their brand building. In this day and age knowledge is social currency and IYKYK (if you know, you know)."
Dunn is an artist and ceramicist in the San Francisco Bay area whose work is sold at retailers nationwide. The popularity of her products is currently playing into larger consumer trends of increased home goods spend, a focus on personal organization and the interior design aesthetic of farmhouse style.
While so much of retail struggled through a pandemic-laden 2020, which has carried through to the new year, the home category quickly rose to the top. So much of life was suddenly in one place and people found that they wanted to redo a bedroom. Or organize a closet. Or simply make their living situation more cozy while everyone was stuck inside.
And that's where Rae Dunn's merchandise shines. It is practical enough for everyday use, but it is collectable. It can be found at mass retailers, but it gives off a crafted aesthetic.
It's also affordable and selecting items feels personal because, through word choice, products reflect back the buyer's personality.
Dunn's products are so beloved that they have generated a community of collectors, sellers and enthusiasts who can't wait for the next product drop.
The appeal of Dunn
"The minute I first touched clay, I knew I had found my voice, and since 1994 it has been my life," Dunn wrote in her 2017 book "France: Inspiration du Jour." With that decision, Rae Dunn launched a career and inspired an entire genre of collectors.
Her merchandise has core basics like coffee mugs, bowls, and jars for tea, flour and sugar, then branches into a variety of themed products for Halloween, Easter and Christmas, among other holidays. Many of the everyday items simply have a word inscribed that indicates what should be in the container. Other things have words that describe a concept or may speak to how the user would like to identify: Soul Mate. Love Bug. King. Queen.
Part of the appeal of Rae Dunn's work is its crafted design. As Dunn explains on her website, her work is "influenced by the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, the beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete."
The ethos of transience and imperfection is one reason Tamara Burgess is now a collector. Burgess runs the lifestyle YouTube channel Shorty Tam where she posts shop-with-me videos, hauls, and frequently decorates with and discusses Rae Dunn. Burgess, who shops for Dunn products around three times a week, said that part of the reason that she is drawn into the brand is because it reflects part of her personal style. "Her mugs seemed to be more catered to my type of personality. Which is, I don't try to be perfect."
Collector Jenn Sudeta mirrored similar sentiments. Her interest in the products began when she read an article about Dunn's philosophy. "In the article it discussed how Ms. Dunn always embraced the imperfections in her work — that she didn't try to make a mug or a bowl that was 'perfect' — because things aren't," Sudeta said in emailed comments. "That really clicked with me, as it kind of aligns with my whole philosophy of life. Because, really, how much better of a world would we be living in right now if we celebrated and embraced everyone's imperfections and flaws?"
The Rae Dunn aesthetic also fits into a larger farmhouse style concept of design, which is currently popular. "Modern farmhouse has become so popular because it's a relatable and livable space," said Michaela Criniti, assistant director of trade services at Urban Country Designs. "It feels very relatable to a lot of people. Rae Dunn obviously makes a ton of stuff that has different labels for all of the different things that you own … so every place has a home. That's why people love it."
It's that accessibility of design and a positive outlook on life that keeps Dunn collectors connected to the brand and also to the shopping experience.
"The fact that they're unassuming ties back to this aesthetic that the brand has, and its authenticity," Mazhar said. "You kind of like that they're a bit under the radar, because I do think that as a consumer you almost feel like you can own that story."
Never Dunn hunting
Dunn's products can be found at a variety of retailers, but when you ask a collector where to go, they usually point you to stores under the TJX Companies umbrella, including T.J. Maxx, Marshalls and HomeGoods. With discounted merchandise and a continuously revolving supply of products, off-price retailers are known for their treasure-hunt environments.
But, for enthusiasts, finding Rae Dunn products is another level of adventure. They refer to themselves as "hunters" and an entire ecosystem of collectors and resellers has grown out of the practice of locating items. There's even a knock-off industry of Dunn hunter-based products that reference collecting.
Products are not released uniformly to store locations, meaning a casual trip to an off-price retailer may result in being able to find a hot new Dunn item — or not.
For Felicia Washington it means that she is in two or three of these stores a day. Washington runs the YouTube channel Felicia Loves, and considers herself a Rae Dunn collector and hobbyist. Stores will "put all the Rae Dunn out in the morning," Washington explained. "The hunters will be at the door waiting."
Not knowing what is going to land at your local store creates an air of scarcity and competition between collectors and resellers. TikTok user @alyssagiulianaa recently posted a video depicting the frenzy around shopping for Rae Dunn products. The narrator explains that they used to work at Marshalls and were told by staff to "watch out for the Rae Dunn women" who would go to stores and buy out products.
Dunn herself seems to be against this way of consuming her pieces, as it goes counter to her overarching brand essence of joy, embracing imperfections and stillness. Dunn said in an interview with Localish in 2019, "I don't like a lot of what I hear is going on out there. There's a lot of fighting and hoarding and reselling." Dunn did not respond to interview requests for this story.
The hunt for Dunn products has created what is known in the community as "Dunn Buddies," or friends in different parts of the country that are on the lookout for products. Having a network means that a Dunn Buddy can then identify and grab items as they become available in different markets.
And there's a good reason that some of those collectors have lookouts in various states. It's because, with smart scouting, a Dunn hunter may be able to make some cash.
The search for pink measuring cups
One factor driving collecting is that the resale value on Rae Dunn products can equate to a serious payday. Some items can be easily procured and enjoyed. But others, including holiday-themed products, can be limited and thereby become highly sought after.
That can lead to some members of the community being aggressive in their search for Dunn. "Some people are aggressive and some people are not," Washington explained. "To me it is just pottery. I'm not going to fight over pottery. But, there are some people that will fight you over their pottery because that is their bread and butter."
One of those highly sought-after items is a set of pink measuring cups, which Washington described as the current "holy grail." A set on eBay is going for $375, while a recent listing on the platform Mercari had the same product listed for $360.
The availability of some products while others remain scarce contributes to the excitement around the company: "The fact that you can't find it actually makes it even more valuable," said Mazhar. "I think the fact that it is such an underground brand in the homewares category, paired with the fact that you can't find it, those two things have kind of come together to make it a bit of a phenomenon."
"People are willing to pay," Mazhar continued, stating that the resale market for Rae Dunn, "is unlike anything I've seen. People are meeting up in parking lots to meet somebody to pick up a jar."
Those jars and plates mean something to collectors. As Washington explains, Dunn items have taken the place of traditional china which used to be a key for daily use, entertaining at home and decoration. "It's fun. It's not like your mom's china that you cannot use."
Burgess has had a similar experience. "When I originally started hunting, it was because I was getting rid of my mom's china," she said. "Now that my kids were grown, it was like, well, I want my own dishes."
Dunn and off-price retailers
A fluctuation in product availability combined with an enthusiastic fan base may be an ideal situation for off-price retailers who are steadying themselves after the initial hit from the pandemic. TJX operates some of the biggest retailers that are staple stores for Dunn collectors, including T.J. Maxx, Marshalls and HomeGoods. (TJX declined to comment for this story.)
About a year ago those businesses, like others that were deemed nonessential, had to temporarily shut their doors in order to stem the spread of COVID-19 in the United States. For retailers dependent on in-store sales, the halt in foot traffic presented a challenge. While other companies pivoted or ramped up online operations, many off-price retailers were suddenly stuck in a desert of their own making.
Not having digital channels meant that TJX Companies took a financial hit. The conglomerate reported that temporary closures in Europe and Canada during the fourth quarter negatively impacted sales to the tune of around $1 billion.
Yet, a lack of digital presence is one factor that feeds desire in collectors. Usually with product drops for other brands, customers can queue online in an attempt to obtain their desired product. But, ensuring that customers must go into physical locations in order to seek out products means that enthusiastic customers like Dunn collectors may aid in foot traffic recovery.
Additionally, intense interest in Dunn products coincides with a rise in spend in the home category which was triggered by the pandemic. Customers found themselves pulling back from travel and entertainment and refocusing those dollars on home projects, with companies like Wayfair, Overstock, At Home, Home Depot and Lowes seeing gains, while other retailers faced sales declines.
Devotion to Dunn, a lift in the entire home market and an announcement that HomeGoods has plans to launch e-commerce operations this year sets up further engagement from Dunn collectors with TJX stores.
The Dunn community
While TJX and similar off-price companies may be figuring out how, or if, they should engage with more robust digital measures, Rae Dunn collectors are going to stores and connecting through online means on their own.
Many enthusiasts, from occasional buyers to determined resellers, are communicating through various social media platforms about Dunn products and the off-price locations where they can be found. So while the stores that feed Rae Dunn products to buyers may not be involved at all, an online culture has sprouted up around those retailers and the larger Rae Dunn brand.
A hard-core group of brand loyalists who anxiously await new product drops would be a dream for most retailers, but Mazhar thinks that wasn't the original intent behind the Dunn mindset. "I don't think this was ever their intention. I actually just think it's a great product with a whole bunch of loyalists that, through word of mouth, it sort of became this cult product."
YouTube shop-with-me videos — where content creators film themselves shopping while in retail stores — are a popular resource for collectors within the Rae Dunn community. It's one type of video collector Debra Taylor features on her YouTube channel, DebraM Taylor. She explained that it's a way to show other collectors what's available in her region of Minnesota and that "if you live in this area, this is what you can get, or you can have somebody go get it for you." Taylor is also part of a Rae Dunn Facebook group that has a national map that loosely tracks where Dunn products can be found in different parts of the country.
"It's a big club. Women end up bonding over those experiences, kind of like how they would have bonded over Tupperware parties."
YouTube creator Shorty Tam
An appreciation for Rae Dunn products and the fun of hunting is the foundation for a larger collector community. They want to talk with each other to find out where to go, what is new on the market and share ideas on how to decorate with Dunn items.
There are also DIY trends within the community where collectors sometimes take Dunn products and put their own spin on them. Washington saw this happen with a honey pot that came out on the market. "It was so cute. People were buying the honey pot and painting the bee on top of the honey pot yellow themselves. Then she came out with a honey pot with a yellow bee," Washington said. "Dunners are super crafty."
Most collectors interviewed for this story talked about their relationship to the Dunn shopping community as being a positive force in their lives and how being tied into a large group of like-minded people has been good for their mental health. Washington, who lives in Texas, had members of the Dunn community reach out to check on her during the recent state power outages.
Burgess, who works in mental health and law enforcement, said that she has had people reach out to her to say how being a collector has been helpful during COVID. They "have been really sad during the pandemic. And they've all said that Rae Dunn has actually helped them come out of that sadness or that depression. It's given them something to look forward to at the end of the week."
"It's a big club," Burgess said. "Women end up bonding over those experiences, kind of like how they would have bonded over Tupperware parties."
Sudeta explained how the objective of finding new pieces has been a wonderful practice for herself and her friends. "This dear friend of mine … ended up finding some much needed peace and solace in searching stores for items I desired. Fridays and Saturdays have become some of my favorite days as my phone frequently dings with photos of Dunn that she spots — either to show me something she hasn't seen before or something she thinks I may want. It helped me feel connected in a time when we are all feeling so very alone."