Smoking cigarettes hasn’t been legal or socially acceptable in most spaces for a while now, and that fact has placed the ashtray, once a staple of many a tablescape, into a state of near-extinction. But recently, renewed interest in them — both as a design object and a functional vessel for everything from joint remnants to smudge sticks — has piqued among many in the spheres of art, craft, and design. Which means an ashtray could be just what your curated coffee table has been craving.
According to Erin Dollar, a textile designer behind the brand Cotton & Flax who’s also a regular on the trade show circuit, the market for ashtrays has been steadily building over the past few years. In January of this year, she penned a trend forecast for the Craft Industry Alliance, predicting the comeback of the accessory.
“It was something that I just kept seeing around and becoming more prolific among the sort of indie designer scene,” Dollar tells Refinery29. “It is tied to legalization [of marijuana] and just sort of a return to smoking culture. There's stuff going on with burning sage or Palo Santo. There's a lot of crossover uses for [ashtrays] that are really tied to, kind of modern wellness and just how to relax at a really stressful time.”
Marijuana has been legalized for recreational use in 10 states and the District of Columbia; it’s legal for medicinal use in 20 more and is decriminalized in others. State-by-state legal status aside, it’s far more socially acceptable to smoke weed these days than it was even five or ten years ago, which means people are more likely to seek out and proudly display artfully crafted smoking accessories. And, indeed, in our era of the never-ending, Trumped-up news cycle, many people are looking for something — anything! — to help them unwind at the end of the day.
“It’s almost seeing the kind of crossover of crystals and the way that people kind of arranged those in their house — like a ritual space or a place of calm contemplation. I think that that sort of sculptural ashtray has a similar role in decor,” Dollar posits.
From a design standpoint, ashtrays provide the rare opportunity for a small, functional, usually affordable artwork to exist within the home. Even if you don’t have the funds or the motivation to become a semi-serious art collector, you might be willing to throw down some extra cash on a cool-looking ashtray to place next to your designer candle and stack of glossy coffee table books. Or, depending on your aesthetic, your blown-glass bong.
And while you could find such a thing on Amazon or at Urban Outfitters, these days, there’s a chance you might also stumble upon the ash receptacle of your dreams inside a bona fide art gallery. “The Ashtray Show”, a current exhibition at Brooklyn’s Fisher Parrish Gallery, features a collection of ashtrays produced by over 80 artists and designers. From a sequin-embellished vessel that feels far too beautiful to put almost anything into to one that resembles a collection of drug baggies, the many artistic possibilities are on full display. After all, as gallery owner Zoe Fisher tells Refinery29, “When it comes down to it, it’s really just a small sculpture.”
In addition to being impressively on-trend, “The Ashtray Show” is also the latest in a series of annual summer shows produced by the gallery that showcase artist renditions of everyday objects. Last year’s featured item, the paperweight, is another example of a once-ubiquitous thing that has been phased out over the years largely due to lack of need. But by enlisting artists and designers to riff on them, it makes a solid case for their continued relevance. It’s also worth noting that artist-designed ashtrays have a solid place in the canon of art and design, thanks to the likes of Le Corbusier, Enzo Mari, Marianne Brandt, and even Dan Colen, the contemporary artist who, in 2014, transformed a former Con Ed building into a kind of giant ashtray, thanks to a bunch of large glass cigarette butts.
“There's something really appealing about making something that, you know, still feels a little taboo,” Katie Stout, an artist featured in “The Ashtray Show”, tells Refinery29. “[But also] I think that people are just having a new take on objects in general.”
Stout credits a general cultural nostalgia for the 1980s and ‘90s — the last time things like ashtrays and paperweights were seen regularly in the wild — for the renewed interest in certain nearly-forgotten objects. Chalk it up to the fact that fashion and design trends are notoriously cyclical, or consider that maybe there’s a deeper yearning among many of us for a time when things felt simpler. A time when people had desks stacked with physical papers and smoke breaks were a thing and Donald Trump was just another obnoxious rich guy.
Okay, so smoking cigarettes inside — or, you know, at all — may not have been a great look, but if we can pick and choose our favorite objects from bygone eras and imbue them with the design principles (and health restrictions) of today, then perhaps we can have the best of both worlds.
And, as unfortunate as it may be to admit, in cities like New York, London, and Paris, cigarette culture never really died, it just moved into the shadows. “I think that a lot of people still do smoke cigarettes, especially in places like New York and other cities, and [ashtrays] kind of add some dignity to the whole activity,” Joseph Guerra, a partner at the design firm Visibility, which participated in the exhibition, told Refinery29. “I think it's much appreciated, especially when it's outside and at a nice cafe or a table. It really adds to the environment.” That being said, many of today's smokers prefer vape pens, a less obvious, less smelly alternative that needs no ashtray.
But that's okay, because whether or not you choose to partake in any kind of ash-producing act, a beautiful, unexpected ashtray (in your home or perhaps your office desk) provides a host of aesthetically pleasing storage opportunities. Put your jewelry in it, fill it with little candies, or in the case of more outre versions, just leave it be and see how long it takes for your guests to realize what it even is. And once they do, you can thank them for not smoking.