Handles with care
A nylon ski glove. A dirty canvas work glove. A suede driving glove. A child’s knitted mitten. At first glance, the motley collection of gloves tacked to the vast white wall inside OXO International’s New York City headquarters feels like an arty interior-design stunt.
But like everything else about OXO—the housewares manufacturer that has overturned our kitchen drawers with a slew of easy-to-hold, rubber-handled gadgets—the purpose of the Glove Wall is sincere, the artistry incidental. Each mateless glove on display is carefully annotated with the exact date and location of its discovery—a baseball stadium, a gas station, a subway—as well as the name of the employee who found it. OXO custom holds that any time a staffer comes across a wayward glove, he or she pins it to the wall as a constant reminder of the countless types of hands that exist in the world.
In just 10 years, OXO products have made their way into quite a few hands. The company’s rapidly expanding range now includes 350 items, among them its recently introduced cleaning, automotive and hand tools and the forthcoming gardening line. Since the 1990 debut of the original 10 kitchen utensils in its Good Grips collection—the first being a plump-handled potato peeler—OXO has expanded to the point where it introduces approximately 50 new products a year (and boasts 45 percent growth to go along with it). OXO’s philosophy holds that its products, at around $6.99 a pop, are just ordinary—albeit oversize—gadgets, but in fact, the tools also represent a widely appealing brand of ergonomic chic. The vegetable peeler for sale at Kmart is also showcased in the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) permanent design collection. By performing with optimal efficiency and appealing to the broadest possible segment of the population—from granny to gladiator on the dexterity spectrum—these ordinary objects have undeniably met with extraordinary success.
More than a decade ago, retired housewares manufacturer Sam Farber got the inspiration to make products for all types of hands from just a single pair: those of his wife, Betsey, who, along with 20 million other Americans with arthritis, met simple tasks like peeling vegetables with difficulty and discomfort. Farber, who had just stepped down as the head of Copco (the successful cookware company he founded in 1960), was well aware that the aging baby-boomer population would soon face the same limitations. Around that time, two other major trends conjoined in the American marketplace: the desire for professional-style kitchens with all the contents to match, and the demand for ergonomically correct products, such as office chairs and keyboards (think carpal tunnel syndrome). A significant hole in the housewares market opened up right in front of Farber, and his Good Grips line was there to fill it.
Though OXO started out as Farber’s brainchild, the company’s expansion has been fueled by the uncommon synergy between him, his successor, Alex Lee, and the team at Smart Design—a New York City-based industrial design shop that researches, designs and engineers most of OXO’s products.
Davin Stowell, 46, Smart Design’s CEO, masterminded the approach and look of the original set of tools, which included an apple corer and a pizza cutter. “It’s not easy to figure out how to merge what’s important to the average person and what’s important to you as a designer,” explains the soft-spoken Stowell (whose credits include freeing us from the little blue cornflowers on our baking dishes when he was a young designer at Corning). He recognized that OXO’s democratic mission—to make tools that suit everyone—was the perfect vehicle for bringing good design to the widest range of people. Stowell was so sure of OXO’s success that he and Smart Design agreed to forego their regular design fee in lieu of a small advance and a 3 percent royalty. That arrangement has paid off: OXO’s profits grew from $3.4 million in its first fiscal year to nearly $80 million this year.
OXO’s signature big, squishy grip, which falls somewhere between Fisher-Price and NASA in look, was the first product of OXO and Smart Design’s hard-core lab and field research. “The way to touch as many people as you possibly can,” Stowell says, “is to spend time with real people and think like real people.” Before premiering the peeler, OXO and Smart Design conducted extensive interviews, including months of talking to consumers and professional chefs. They mulled over the competition and spent hours following volunteers from a New York arthritis group to get a realistic look at the natural challenges to manual dexterity that come with age.
Using their observations, the design team divided the huge household-products category into groups based on the corresponding types of wrist and hand motions: twist/turn (can openers), push/pull (peelers, graters), and squeeze (garlic press, scissors). While literally hundreds of handles were created for testing, in the end, the designers whittled the models down to three basic categories: utensils with the multipurpose finned handle, squeeze tools and measuring devices. For the now-classic multipurpose handle, they decided on a soft, dishwasher-safe material called Santoprene, which, in combination with the handle’s oval shape and fins, prevents slipping even when the user’s hands are soapy and wet.
“Right from the start we developed theories about the handle—that a handle should mold to your grip in some way,” says Stowell. “Because sometimes you need to clench and pull, and sometimes you need to pull gently, depending on what you’re doing.” But preliminary designs, while impressive as engineering feats, were rejected because they weren’t intuitive enough. The final Santoprene handle with fins very intentionally resembles a bicycle grip. “The ideas we had in the beginning made good functional sense,” Stowell says, referring to early prototypes that incorporated malleable bubbles beneath a smooth-surfaced handle, “but they didn’t really communicate what they did the way, say, a bicycle-handle grip does.” According to Stowell, “The beauty and ultimate success of the final design is that you see it and you know you want to squish it before you even touch it.”
In overhauling our storehouse of common kitchen gadgets, OXO and Smart Design seek tools that are seemingly unimpeachable in their functionality—objects like the bony metal potato peeler, which had remained virtually unchanged since the early 1900s. “Our challenge is to find those products that everybody hates, even if they don’t know they hate them,” explains current CEO Alex Lee, 40, a Harvard Business School graduate who did product design for architect Michael Graves and directed OXO’s product development before taking over for Farber in 1998. The design team considers whether existing salad spinners, dust pans, melon ballers and ice-cream scoops can be improved upon, made more comfortable or easier to use. As part of Smart Design’s field research for OXO’s forthcoming gardening line, for example, the firm consulted dozens of horticultural experts and recreational gardeners (with and without green thumbs) and set up a rooftop garden for continuous testing in their own Manhattan headquarters down the street from OXO.
OXO encourages the same hands-on approach in their own in-house testing lab, for which the company is famous. On any given day you might find a senior product engineer—that is, someone with two advanced engineering degrees—dropping refrigerator magnets on the floor over and over again. Or perhaps it’s a degree-free hired gun whose week is spent opening bottles of wine and then recorking them with a special contraption. Next to him, another temp might earn her paycheck by repeatedly pressing the patented one-handed pump mechanism on the salad spinner. A simple ice tray with a sliding top endures weeks of nonstop opening, closing, dropping, twisting, freezing and unfreezing to simulate the wear and tear of its five- to seven-year life expectancy. To test the sliding mechanism alone, one temp spends an entire day moving the lid back and forth—750 times in a row.
Apart from its white-coats-and-goggles lab, OXO puts products in development to work in a natural, real-time cooking setting. In its slick, highly domestic galley kitchen next to the sprawling communal conference area, a group of employees are determining how a new turkey baster will respond to extreme oil temperatures. In keeping with OXO’s real-life testing style, rather than simply immerse the baster in sizzling oil and call it a day, the researchers spare nothing in the preparation. One employee slaves over a mortar and pestle-ground herb-butter turkey rub, which has nothing to do with utensil in question but everything to do with the other, nonquantifiable portion of the cooking experience. It’s just another regular Thursday afternoon at OXO.
But sometimes the company’s 19th-century converted loft in Manhattan’s west Chelsea neighborhood isn’t a rigorous enough environment to test the durability of certain products against the elements. Instead of monopolizing its own office lavatories, OXO once sent an engineer to Home Depot to plunge the display toilets. To determine whether the blade of the ice scraper could withstand cold temperatures without cracking, the company sent samples to the observation center on the top of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, where some of the coldest temperatures on earth have been recorded.
All this testing ensures something you wouldn’t understand simply by looking at any of the cool-looking OXO products: Their design is as revolutionary to the quality of life of the elderly and disabled as a hearing aid. It’s so effective, in fact, that the story of OXO and Smart Design is taught at Harvard Business School as a case study of how design can change an industry and respond to the sociological and practical needs of, say, an aging population.
But being viable for users aged five to 95 also means that OXO tools can’t suggest “orthopedic” or “handicapped” in any way. “People don’t want to be reminded that they can’t do something,” observes Stowell. OXO’s minimal packaging exposes the handles, allowing consumers to touch and squeeze the merchandise before purchasing and learn for themselves how comfortably the products fit in their hands.
The OXO tag line, which reads “Tools you hold on to,” and the company name, a palindrome that’s legible from any angle, echo the products’ ease of use. “The tag line literally came from the people,” says Alex Lee, who remembers mulling over this significant bit of copy for months. “We had our company’s name on a box at a tennis tournament. When somebody sitting behind me asked what OXO was, I gave her a brief explanation, and she said, ’Oh yeah, those tools you hold onto.’ And that was it.”
“Someone once told me he bought a whole set of OXO kitchen products just to impress women,” says Stowell, “and he doesn’t even cook.” But for the minds behind OXO, the cool factor is purely serendipitous. “Beauty is only part of what we’re trying to do,” says Lee. “In fact, the only time I ever put my foot down in a meeting these days is when a design is violating our philosophy of function; when function is being sacrificed for aesthetics.”
“You hear so many designers say that designing for the masses is designing down,” says Stowell. “But there is absolutely no reason you should design down or think you are, when what you are really doing is designing with understanding.” In OXO’s case, “designing down” has earned the products places in museum exhibitions at the MoMA and the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, both in New York, not to mention being honored by the Industrial Designers Society of America with its Design of the Decade Gold Award in 1999. Good Grips also landed in London Design Museum’s prestigious “Design: Process, Progress, Practice” exhibition in 1999. Among the objects chosen to represent the best-designed products of the millennium—the Eiffel Tower and Levi’s jeans, to name two—were an OXO toilet brush and plunger, scrub brush and the now-famous potato peeler.
But for all his success, Stowell is still more tickled at the prospect of stumbling upon OXO products at a yard sale selling for twenty-five cents than by seeing them behind glass in a museum. His greatest reward? Whenever he shows someone an OXO product, “no matter who they are or what kind of socio-economic bracket they fall into,” Stowell says proudly, “nine out of 10 people will say ’Oh, I have a drawer full of those.’”
Written by Pilar Guzman