Getting a grip on home product design

This story was first published on May 22, 2011.

All sorts of common-place objects require skillful design - as our Michelle Miller has discovered:

If choosing a kitchen product is anything like dating, designer Davin Stowell has some advice:

"We can't really rely on love at first sight. You know, relationships develop over time. You're not going to know at first glance whether it's gonna do what you expect it to do."

He should know! For more than 30 years, as head of his firm Smart Design, Stowell and his team have created some keepers ... the kind of products you settle down with.

As a college intern at CorningWare, he dreamed up the single-serving "Grab It."

"So they made it and it actually became the best-selling product in the CorningWare line for quite a few years," Stowell said.

Next he took on the company's familiar floral design (which he says he detested), creating the grooved ... and very popular ... French White line.

"I knew if made the CorningWare fluted with a sculptural surface, their machines couldn't put the decoration on it," he said.

Then one day Stowell got a call from businessman Sam Farber, whose arthritic wife was having a hard time with a potato peeler. Could his team make a better one?

Dan Formosa took up the charge: "First thought was, let's go larger - a handle that has some direction and some friction," he said. "We go out to hardware stores, sports shops, wherever, to get ideas, borrow ideas, get some inspiration.

"So in this case we went to the bicycle shop," Formosa said. "So we basically took a bike handle, put a potato peeler inside. Voila!"

He admitted that "If you go home and try using this, it actually works pretty well."

The result was a peeler that's made its way into 10 million American homes - and the start of OXO, the housewares brand that's become a household name.

For Smart Design, which has created hundreds of OXO's signature products, it was also the debut of a design philosophy.

"So if we can make this task easier or faster or better or more high-performance, that's really our goal. It's really the effect, not the thing itself," said Formosa.

The effects they've created have made for some popular things: A novel jar opener ... graters that work in both directions ... measuring cups that can be read from above.

Simple objects, yet several now sit in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art.

Still, Davin Stowell says it's not about THAT.

"What we really enjoy is making the things that everybody can have," he said.

Take the lowly sink strainer. Stowell took us through the trial-and-error process.

"If you think about it, when you have to wipe the guck out of it, it's just absolutely disgusting and nobody likes to do. This is an opportunity to make something better,"

First, they tried a mesh screen, which he said, "was worse. Stuff really gets stuck in there. We thought, 'Well, maybe it should be made out of rubber or something, so that it can kind of, you know, pop out like that.'"

So they fashioned prototypes out of a toilet plunger and collapsible measuring cup, and began meticulous design work, leading the final design which, if a part is pulled, "the garbage just flies off from it!

"There's still, you know, probably hundreds and thousands and millions of opportunities like that that we just haven't discovered yet," he said.

And Smart Design is looking for them - well beyond the home.

They helped design the ultra-simple Flip, last year's top-selling camcorder.

"It was really conscious effort to try to get this product to do less - just really do the very basic things that it needed to do," said president Tom Dair. "While it looks simple, it actually takes a lot of design work to get these products to be pared down to this amount of functionality."

They also worked with Ford to create an instrument panel for its Fusion Hybrid that's actually an easy-to-read computer screen.

"Our challenge is to discover those small little things that can just give, you know, a little bit of help and make you smile," said Stowell.

A design firm known for its ergonomic handles thinks it has a grip on the future.

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