It often seems as if one of the most intensive hives of design innovation is as close as one's kitchen drawer. Just when it seems that we've got this cooking thing down pat, someone unveils a new kitchen gadget that turns the previous implement on its head. These breakout products are key in the highly competitive housewares arena, where shelves already sag with myriad takes on the same kitchen tools -- just how many can openers does the world need anyway?
The Swiss housewares company Dalla Piazza is betting that it has yet another of these must-have gadgets in the NuSc?p, an adjustable measuring scoop that will soon be showing up in Bed Bath & Beyond and other U.S. retailers. The idea isn't new -- there are already several adjustable scoops on the market -- but the company saw room for improvement. So they turned to Pollen Design, a New York design firm with a track record for creating iconic kitchen gadgets.
"This was a utilitarian product that hadn't been touched, design-wise," says Pollen co-founder Dean Chapman as he points to a rival scoop in his offices in lower Manhattan. "And [earlier products] didn't work with liquids." That's just one of the fronts where Pollen's scoop design represents an advance: Because of a thermoplastic-elastomer seal inside the scoop mechanism, the NuSc?p can measure wet, as well as dry, ingredients.
HOPPING OFF THE SHELVES. The innovations didn't stop there. Pollen also overhauled the handle to provide a more comfortable grip. Lastly, they created a range of colors and finishes, put markings in both metric and standard measurements (making it easier to sell), and included handy touches like a magnet in the base so it could be attached to refrigerators.
It's too soon to tell how the NuScüp will fare, but the last time Pollen took a crack at turning around a familiar kitchen accessory, it created a design icon: The Rabbit Corkscrew, the bunny-eared, soft-gripped, self-pulling wine opener. Since its release in 2000, more than 2 million units have been sold, and the design has been enshrined in museums -- and endlessly knocked off by cheaper imitations. For most designers, it would be a once-in-a-lifetime product. For Pollen, it was also their first project.
The Rabbit story begins, oddly enough, with an oil rig. In the 1970s, Herb Allen, a Texas inventor who made his fortune on innovative designs for oil-drilling equipment, turned his mechanical aptitude to corkscrews. His design was bought by French housewares company Le Creuset, which turned it into the Screwpull, which quickly became the high-end oenophile's de riguer sidekick.
OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS. When Le Creuset sued New York housewares company Metrokane in 1997 for alleged patent infringements, the company learned that Le Creuset's Screwpull patent would expire in 1999. Metrokane saw an opening: Redesign the Screwpull and sell it for less.
They turned to Pollen, a fledgling design firm whose principals, Chapman and Edward Kilduff, had both worked for Smart Design, the New York shop that helped make the now-famous line of Oxo ergonomic peelers and other kitchen gadgets. After Kilduff fashioned a prototype of the new corkscrew, he showed it to his girlfriend. "She said, 'It's nice and all, but it looks like a rabbit.'"
Where Kilduf saw a problem -- a corkscrew that looked more like a rabbit -- Metrokane saw an opportunity. "They said, 'That's a great idea -- a rabbit: It's fast, it pulls a cork in three seconds." With its recognizable profile, ergonomic feel, and affordable price, the Rabbit was a hit.
"PICKING UP SIGNALS." It's no surprise that the success of products such as the Rabbit and the Oxo line sparked a major rethink in the once-sleepy housewares domain. "If you walk through Williams-Sonoma," says Chapman, "nearly everything has been touched by design innovation."
The trick for designers isn't just improving on existing designs but anticipating where the market is going to be. "Designers are like antennas," Chapman says. "Every one of us is giving out signals, but we're mostly picking up signals."
Sometimes, inspiration begins at home. Kilduff notes that the company is currently working on a new kitchen-gadget design, details of which remain under wraps, inspired by a trip to his in-laws. "I was helping my mother-in-law prepare dinner," he says. "I was using this little gadget. It was horrendous. So I went out, bought a bunch of these samples, and told Dean about it. He said: You know what? There are so many ways to make this better."
NUTS AND BOLTS. Tinkering with gadgets is only part of the job. Design, says Chapman, is increasingly not just about what he calls "reactive" jobs, where Pollen is called by a company to design a product. The company is working to insert itself earlier into the product cycle and across a wider range, from conception to packaging.
Working with satellite-radio company Sirius (SIRI) on a set of receivers, Chapman says Pollen was involved on many levels, from knowing what materials the Chinese factory could source to Sirius' pricing scheme. "The aesthetic part is the fun part," he adds. "The real brainy part is figuring out how you're going to fit all the components into the package."
And a small company like Pollen, with fewer than a dozen people, has to be creative when it comes to things like field research. When they were trying to determine whether a Sirius unit they were designing would work with various cars, Kildfuff said they turned to a local parking garage. "We paid the parking attendant," he says, "and ran around opening all these different cars."
For Pollen, no product is beyond improvement. "There's always room," says Chapman. Even the Rabbit has gotten better, with chrome-plated editions. It has also branched out into wine chillers and other accessories. "He's still going," says Kilduf. "The Rabbit still hops."