It Ain't So Pretty, But It Works

Rubbermaid's Small Storage Shed

Designer: Drew Maple

Even its designer admits it's just a big plastic box. Rubbermaid's outdoor shed hardly has the obvious flair of a new car or a sleek stereo. Yet the shed's success shows how mastering the mundane and responding to consumer needs may be more critical than flash and glitz.

For Rubbermaid Inc., maker of garbage cans, Servin' Savers, and scads of other plastic containers, outside storage was a logical line extension. What prompted the company to add this to its other yard products was market research that revealed people were dissatisfied with their wood and metal sheds. They rotted and rusted and had to be maintained. Worst of all, they could be a nightmare to assemble.

Rubbermaid found a plastic solution, as it has with so many other household problems. The shed, which measures 5 ft. by 30 in. by 4 ft., can be assembled in 20 minutes by two people, says designer Drew Maple. Eight large panels interlock to form the structure. The assemblers have to hammer in a few hinge pins and screw in the lid support. The shed requires virtually no maintenance and eventually can be recycled. It opens from the top or the front, with a small ramp in front and a place for a lock on top. Buyers may drill a few holes to stake the shed to the ground or fasten it to a wall.

To simplify assembly, Maple relied on a key-slot design similar to that of the company's Little Tikes playhouses and activity gyms. The panels snap together without fasteners.

One of the biggest challenges was to figure out how to manufacture the high- density polyethylene panels. While other companies have blow-molded panels with higher-priced, engineering-grade resins, few besides Rubbermaid have done it with cheaper commodity resins, says Maple. Even so, the shed required new tooling and reengineering at Rubbermaid's Winfield (Kan.) plant.

The Rubbermaid team debated several design trade-offs along the way. For example, they argued about whether or not the shed should have a floor. Most yard sheds don't have one, and a floor, of course, would add to materials and cost. Maple and product manager Brad Cors fought for a floor--and won: A floor makes for a cleaner shed. At the same time, they decided to go without a built-in shelf, leaving a ledge and grooves for one if the owner wants to add it.

The result: a product that's truly functional--but hardly beautiful. The Industrial Design Excellence Awards jury divided sharply over whether this prosaic box rated a gold award. Lella Vignelli of Vignelli Associates Ltd., for instance, argued that, practical as the shed might be, it lacked aesthetic creativity. Some on the jury went so far as to call it "bubba design." The majority, though, agreed with Noel Zeller, president of Zelco Industries in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., who said: "Good design is not just a pretty face." Zeller thought it deserved a gold award. In the end, the shed snared a bronze.

Maple says that the nonaesthetic approach was market-driven: Given the various styles of homes the shed has to fit with, "to make a really strong statement would probably have negative impact in the marketplace."

That hasn't happened: The shed, priced at about $200, has done better than expected. One popular use: to store garbage cans. Anticipating that, Maple made sure there was enough room for two of Rubbermaid's 45-gallon ones. Still, he's surprised people would buy one container just to put another in. Yet the 31-year-old designer must be doing something right: He also won a bronze award this year for another mundane product--a tool chest.

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