It was a potato peeler that brought business executive Sam Farber out of retirement and into a new career 10 years ago.
He and his wife, Betsey, both gourmet cooks, had rented a house in southern France with the idea of enjoying cooking and entertaining. But watching his wife, who had mild arthritis, struggle with gripping a potato peeler, Farber began to wonder if there wasn't something easier for her and millions of other arthritis sufferers.
"We decided we wanted to do something about the bad design throughout kitchen utensils," recalled Farber, founder of Copco kitchenware, known for its handsome enamel tea kettles. "Why couldn't there be comfortable tools that are easy to use, not just for arthritis victims but for everybody?"
What he did was create a line of kitchenware that became a touchstone for applying ergonomic design to everyday objects. His first line of OXO Good Grip utensils with fat black handles epitomized the principle of universal design--the idea that objects designed for the impaired can benefit the able-bodied as well.
It was an approach starting to take hold in the 1990s public consciousness, as the Americans With Disabilities Act began mandating design changes in public buildings and transportation. Farber brought it down to the simplest level with his first peelers and paring knives, which had undergone rigorous testing for usefulness.
OXO's influence on the housewares field has been considerable. It was the first to apply universal design considerations to a mundane kitchen tool that had been considered almost disposable. Today if you look at just about any housewares product--even a bottle of Tide--the companies are trying to make it easier to hold and use. Other kitchen brands such as Ecko Housewares and Good Cook offer their versions of ergonomic utensils.
"These were little items that had no batteries, no moving parts, but they provided a model that has been moving up the food chain ever since," said designer and gerontologist Patricia Moore, who worked on the initial OXO line. "Sam understood the duality of creating--that you need both form and function."
The effect of OXO, now celebrating its 10th anniversary, on the design world was recognized last year when the OXO line, which now includes 500 items including teakettles, garden tools and cleaning brushes, was given a Designs of the Decade award by the Industrial Society of America.
"I think the consuming public needs to celebrate the success of OXO," said Kristina Goodrich, executive director of the society. "They have taken this spirit of concern for the consumer and universal access and applied it in one category after another. They have made a measurable improvement in the quality of little everyday things for everyone."
"It's hard to think of a vegetable peeler as radical, but I guess it was," Farber, 75, said in an interview last week.
He hadn't intended to launch a revolution, just make it easier to fix dinner. Farber knew about kitchens and cooking and had a keen interest in design. And he's a relentless innovator ("Sam's motto is 'Never leave well enough alone,' " commented a friend.)
"Kitchen tools had always been terrible, and that's because manufacturers hadn't paid any attention to them," Farber recalled. "In my 20 years in housewares, no one had done anything about gadgets. And that's because no consumer had ever said, 'My goodness, this hurts!' "
The challenge interested him enough to cut short his retirement back in 1989. Convinced he could fill a housewares gap, Farber and his wife came back to New York and consulted Smart Design, a product development firm whose president, Davin Stowell, was known for cutting-edge thinking. They brought in Moore, an industrial designer who had long been crusading for universal design in everyday products.
"For me it was a validation," said Moore, now a design professor at Arizona State University in Tempe. "OXO came at a point in time when we could question ourselves. We were beginning to realize this was not a medical issue, it was a consumer issue."
Up to then, she said, products designed to help people with physical disabilities were designed in the medical world and provided by physical therapists and hospital-supply catalogs.
"If you had a clinical condition that affected your grasp, you went to rehab and probably got a clunky thing that you didn't want to pull out in public," said Moore. "It might have helped you at the dinner table, but you were stigmatized.
The SmArt Design team wanted handles that could be gripped in different places and were shaped to accommodate a wide variety of hands. They researched hand movement problems by observing a variety of users, from chefs to arthritis groups. They studied limitations on motion that ranged from the declining strength associated with aging to severe chronic disabilities. Creating hundreds of foam models, they tested them for wrist and hand motions such as twist/turn, push/pull and squeeze.
"We were rethinking how you design," said Moore. "It became a social challenge."
They came up with the OXO grip--an oval handle that was large enough to avoid strain and wouldn't rotate in the hand. Seeking a soft, flexible material that would be dishwasher safe and durable, they found Santoprene, a plastic-rubber used for dishwasher gaskets, that could be made with fingerprint soft spots, flexible fins that accommodate and cushion any finger grip. It also maintains its grip when wet.
The OXO potato peeler and 19 other products were introduced in 1990 at the Gourmet Show in San Francisco. Retailer reception to the new kitchen tools was lukewarm. "It was slow launching because they looked different," said Farber, "and our price was higher. The potato peeler was $6, and no one had paid that before." (Farber later beat potential competitors to the punch by manufacturing his own knockoff line, Softworks, which is geared to supermarkets and discount houses priced about 20% lower).
But if merchants hesitated, once the line got into stores, consumers immediately thought the look was cool, said Moore. "Good Grips was so inviting and appealing and nonthreatening. It became an icon and it fits into any style of home, from Ethan Allen to high retro."
"It was great fun for an old guy," said Farber, who sold the business in 1992 and stayed on for three more years as principal. He still sits on the boards of several design companies.
Now a division of World Kitchens Inc., OXO is in the Chelsea Market in New York City where one wall is lined with gloves to remind employees they're designing products for every size of hand. Its staff of 21 includes product developers who keep busy researching new utensils in OXO's full kitchen. The company has become a $70-million operation. Despite the steady introduction of new utensils, the original potato peeler remains the best seller followed by the salad spinner, which can be used with one hand, according to Larry Witt, vice president of sales and market development.
His grandmother has an OXO jar opener that she says has changed her life, he added. "That has always stayed with me."
Connie Koenenn can be reached at email@example.com.