August 16, 2013
Housed in the same building as Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” and Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans” is a simple paper coffee cup sleeve. It can be found not in the café at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), but rather in the museum’s collections alongside renowned works of art worth millions. But it would be wrong to consider it out of place; the genius of the coffee cup sleeves makes it a million-dollar object as well.
For many, the morning ritual wouldn’t be complete without standing in line at a nearby coffee shop, placing an order with a frazzled cashier managing the A.M. rush and watching the barista pour the coffee, slap a slid on top of the cup and slip a cardboard sleeve over it. It’s a simple and logical ritual, but without that sleeve, what would have happened to our to-go coffee culture? In 2005, MoMA paid tribute to this ingenious design defining the modern American coffee tradition when it acquired a standard coffee cup sleeve for the exhibit “SAFE: Design Takes on Risk,” which featured products that were created to protect. The sleeve takes pride of place at MoMA, alongside Post-It notes, Bic pens and Band-Aids in a collection called “Humble Masterpieces.”
“The reasons for inclusion were very straightforward: a good, sensible, necessary, sustainable (by the standards at that time) solution for a common problem,” says MoMA’s curator Paola Antonelli of the cup sleeve. “While modest in size and price, these objects are indispensable masterpieces of design, deserving of our admiration.”
Like the inventors behind the other “humble masterpieces,” the man behind the sleeve is no artist, but an innovator. Jay Sorensen invented the Java Jacket in 1991 as a solution to a common problem—hot coffee burns fingers. The idea emerged in 1989 when he was pulling out of a coffee shop drive-through on the way to his daughter’s school and a coffee spill burned his fingers, forcing him to release a scalding cup of coffee onto his lap. At the time, he was struggling as a realtor in the years since closing his family-owned service station in Portland, Oregon. While the coffee accident was unfortunate, it gave him the germ of an innovative idea: there had to be a better way to drink coffee on the go.
Sorensen initially set out to design an insulated cup that could replace paper cups and Styrofoam cups, which were slowly being phased out as cities across the United States began to ban polystyrene food containers. But he couldn’t figure out an efficient way to package the cups for clients, neither nesting nor folding would work. He also reasoned, correctly, that not all coffee drinks needed that much insulation; his research indicated that only 30 to 40 percent of drinks sold at coffee shops required protection beyond the paper cup. Iced coffee drinks and lattes aren’t hot enough. The cup idea wouldn’t be economical for stores, it would have to go.
Sorensen can’t say how he hit upon the idea for the cup sleeve. “It was kind of an evolution,” he says. He used embossed chipboard or linerboard after nixing corrugated paper because of the price point. (Starbucks, who obtained their own patent after Sorensen got his, used the more expensive corrugated paper on the inside of their cup sleeves and smooth paper on the outside.)
He gave his invention a catchy name, the Java Jacket. Sorensen made his first sale out of the trunk of his car to the Oregon chain Coffee People. A few weeks later, he went to a coffee trade show in Seattle and sold 100 cases in just 30 minutes. “I was like a rock star or something there,” Sorensen says.
Success accelerated from there. In the first year alone, he enlisted more than 500 clients who were eager to protect the hands of their coffee-driven customers. Today, approximately 1 billion Java Jackets are sold each year to more than 1,500 clients.
Sorensen’s solution was simple and the problem so common that he was not surprised by the demand. “Everybody around me . . . was shocked,” he says. “I wasn’t.”
Although he is now among the most successful, Sorensen is not the first to patent a cup sleeve. Designs date back to the 1920s for similar devices. James A. Pipkin’s 1925 design was a sleeve for beverages in cold glass bottles and Edward R. Egger patented a “portable coaster” in 1947 that fit around a cup. Both were inspired by embarrassing and awkward situations relating to unwanted condensation from cold glass bottles.
It’s possible that the standard paper coffee sleeve will be eclipsed by even more environmentally friendly reusable coffee sleeves, or even an end to the paper cup. Sorensen is facing a patent renewal process. And has the sleeve inventor got any new inventions up his sleeve?
“I think we’re just on this train until the tracks come to an end,” Sorensen says.
August 9, 2013
It’s tough to believe, but shark cage diving is quite safe. Yes, the idea of hanging off the side of a boat to come face-to-face with a great white shark sounds like a death wish. But people who participate in the extreme activity are enclosed in a galvanized steel cage built to withstand the bite of massive, toothy predators. When sharks approach, lured by bait tossed overboard by tour operators, divers can observe the creatures through a viewing gap less than a foot high. This ethically ambiguous practice, known as chumming, risks teaching sharks to associate food with the presence of humans. So far, though, no human deaths associated with shark cage diving have been reported.
But what happens if a shark lunges into the cage through that little gap? While a pair of terrified divers managed to escape such an ordeal unharmed earlier this year, the outcome could have been a lot worse. Unlike cages made of steel, wetsuits made of neoprene and nylon don’t stand a chance against a great white’s deadly bite. Thankfully, your chances of being killed by a shark are incredibly small: one in 3.8 million, worse odds than your chance of being struck by lightning.
Still, that hasn’t stopped inventors from dreaming up aquatic garb that will protect swimmers, surfers and others. In 1980, marine biologist Jeremiah S. Sullivan filed a patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office for an armored wetsuit, built to protect divers from shark bites. Here’s what it looked like:
Sullivan wrote that sharks like to test the surface of potential prey before biting down. “If the shark’s teeth strike a hard surface, particularly a hard metal surface, the shark will ordinarily back off,” he explained in the patent, which was issued two years later. “Although suits of armor and license plates have been found in the stomachs of sharks, the creature actually prefers meals that are softer and easier to chew.”
Sullivan’s wetsuit is made of chainmail or steel mesh. Plates made of tough plastic material are embedded into the suit in spots away from joints, to preserve the wearer’s mobility. The complete suit resembles a “tough, hard, lobster-like exterior shell.” The steel mesh deters curious sharks from biting down, and prevents, to an extent, their razor-sharp teeth from cutting into the wearer’s flesh if they do.
A similar design is used today by Neptunic, a company that specializes in stainless steel and titanium “sharksuits” meant to reduce injury from shark bites. The company’s demographic isn’t your average swimmer though. The $5,000 stainless steel and $25,000 titanium suits are used most often by aquarium workers and underwater photographers and camera operators. The suit has been tested with a range of shark species, says Neptunic president Neil Andrea, who says he’s been bitten dozens of times while wearing it and didn’t get hurt. When it comes to great whites, though, your chances aren’t good. “There’s just nothing out there right now that can stop the bite a great white can put down,” he says.
That’s because a shark bite, as we might expect, packs more than just a punch: an 8-foot-long great white shark can exert 360 pounds of force in one chomp. But knowledge of this power hasn’t deterred the inventors who want to subdue it. A few years after Sullivan filed his patent, Nelson and Rosetta Fox filed their own for a “shark protector suit.” The rubber suit, complete with a helmet, face mask and gloves, is covered in spikes. Like Sullivan, the Foxes suggested covering the suit in rigid plates for further protection, should a shark overcome the sharp metal spikes.
The problem with such a suit, of course, is the risk the spikes pose to the wearer himself. The patent doesn’t mention if the sharp features could pierce the material of the suit, but even if they couldn’t, how would you feel about turning into a human flail? That, and you’d risk seriously injuring shark and other fish around you.
By the 21st century, John Sundnes saw that the answer to developing a “shark-proof” wetsuit didn’t involve boarding up the bodies of swimmers. Rather, protection could start with the wetsuit’s material itself. Filed in December 2006, Sundnes’ patent was for a puncture-resistant, lightweight and form-fitting wetsuit aimed at ocean sports enthusiasts.
The material is made of a layer of high-strength, laminated fiber material, heat and pressure-fused between two layers of elastic material, such as nylon or neoprene. Nylon helps to reduce the body’s natural drag as swimmers or divers move through the water, while neoprene creates warmth by capturing water between the suit and skin.
The patent’s drawings include a depiction of a shark tooth making contact with the material. As the tooth pierces the wetsuit, Sundnes writes, the flexible material yields to the form of the tooth, theoretically diluting the severity of the bite. Watch Sundnes test the strength of the material against a model shark jaw here. While the material appears to fare well against the fake jaw, a human being obviously can’t exert the same amount of force as a shark’s maw could. What’s more, all bites are not created equal. They can range from small but painful nibbles to lethal chomps. If a shark gets a hold of its prey and starts shaking it around, its victim is feeling more than just the animal’s teeth, but the pull of hundreds of pounds of muscle too.
The problem with designing a shark-proof wetsuit appears to lie in striking a balance. Too many protective elements, like rigid plastic plates or all-over steel mesh, and the wearer can only move slowly. Not enough and sustaining injury from a shark bite is practically inevitable, no matter how quickly the wearer can maneuver out of harm’s way.
Perhaps the secret to shark-proofing a wetsuit involves eliminating the potential of a shark attack altogether. Last month, Australian scientists, working with a design company, unveiled two kinds of wetsuits that protect wearers by tricking how sharks see them. In the case of “Elude,” they don’t see them at all—the suit’s pale blue and white pattern takes advantage of sharks’ colorblindness, rendering the wearer invisible to the shark’s eye. “Diverter” is covered in black and white stripes, a pattern that mimics signals in nature that tell the shark the swimmer isn’t tasty. Both suits are made of standard, lightweight material, so they’re aimed at surfers. The smart design achieves something previous ones haven’t been able to: It doesn’t force the wearer to choose between comfort and protection.
December 13, 2012
Over the last few years, numerous tools and templates have come along to help individuals create websites, produce indie publications, start ecommerce brands and build social networks. The digital realm can be very amateur-friendly. But it’s much harder to just decide one day to start producing physical objects. Design is specialized, and manufacturing is technical, not to mention inaccessible—at least seemingly so—to the average person. Factories exist in a separate sphere from our daily lives, and increasingly, over oceans. While the notion of supporting American-made goods is certainly not a new one, there’s a new faction getting behind it: independent makers who want to produce small runs of their designs in a domestic facility.
Earlier this year, I visited one such shop, known as ODLCO, based in Chicago. Founded by a pair of young design students who have since graduated, ODLCO makes practical objects—a cooking pot, a butter dish—using materials and manufacturers located as close to home as possible. Their Wabi Nabe cast iron pot, for example, was forged in Wisconsin by a company that primarily turns out boat anchors.
The ODLCO partners had to search high and low to find a foundry that would meet their unusual demand, but this seemingly odd pairing of boutique design studio with specialized manufacturer is becoming less unusual by the week. In fact, enough small-batch makers are in search of this kind of service that a new startup was born around the matchmaking. It’s called Maker’s Row, and it’s all about showcasing American factories online, in a format that enables those often web-fluent makers to find just what they’re looking for, from laser cutting to denim washing to leather binding. Founded by Matthew Burnett, Tanya Menendez and Scott Weiner, Maker’s Row was one of five startups accepted into Brooklyn Beta Summer Camp 2012, where they received seed funding and support to get their idea off the ground.
Before starting Maker’s Row, you had your own experience of seeking a leather goods manufacturer for your accessories line and coming up empty. Can you talk a little bit about how you went about searching? Did you ever find someone or did Maker’s Row come to be before you finished the pursuit of a leather maker?
Matthew: Before Maker’s Row, I started a leather accessory line called Brooklyn Bakery. When seeking out a leather manufacturer I searched Google for weeks, talked to professors at my college (Pratt) and eventually found a manufacturer by word of mouth. Many of my designer friends would purchase trade catalogs, hire consultants, and even drive to other states to visit factories, but I didn’t have time or money to do that.
The factory I eventually found made decent quality products but I would have loved to have had other options as he was only capable of doing very simple leather goods. The factory owner wouldn’t refer me to anyone else as he didn’t want to risk losing me as a client, so I was stuck. I didn’t have the time or money to source factories properly as I was managing the sales, marketing, and fulfillment of the products I had to produce every season.
What is your process now for finding the factories that appear on your site, and what kind of pitch do you give them to help them understand Maker’s Row and want to appear on the site?
Matthew: There are a number of different resources that we have consulted, from factories that were willing to share their contacts with us to local consultants that helped us compile a list of manufacturers and suppliers to reach out to. When we reach out to these factories we just give them a brief overview of the site and guide them through how to best use Maker’s Row. The majority of factories that we speak to understand right away. Sometimes we have to do a bit of hand-holding but we are happy to help any factory set up their profile with us.
It seems to me that appearing on your site could be great for some factories that otherwise have no web presence and minimal ways of expanding their client base. Do you think of yourselves, to some extent, as a little branding or marketing engine to give factories an aura of hipness and currency?
Tanya: A lot of thought went into the Maker’s Row brand and design of the website. We wanted it to be clean and beautiful for designers, yet simple and useful for our factories/suppliers/contractors. Our hope is that the way we have organized the profiles will make it an efficient browsing experience for the user, while portraying the factory (or supplier or contractor) in the best, most accurate way possible.
Matthew: As a marketplace, it is important that we make the site both aesthetically pleasing and informative to our users. This includes clean and easy to use profiles, multiple browsing views for designers and media services for factories to have a polished web presence on our site.
Can you provide a few examples of some of the early maker-factory match-ups that have come through Maker’s Row?
Matthew:It’s now been a month since we launched and we are already getting great feedback. It usually takes more than a month to hear back from a designer/ factory story as the manufacturing process takes time but we held a meet-up with designers at the fashion center in Manhattan and had a waiting list of attendees. One of our listed factories, Baikal Handbags, attended and told us that she is receiving so many client requests, she has a backlog and will be hiring a manager to handle the mounting workload.
Your homepage has a very basic flow chart of the making process, from ideation through production. The way you present the explanation suggests you might be inviting true amateurs—people with a decent concept but no experience or skills in this field—to bring their idea to Maker’s Row. In a way this makes me think of my arena, journalism, and the harsh criticism that rose up around blogging when suddenly untrained writers had access to public platforms and an audience. What are your thoughts on the “rise of the amateur” in manufacturing?
Matthew: I wouldn’t make a direct correlation between the two industries for a couple reasons. One being that Maker’s Row is connecting entrepreneurs (that may have little to no experience) with professionals that can handle the technical aspects of manufacturing. We are not attempting to substitute the craftsmanship of professionals.
Secondly, we are enabling channels of communication between those with product ideas and those with experienced manufacturing skills and equipment to transform those ideas into quality products. Everyone wins in this scenario. We are lowering the barriers of entry for domestic manufacturing is something that will benefit designers, small businesses, manufacturers, and the United States as a whole.
I am truly inspired by how many new (“amateur”) designers are coming up with creative ideas and taking the plunge into entrepreneurship. Giving new designers access to professionals will help them refine the design, construction, and durability of their concepts, making way for a new generation of small businesses that will be able to contribute to their communities and ultimately, to the American economy.
In the same section, you say, “these factories will help refine your idea and think through the different components…”. Is it really the case that the factories you work with will actually start at the beginning with makers? This seems like a real shift in their efficiencies—do they get a stake in the success of the product?
Matthew: We have spoken to hundreds of manufacturers that are more than willing to invest time in a new designer for a number of reasons. One reason is loyalty; if a factory believes that a designer is serious, even if they are new to the industry, they will try to cultivate a relationship and help them grow their business into a major label that will eventually be placing large orders with them.
Another reason some factories are looking for small scale production is because they are able to create multiple revenue streams from small businesses rather than maxing out their labor capacity on one large client. This way the factory is able to maintain a steady workflow that isn’t dependent on one large client.
September 27, 2012
If you live in the Bay Area, you probably know that there are two things that everyone is talking about: artisanal food products and “desktop manufacturing.” Now, a Chicago design startup, ODLCO, is attempting to combine these two ideas through what they call “small-batch manufacturing.” They fly in the face of the idea that making physical products requires mass-production. Lisa Smith and her cofounder, Caroline Linder, don’t use 3D printers; they use traditional manufacturing practices. But their story — triumphs and struggles alike — is a signal from a future in which many more people can make physical things in small batches. They already are where many Foo Camp-attendees think the world is going.
If you follow Randolph Avenue due west for a mile or so from downtown Chicago, you end up in an industrial stretch of brick buildings that has long served as a series of meatpacking and storage outposts for the nearby Fulton Market. When Linder and Smith took over one of these two-story units recently, the first floor was still dominated by a massive meat locker and a fork lift. But neither of those is visible now. Linder and Smith are maximizing the mixed-use potential of this place, turning it into a small-scale manufacturing facility in back, showroom up front, and an apartment above, where Smith is already living.
Linder and Smith’s company, ODLCO, is the second iteration of a collaboration they originally called Object Design League (ODL), through which they produced exhibitions and operated pop-up shops. But, Smith says, they tired of exhibitions. “It’s so unsatisfying when you have your thing on a pedestal, and then no one can really buy it, it’s a one-off, and no one’s really using it,” she explains, “So we thought that instead of doing exhibitions it would be nice to actually produce works…in the design world, helping these things come to life.” So Object Design League became ODLCO, and to date the duo has produced three products: a cast-iron pot, a butter dish, and a forthcoming silicone trivet. In each case, they have done extensive leg work to track down makers who specialize in exactly the kind of production process they need. The pot, for example, was manufactured by a small company they found up in Wisconsin that makes cast-iron boat anchors. “They’ve been doing that since the 40s, it’s their bread and butter,” says Linder. After looking at the ODLCO prototype, the manufacturer determined that they could produce the pot, but it would require the designers’ collaboration to figure out how to get the product they wanted out of the infrastructure that was there. “That is the part of small-batch manufacturing that we’re really interested in, which is where some of our skill sets come in to design for the preexisting methods of making,” says Linder, “They’re not souped-up, they’re not high-tech there, it’s just, ‘This is what we have, if you want to work with it that’s cool.’” What emerged is a heavy, elegant, and still totally utilitarian pot that’s meant to be used under a grill, on a campfire, or in an oven, while still having aesthetic value worthy of being displayed on a table. At $150, it’s about the same price as the popular multi-use Le Creuset cookware.
“In terms of pricing, ‘appropriate’ is not an exciting word,” says Smith, “But I think it’s important for us in that we’re working with people who are doing this in Wisconsin, and are doing this by hand, and they get paid more than someone overseas does.” ODLCO also pays a fair royalty to the designer of each product, and all of that is factored into what the consumer pays. Still, while they strive to be ‘appropriate,’ they manage not to be astronomical–at least not by the standards of their market category. Now their challenge is to figure out how to grow without scaling beyond their optimal size, which means emphasizing their role as a manufacturing partner. “If you try to get an object designed for you, you’re likely a big company like Target, so you go to another big company, like Frog Design,” Smith explains, “But if you’re a small business and you want something designed for you, then where do you go? We hope we can fill that in a little bit, too.”
* * *
Perhaps the best way to think about ODLCO is this: they sell products, but they also sell processes. They show you how the design world works while you buy their product. You can see that in an art exhibition that Linder and Smith put together with three collaborators for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. As described by the Italian art magazine, Domus, the group “operated a balloon factory at the MCA to produce a small run of latex balloons from scratch.” Think about that phrasing. They didn’t make balloons for display. The factory was also part of the art piece.
“Balloons are objects that no one really knows how they are made industrially, unlike furniture,” Smith says. As with their other products, Linder and Smith had to learn exactly how they were made, too, in order to replicate the process.
“There are a bunch of different kinds of latex,” Linder explains. “Early on, we figured out that a lot of them were too thick.” Ultimately the found the best type of latex was the kind Hollywood special effects designers use to make the bladders that hold blood for fight scenes.
With the material selected, the next step was optimizing production. ”[The balloon factory] was, in a way, the first manufacturing project we did,” Smith says. “We figured out how to make the balloon, but there were other things to figure out. Like, we wanted to pump out the maximum amount per day. There were five of us. How do we figure out the operational logistics, so there were this many racks with this many drying. And that’s where we got into the actual factory part. We were pumping out 80 a day. That’s when we got into small-batch manufacturing.”
The underlying assumption in all this work is that if you can figure out how things really get made, you can find either A) new ways of making things or B) ways of making new things. They explicitly do not want to scale up because, as co-founder Lisa Smith put it, “There are certain things you can do in low-volume that you can’t do at high-volume.” If there’s a non-delicious lesson to learn from the rise of the microbrewery and nanodistillery or the handcrafted chicharron guy, it’s precisely this. Small isn’t necessarily better in all things, but small can be different and disruptive.
April 6, 2012
Every afternoon, a young man runs barefoot down the middle of our street. He’s one of those paleo-fitness people—the ones who believe we should go shoeless like the cavemen when we exercise. I’m not necessarily a detractor—as a runner myself, I think about things like long-term impact on my joints, heel strike and arch support, all of which are purported to be better when barefoot—but given that our environs are now covered in asphalt, broken glass, and worse, I’m also not eager to take up this practice.
The barefoot approach is just one among a variety within a movement known as minimalist running. Going shoeless is both the most extreme and the most low-tech of the options for “reducing your shoes.” For those who prefer an intermediary between their skin and the street, there is barefoot-inspired footwear, like the ever more prevalent Vibram 5 Fingers (I’ll reserve my opinion on the aesthetic consequences of this trend). Recently, Nike announced a new shoe for the lightweight category that responds to many of the desires of minimalist runners, and then‚ since Nike likes to push the innovation envelope, goes further, tackling some of the bigger challenges inherent to mass-manufacturing shoes.
The Nike Flyknit takes its cues not so much from bare feet as from socks. The company had heard from runners that the ideal fit for a shoe would be the snug feeling of knit material. “But all the features that make a sock desirable,” Nike says, “have proven to make them a bad choice for a running upper [the part of the shoe that is not the sole or the tongue]. An inherently dynamic material like yarn generally has no structure or durability.”
The company engaged in four years of R&D to come up with software and technology that could turn a factory-scale sock-making machine into a producer of sneaker uppers. Bloomberg BusinessWeek’s Matt Townsend wrote a great article on the process: ”Spools of colored polyester yarn are fed into the 15-foot-long machine, which weaves together the top of the shoe and creates a ‘second skin’ with tiny synthetic cables knitted into the weave around the midfoot for support.”
Besides the visible minimalism of the Flyknit’s structure, the design enables a huge reduction in material use and production time. As we learned last week, most shoes are composed of dozens of materials and require at least as many productive steps. According to Townsend, “the Flyknit has 35 fewer pieces to assemble than the popular Air Pegasus+ 28″ and reduces material waste by 66 percent. The implication is that labor requirements shrink, which could make domestic manufacturing financially viable, which in turn diminishes transportation and its associated ecological burden.
The computer-reliant design also means Nike could rapidly and inexpensively deploy different yarn types or change the density of the weave. There’s also the potential for more consumer-friendly applications, such as the ability to scan a customer’s foot in a retail store and order shoes custom-woven to the exact specifications of that individual—yarn color included. It’s not quite 3D printing, but it’s not that far off.
From a sustainability perspective, the Flyknit is an interesting example of how to address environmental issues at the design phase, creating systemic change before the product reaches the consumer and the likelihood of a shift plummets. Nike itself has experimented with sustainability initiatives at the consumer end, asking shoe owners to bring back old pairs for recycling. Patagonia does it too. But relying on individuals to close your loop is a much riskier bet than baking more efficient methods into your factory.
The Flyknit isn’t out yet, so all the talk of an industry-wide butterfly effect triggered by a sock-like shoe is mere speculation. But based on the picture I can at least say one thing: I’d be a lot more willing to wear this sneaker in public than certain other shoes in the lightweight running category.