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Oxo International Becomes a
Universal Design Icon

World Kitchen, Inc.
1 Pyrex Place
Elmira, NY 14902-1555
www.worldkitchen.com

Oxo History

In 1960, Sam Farber founded the successful kitchenware maker Copco, Inc. Before this, he had worked for 11 years for his father Louis, who owned Sheffield Silver. Farber's uncle Simon had founded Farberware in 1900. After 39 years in the kitchenware business himself, Sam Farber retired in 1988 at age 66. With all those years of experience, it wasn't until retirement that Farber realized the impact of his family's business on people with disabilities.

Chopping Bowld
Copco Chopping Bowl

Previously, Copco had actually marketed several products useful for people with disabilities. Copco's bowl-shaped chopping block with rocker knife and large loop and knob handles on pots and lids were favored by many people with manual limitations. Curiously, little marketing advantage was ever taken of these products' attributes. Despite so many years of experience in the kitchenware business, Farber's ideas of inclusion of elderly and disabled customers were not brought into focus until his personal experiences brought the importance of the idea home.

Shortly after retirement, Sam and his wife, Betsey, rented a home in Provence, France for two months. Betsey had developed arthritis and the available kitchenware at their rented home was difficult and painful for her to use. The more cooking they did together, the more inadequate the utensils seemed. Betsey's knitting hobby only added to her discomfort.

For years, kitchen tools such as vegetable peelers were designed to be manufactured in the easiest, least expensive way. They were better than paring knives, but only just. Betsey's discomfort forced Sam to wonder, "Why can't there be wonderfully comfortable tools that are easy to use?"

Sam and Betsey Farberd
Sam and Betsey Farber

In 1989, Sam Farber decided to unretire and establish Oxo International to produce kitchenware with older and disabled users in mind. Farber chose the name because it could be read horizontally, vertically, or upside down. The Farbers' son, John, took a leave of absence from his position as a vice president at Prudential Bache to help set up the business's finances.

Designers Lend a Hand

Well-known transgenerational designer Patricia Moore was consulted for advice, along with Smart Design, Inc., with whom Farber had worked before. In exchange for a small advance and a 3% royalty, Smart Design waived the usual fees to design the product line, Oxo Good Grips, which generated immediate demand at the debut at a San Francisco show in April, 1990.

The design incorporated plump, resilient handles for twist and push-pull tools like knives and peelers, while squeeze tools like can openers had hard handles. All handles were oval in cross section, to better distribute forces on the hand and enhance grip, even for wet hands. The measuring cups and spoons featured large, high-contrast markings for visibility.

In 1994, another line, Good Grips Sierra Club Garden Tools, began reaching the market. Next came a line of barbecue tools. Ideas for new products came from looking at common everyday products and finding ways to make them better.

By 1999, the Oxo product line had grown to 350, with the Swivel Peeler, one of the original 15 products, leading sales. Four lines were being produced for specialty stores such as Bed Bath and Beyond, Bloomingdale's, Crate & Barrel, Linens N' Things, and Lechters, department stores such as Kmart ("Touchables" line), Target ("Soft Works"), and Wal-Mart ("Sensables"), as well as through mail-order catalogs.

Design Recognition

Since its debut, the Good Grips line has won worldwide acclaim, including awards from the Arthritis Foundation, Design Zentrum in Germany, Good Housekeeping, Metropolitan Home, and nearly-annual IDEA awards from the Industrial Designers Society of America. Good Grips have been selected for permanent collections at the Chicago Atheneum, Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design, and the Museum of Modern Art. The products enjoy so much media attention that an advertising budget has been all but unnecessary.


Award winning soap pump palm brush
 Award-Winning Soap Pump Palm Brush (above) and Salad Spinner (below)

 Salad Spinner

Consumer and Competitive Response

Pedrini, Farberware, and other kitchenware producers have followed Oxo's success with similar large-handled utensil designs. To counter competition in the lower price ranges, Oxo has established its own lower-priced line known as Good Grip Basics.

The Farber's Retire, Again

In 1992, the Farber's sold Oxo International to General Housewares Corporation and retired again in the fall of 1995. Sam hand-picked Alex Lee to join the company as Director of Product Development and later, its president. At 39, Lee brought with him a drive "to design easy-to-use products for the largest spectrum of the population, from healthy 20-year-olds on up."

 

still-popular black Oxo Vegetable Peeler with cushioned handgrip.

Still popular: Oxo's Vegetable Peeler

Both Sam and Betsey Farber continued to travel and promote the concept of Universal Design. They appeared as keynote speakers at "Design for the 21st Century", a global conference on Universal Design on June 16, 2000 in Providence, RI, and discussed the background and development of Oxo International and its "Good Grips" line of products.

Oxo's Ongoing Challenge

In 1999, World Kitchen (formerly Corning Consumer Products, makers of Corelle, Corningware, and Pyrex) purchased General Housewares, along with EKCO Group, and adopted the World Kitchen name early in 2000. By 2000, Oxo International enjoyed an annual growth rate of 37%, with about $60 million in annual sales. With little spent on advertising, the inviting design and high quality of Oxo's products made them the subjects of numerous print features and TV news shows.

Despite its status as a major (if not the foremost) standard bearer for Universal Design, Oxo must constantly reiterate its mission. President Alex Lee notes, "The idea was always, from the start, to make useful products for people of all ages and levels of dexterity." Still, Lee says, people sometimes think of Oxo as making, geriatric products for people with limitations." By continuing to rethink and redesign everyday tools, Oxo is a constant reminder of the common needs faced by people of all ages and abilities and the importance of Universal Design in meeting those needs.

References

"Universal Appeal", Innovation, Spring, 2000, pp. 38-39.

 "Well Said.", Inc., 1/93, p. 98.

"World Kitchen, Inc. Hoovers Online, 4/25/00

"Get a Grip", Business Week, 11/29/99, p. 90

Walter Nicholls, "Getting a Grip", The Washington Post, 1/26/2000, p. D7

"Grab Hold of the Future", Innovation, Fall, 1992, p. 20.

"What Works for One Works for All", Business Week, 4/20/92, p. 112.

"WINNERS, The Best Product Designs of the Year", Business Week, 6/08/92, p. 52.

December, 2000

   
           
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