Gadget Guru — NY Daily News — Smart Design

Design team works to make our life easier


By Rachel Wharton

NY Daily News

Jan 30, 2006



Davin Stowell never met a kitchen gadget he couldn’t improve.


Stowell – who created CorningWare’s famous Grab-It bowl while still in college – is the CEO and founder of Smart Design, a 28-year old design firm in Chelsea. They’re the folks behind CorningWare’s French White line, Oxo Good Grips and dozens of other tools dotting America’s kitchens.


Perched on the 18th floor of Chelsea’s Starrett-Lehigh Building (Martha Stewart Living is also a tenant) Smart Design is an inventor’s playground: there’s a three-dimensional printer, a $50,000 machine that makes nearly any form from nearly any material, and enough saws, drills and lathes, to make a high school shop teacher burn with envy.


But the most important thing in this well-appointed office – at least to cooks – is still the kitchen. “If you really want to solve the problems,” says Stowell, who leads a three-office team of 65, “you have to see those problems first-hand.”


From Stowell’s perspective, great kitchen tools don’t just look pretty or last forever – they make cooking easier. And whether you want to improve a pot or potholder, he has found, you start by watching real people use them.


In the world of product development, says Anthony DiBitonto, the company’s director of industrial design, this is what is known as “user-centric design.”


Take one of Stowell’s personal favorite products: Oxo’s plastic mixing bowl, fitted with a handle, a pouring spout, and a rubber coated bottom to keep it from skittering across the table while you stir.


Those new features came when Stowell watched his 100-year-old grandmother struggle with her batter bowls while she baked.


But kitchen innovations don’t always come in a flash of insight. When Oxo asked Smart Design to improve its potato masher, for example, they had to pinpoint the problem first.


Picking up dozens of mashers in city shops, they watched colleagues, cooks and professional chefs pound away, listening from behind their kitchen two-way mirror or taping the action for later replays.


What they saw was plenty of room for improvement. Potatoes get stuck in the masher’s holes, so we have to bang it on the side of the pot. Potatoes also cling to the sides of the pan, so we have to scrape them back with a spatula. And the taller the masher, the less force we can apply.


After a bit more benchmarking – comparing everything from grid size to handle grip ability – the designers then go to work, creating sketches, computerized images and thanks to fancy equipment, samples in metal, plastic or foam. (Sometimes they even sew).


Finally after months of tweaking and a few false starts (like the one they thought would work “like a snowplow,” says DiBitonto), Oxo’s new masher hit the market.


It’s shorter than most, with a horizontal handle, silicone wings and pot-scrapping and plastic-coated holes for non-stick mashing action.


Is it life-changing? Probably not. But it does make mashed potatoes a little easier, a little faster and maybe even a bit cleaner. And when you are trying to get dinner on the table on a weeknight, that’s exactly what you need.