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Turning Boring Old Chemical Engineering Into Design Sexiness

Dow Chemical is rethinking its public face and partnering with designers who might be able to better sell their inventions.

Eric Pfeiffer

Eric Pfeiffer, a San Francisco-based industrial designer, probably never imagined himself hand in hand with the chemistry wonks at Dow, the billion-dollar chemicals giant. He's been a designer, pure and simple, almost all his life. At 13, when he couldn't afford a snowboard, he built one by eyeballing magazine pictures.

Nonetheless, at 40, he's found himself front and center in Dow's big push to rework how products are made and place itself hand-in-hand with designers. In turn, Dow expects that this will pave the way for sustainable products made of cutting-edge materials advances, brought to market far sooner.

Eric Pfeiffer

Chemical companies typically get pulled in only at the end of a daisy chain involving designers and engineers. But with Dow, Pfeiffer is acting as a sort of design ambassador, working between design clients and the company. At the center of this experiment is Renuva, a soy-based material similar to polyurethane plastic. The latter is usually petroleum-based, and it's used in scores of products from cars to furniture to kitchen gadgets.

Renuva, instead, is renewable and organically based. Made from the waste material from soybean processing, it can still be turned into plastics and gels not much different than those derived from petroleum. Which sounds brilliant, but the problem for Dow was getting a mainstream audience to care. Its chemists were more comfortable geeking out over acetates and chlorides—not exactly sexy—than creating a conversation starter for the average consumer.

And that's where Pfieffer's saw an opportunity. He'd help Dow formulate materials that brands (and their consumers) wanted. And he'd realize the materials in a form that consumers could understand. The hope was that new materials would see daylight instead of languishing in some lab.

Eric Pfeiffer

Eric Pfeiffer

Umberto Torresan, a marketing manager at Dow, says that this represents a sea-change in how the company views itself. "It took a little bit, to get our mind around this," he says. "But as we started to interact with consumers, we started coming up with more ideas, such as what kinds of products mean something to people. [Pfeiffer] was the bridge for the translation. As a designer, he has a powerful way of communicating things."

Pfieffer has become something of an old-hand at wiggling into musty industries and making himself useful. He recently partnered with plywood heavy Columbia Forest Products and the estate of artist and designer Alexander Girard to produce art prints that showcased Columbia's new formaldehyde-free adhesives.

Eric Pfeiffer

Renuva is still a tiny part of Dow's overall business. But its collaboration with Pfeiffer could prove influential. Others like DuPont Corian are also engaging with designers and architects early in the design process, though the designer-as-product manager model is still relatively unusual. Pfeiffer sees no reason that designers can't also tap into smaller materials firms. "The days where a designer creates something and just hands it off are numbered," Pfeiffer says.