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The untold story of the vegetable peeler that changed the world

Smart Design’s Davin Stowell shares the origin story of the OXO Swivel, one of the great icons of 20th-century industrial design.

The untold story of the vegetable peeler that changed the world
[Photo: Oxo]

One of the most important moments in the history of industrial design occurred in 1990, when the kitchen brand OXO defied the traditional, knuckle-bleeding tools of culinary tradition, and released its Good Grips line. To this day, these tools are the best articulation of the potential of inclusive design: Developed for people with arthritis, Good Grips had thick rubbery handles that were also better tools for everyone to use.

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The Swivel Peeler was the collection’s flagship product. Created by Smart Design, in conjunction with OXO International’s launch in 1990, it raised the bar for accessible consumer products, and changed the way kitchen tools were designed forever. It was inducted into  MoMA’s permanent collection in 1994. And nearly three decades after its release, it maintains 4.8 stars out of 5 on Amazon yet still costs under $10. How many consumer products are truly that lasting? It’s why the peeler won our inaugural Timeless Design award as part of Innovation by Design 2018.

Over the years, abridged versions of the peeler’s origin story have been shared in design museums and even business schools. But talking to Smart’s founder, Davin Stowell, I had no clue how rich the history was, including cameos from Monsanto, samurai sword makers, and retail magicians from another era. What follows is his lightly edited story–an insider’s account of the world’s most famous vegetable peeler. –Mark Wilson, senior writer, Fast Company

[Photo: Oxo]

An Idea Borne Of Failure

The whole thing started with Sam Farber. He started a company called Copco, which made tea kettles and designed housewares. We connected with him in the early days of Smart, and designed a number of products for Copco. When he sold the company, he was retired for about six months. He came into my office, and was ranting on about how he absolutely needed to be making and selling things. He was a serial entrepreneur. He absolutely could not stand to be retired.

So he wanted to develop a product that he could go back into business with. At the time he had grown children and thought we could design something for kids. We came up with this idea of a toy that was basically crates, and you could add wheels to it, make into cars, bookcases, toy boxes. It was this giant-scale construction toy. He thought that was a fantastic thing to start a business around. We got patents on it, developed prototypes, started taking it around to buyers at stores who would take it.

The juvenile furniture buyers said it wasn’t furniture, it was a construction toy. So we go to the the toy buyers. They said it’s not a toy, it’s juvenile furniture. It was a great idea killed by retail, and it made him realize, he’d spent his life developing housewares products, he knew that well, and it’s what he should stick to.

That stuck in his mind during his annual vacation in Southern France. He and his wife Betsey spent a month cooking and enjoying the French countryside. One night I’m in my office, it’s 7:30 p.m., and I get a call from Sam. He’s in France, where its 1:30. in the morning, and he’s incredibly excited.

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He was cooking with Betsey, she had arthritis, and she was complaining about the peeler, complaining that it was hurting her hands. As I remember, it was an apple tart, though Betsey claims it wasn’t an apple tart. But that’s what Sam claimed to me.

[Photo: EddWestmacott/iStock]

She was frustrated. The old-style metal peeler wasn’t good. Her background was in architecture and design. I think she initiated the idea of, “Sam, can you do something about this? Make a better handle.” She grabbed some clay and started on her own. She recognized: “This is something that could be made better, and my husband used to be a housewares executive, and he should do something about it.” She was very involved in looking at things, trying things, and giving her input along the way.

It instantly dawned on him, here’s an opportunity to make a product. Nothing had really been done in a serious way with kitchen gadgets. They were either cheap items that didn’t work very well, or if they were more expensive, they might be designed with a steel instead of plastic handle, but they didn’t actually work any better than the cheap stuff.

Here’s something he could do to help people, he thought. So he wanted me to get started on it immediately. He knew he had to do a full line of tools. It couldn’t be just a peeler, it had to be 15 to 20 different tools so it could occupy enough wall space at retail to get attention. It had to work for people with arthritis, but it had to work for everybody. This was a hard and fast rule. We couldn’t design something for people just with special needs, because it would have to be in a special catalog, and no one is able to have access to those products. It had to work for everybody, so it could be at decent price for everyone.

He was coming back from France in a month and said, “Just get started.”

We did this as a royalty arrangement. He paid us a portion of that as an advance on royalties to cover a little bit of costs. But in reality, we spent a fortune. I remember an advance of $20,000 or $30,000 or something, and I would guess we probably invested a few million (dollars) in time before we’d gotten any kind of return on it. Talk to anyone who has done a royalty project, and they become projects of passion.

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This one was particularly easy to do because we had such a great relationship with Sam, a delightful person to work with. He understood the business, but what was important was, he understood design. If he could have been a designer himself he would have been, but he had none of the skills necessary. So he had a lot of admiration and trust in designers, but he had the guidance that what we were doing would be a commercial success as well.

Between the friendship, and trust it would work, and especially after the previous failure, we knew this was in his sweet spot. It was engaging. There was no problem getting designers working late nights and weekends to make it happen.

[Photo: Oxo]

Understanding the needs of people

When we were developing this OXO line, we knew we had to have one handle that could be applied to a number of different tools. It’s the economics of the business. Different gadgets would have one handle to make it more economical to produce.

So we immediately started trying to understand the various disabilities we wanted to help. We went to the American Arthritis Foundation, and got volunteers. They introduced us to some of their staff members that had arthritis that were willing to be test subjects and talk about it.

We had to design a handle that would work for various uses. You might be pulling, pushing, using it like a paintbrush. We started developing what that handle would be. We realized it needed to be better than anything out there. Like the theory behind large crayons for preschoolers, they need something bigger to hang onto firmly. It’s the same thing with people with arthritis. They need something with a larger dimension. A larger oval gave someone a little control. It was fairly short-handled because in some cases, like an apple corer, it would have to be able to fit into the palm of your hand.

We also knew we needed a special material, a tactile rubber material to get a better grip, especially when the tool was wet.

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At that time, there were no kitchen tools made with rubber. We didn’t even know what the rubber would be for it. Sam and I were flying back and forth from Taiwan, thinking that’s where we’d manufacture it, talking to factories, asking if they have a material. I remember joking with Sam, sitting on a Northwest Airlines flight. The dinner roll they served was in a plastic bag with the right feel and texture. It was certainly food-safe.

I can’t remember how we were turned onto a material called Santoprene. From Monsanto, it was created following several years of research and development to find a new material for injection-molded tires. It was a polymer a lot like rubber, and it had all the right characteristics, but at the time, it was only used for gaskets and things to seal dishwashers. Nothing you’d actually touch. Monsanto got very excited about their material being used in a consumer product. So we were offered lots of support.

[Photo: Oxo]

Building intuitive design

I talked a lot about the shape, but we still wanted some indication of where your forefinger might go on the grip.

There were some advantages to having a depression for your fingers, but it didn’t seem all that interesting. So we were looking at having soft spots instead, where your thumb and forefinger were. We had a way of doing that by making it hollow in the handle, so it could squeeze easier but you wouldn’t have to see those hollow spots.

Sam was looking, and said it’s nice to have that feature, but people need to see the feature at retail. There needs to be something about it that will attract them to it, signifying there’s something special about this handle. If you hide it, they’ll never know unless they pick it up.

[Photo: Oxo]

That was his retail savviness to have that insight, that this had to be visible. At the same time we were looking at different ways to make a handle that would mold more easily to the way you grip. Sam had sort of recalled seeing bicycle handle grips with thin fins on them, so we went over to a bike shop, grabbed one of these handles and brought it in, started playing with it, and that was what was the inspiration for the fins.

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The end result is exactly what you can see—two scooped out areas that would be under your thumb and forefinger, but they’ve been filled with the fins to make a simple straight handle that’s all you need for a light grip. But when you want a stronger grip, your thumb and forefinger push the fins into the scooped-out areas.

I think one of the things about this product, one of the reasons it’s been so successful and lasted so many years, is that every time I tell the story of how it came about, I’ll hand people the peeler, and without fail, this has probably been thousands and thousands of times–the very first thing they do when they pick it up is start squeezing those fins with their thumb and forefinger. Literally without fail. It’s instantaneous.

And as soon as they do that, they’re interacting with it in a playful way, which says that there’s something special about this handle. You could do the same thing with an ergonomic shape, maybe. You’d grab it and say, “Okay, whatever.'”With this, the handle is almost like a conversation between your hand and the peeler itself. They’re conversing back and forth as you’re pushing those fins around.

Manufacturing the peeler

The design was on the right track, but it was extremely difficult to be made. We had a U.S. manufacturer who refused to make it. They said the fins were so thin that the injection molding tools would wear out too fast, and wouldn’t touch it. Taiwanese manufacturers didn’t have the technical skill to do something like that at the time.

[Photo: Oxo]
We went to knife companies in Japan. One company called Mitsubohi Cutlery, dated back to the 1800s when they made samurai swords. We went to a meeting there to see if they’d make the product at a high-quality factory. We were sitting across the table from this Japanese man in a business suit, and we’re wearing polo shirts.

We finally get when they say they’re not sure whether they can make it or not. And they had the handmade model I’d made in our shop. They said, “We have to ask Mr. So-and-So in the tooling factory.”

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We hop in the the limousine to the tooling factory, and there’s this guy with overalls, with a remote controller and a giant steel tool over his head they’re moving from one side of the shop to the other. They showed him the model I’d made, conversing back and forth in Japanese. We had no idea what they were talking about. Then all the sudden, they started to laugh, and they came over and said, “Yes, Mr. So-and-So said we can make this.” I asked, “What did you decide that based on?” When they were talking, they kept pointing at me, so I didn’t know what was going on. Apparently, Mr. So-and-So said that if I could make it, he could make it.

This was two months before the housewares show in San Francisco, when Sam was going to show this off, make a big splash at the show. You can imagine Sam’s nervousness, wondering if this box would ever arrive, he was assured by them it would. We had peelers, serving spoons, spatulas. We had a dozen tools.

The day before the show, the boxes arrived. And they were perfect.

[Photo: Oxo]
We’d designed a booth for Sam, with these handmade prototypes. Yellow rubber gloves filled with plaster worked as pedestals to hold all these different things, to give the idea we’d made a full catalog. The show started, and I remember standing in the booth with Sam’s son, who was trained as a lawyer, and just helping out. The first time someone came up to us and wanted to buy the product, and we were like, what do we do?

It was a huge success at the show. This big news–that Sam had come out of retirement with this new idea–generated a lot of excitement, and a lot of concern as well. No one had ever seen big, black rubber tools and were not quite sure this would work. The only major retailer that decided to take a risk on it was a store called Lechters, a predecessor to Bed Bath and Beyond. They had housewares stores all over the country.

They took it on, and initially sales were very, very slow. We brainstormed how we’d get this to pick up. We convinced them they should put out big stainless steel bowls we provided with peelers and carrots, so people could pick up a peeler and try it. With that display, it took off.

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[Photo: Oxo]

Proving inclusive design at retail

The original “Good Grips” packaging we introduced was black on one side, white on the other, and there was a graphic of a palm going into the fins, emphasizing that idea of the touchpoint. The handle hung below the cardboard card, and so when someone reached for it, they had to touch the handle. That was fairly unique at the time.

[Photo: Oxo]

The logo is kinda fun. OXO. It’s kind of an abstraction of a face, with the eyes and nose. Sam liked that name. He came up with that name because he liked O, X, and O. Copco had a lot of Os. The reason he liked Cs, Os, and Xs is you could read them upside down, backwards, whatever. Of course no one knows how to pronounce it. They call it “oh ex oh,” not “ox-oh.”

People would buy the products, then they would come back and get them for friends. We’d get very heartwarming letters with stories. The satisfaction they had was like a lightbulb went off and they could do something. That’s probably what kept driving Sam: The product itself really is never that important. What someone can accomplish, that’s important. It’s how it makes them feel.

We’ve been living this for so long–but the OXO line was universal design, or inclusive design, long before either had a name. Inclusive design is a much better term, I think, because it means including more people. With inclusive design, you never know when you might have the need for a product like this. You could injure your hand playing sports, or your grandmother could be dropping in for a visit. Just this idea of making a product that was better for anybody, and be for everybody! I think we were happy when it got a name to describe what we were doing.

Later on, the American Arthritis Foundation gave us some recognition. We put the endorsement onto the package, but we took that off later because we realized, one of the things that’s really important for inclusive design is that the product isn’t stigmatizing. If you identify it as something for arthritis, it’s stigmatizing for someone with arthritis, and it prevents someone buying it who otherwise might, because they think it’s for someone with special needs. We realized someone in need would instantly realize this was better for them, anyway.

Meanwhile, to this day, everybody attributes the function of the peeler to the handle. But the handle isn’t actually the reason why it works. The reason the peeler works so well is because the blade is really sharp. If you put a dull blade on our peeler, it won’t peel any better than our peeler. If you put a sharp blade on a stick, it will peel was well as our peeler. At a factory, we’d just hold the blades and peel carrots. If you couldn’t hear it cut, it was sharp. The factory thought we were crazy. But that was actually the secret behind it, and is true to most of the tools. The performance is more important than anything else, second to that is the design that communicated what it does.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day

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