You’ve seen the image. Someone is sitting at her desk. Or in an airline terminal. And around her head is a gigantic, gray pillow. Not behind her head, but stuffed over it. The pillow covers her ears and eyes in an upholstered LMTFA to the world around her.
This is the original Ostrichpillow, a $100 beanbag chair that you wear on your head. The concept was born at the Spanish design firm Studio Banana in 2012, as the design team was considering how people could nap at work without a dedicated nap area. When the studio posted the concept online, the designers imagined it might be the sort of high-design object picked up for a MoMA exhibit, as had been the case with other Studio Banana work. Instead, it went viral.
“In the beginning, it was an experiment. We posted it on the internet with no expectations of selling that product,” recalls Ostrichpillow CEO Pablo Carrascal, who joins me on Zoom, donning a heather gray T-shirt that matches his product line perfectly. “But we received thousands of emails asking where to buy that product. We didn’t plan to create a brand at that moment, but people were demanding to buy the product.”
Today, Ostrichpllow is a bootstrapped company of 12, spun out of Studio Banana, that generates an estimated $2.5 million a year, and has expanded its product line to a dozen, including items from compression socks to heat bags. Ostrichpillow has never taken outside investment, and it has been profitable “since day one,” according to Carrascal. This is a story about how a seemingly whimsical, even absurd, design can dovetail with a massive consumer trend—the gargantuan self-care industry—to build a robust business that outlasts any viral origins.
In retrospect, the Ostrichpillow was a prescient product, and the concept of “self-care” exploded over the next several years. Between 2014 and 2020, the self-care industry ballooned from $10 billion to $145 billion. A response to both a hyperconnected society that’s destigmatizing mental health and a world in which home and work no longer have clear boundaries, the self-care industry includes apps that help you meditate and drink more water, exercise tools like yoga mats and Theraguns, and a wave of soaps and cosmetics rebranded for the zeitgeist.
Looking back at Ostrichpillow’s strange, head cocoon today, it’s hard to recall just how extreme this design felt at the time. “We tried to be a little bit radical,” says Carrascal. “We decided to take some [marketing] pictures in the airport, the plane, the office, even in the street, to emphasize the idea of napping everywhere.” Through a certain lens, you can see a direct line from the Ostrichpillow to leisurewear worn at work.
While bringing the first pillow to market, the team wanted it to recreate the full experience of a cozy bed, just on your head. Creating that sensation required they learn a lot about textiles and cushioning. As I slip on the original Ostrichpillow for the first time, I feel a surprising stretch from the gray cotton as it conforms around my face. The microbead filling hits against my cheek as I rest it on the couch. Yes, I can finally relax without a standalone pillow! However, to be honest, my head feels a bit too hot after a few minutes to be all that comfortable, which makes me quite thankful for the pillow’s front breathing hole. (Carrascal preferred an earlier prototype that had no hole in the front at all, but he admits user testing necessitated the cutout.)
Whereas Ostrichpillow started as an academic design object, in 2013, it landed on the burgeoning Kickstarter platform—and raised nearly $200,000 from 1,800 backers. The Ostrichpillow’s story could have ended there. Instead, the team began to see this fabric and cushioning—and working with industrial partners to construct such a complicated supportive pillow with no sharp seams—as valuable IP with which they could create other products. Meanwhile, the crowdsourced nature of Kickstarter meant that the team was inundated with messages, requesting other unique pillows for specific situations.
“So we started working on more products to help people with sleeping and rest in different moments in their life,” says Carrascal. “In the end, what designers do is to improve people’s lives. After thinking a lot about what we could do, and what we were good at, we thought self-care is a big topic for us . . . and something where we could provide solutions in many areas.”
What resulted was an iPod-like product line of plush products of various sizes and permutations. The next wave of products was designed specifically for travel. First was the Ostrichpillow Light, a donut that wraps around your eyes and ears like a puffy blindfold to block out the sights and sounds on crowded planes. The back features a drawstring to tighten it around your head. (It’s as comfortable as advertised, and everything I’d hoped the original pillow would be.) The Ostrichpillow Mini is basically a big oven mitt you slip on for those times when you’re forced to sleep on your hand. And the Ostrichpillow Go marked the company’s most direct response to airplane travel, the company’s first foray into memory foam with a wrap that Velcros around your neck to support it, like an ergonomic coiling snake.
As the company distributed its products into more than 100 stores, ranging from Nordstrom to Amazon, it continued to crowdfund its new products on places like Kickstarter. That might be surprising for a company that broke the million dollar revenue mark in 2018. “Sometimes people ask why you’re still doing crowdfunding, and it’s because it makes us take it more seriously,” says Carrascal. “Because the community there is quite demanding. They have very high expectations. So it helps us to set a big goal for our design and manufacturing team.”
Ostrichpillow continues to mine crowdfunding feedback for more ideas for more products. “I have to say I’m very lucky; a lot of people came to us to tell us their problems,” says Carrascal. “For me as a designer, that’s gold. Because I like to solve problems, and you’re here to tell me your problems!”
Ostrichpillow’s travel line did well—its best-selling product ever is the Go—but COVID-19 slowed down that market. And Carrascal argues that, while the company had success with travel, most people only travel a few times a year at most. So their customer base was inherently limited.
The company has toe-dipped diversifying its line from pillows with products like the Hood (a hoodie without the sweatshirt, basically, which is meant to help you relax, but continues to be as confounding to me now as the day I first tried it), bamboo compression socks, and a digital detox phone case that blocks out calls. However, the latest chapter for Ostrichpillow is all about self-care at home, leveraging its inventive approach to cushioning yet again. Its new line includes a neck wrap and heatbag filled with clay that you can fire up in a microwave (Carrascal says the goal was for the bag to feel like a warm hug) and a sleep mask filled with memory foam that protects your eyes from any pressure while blocking out light.
As for the future, Ostrichpillow is excited about its home-oriented line, but doesn’t plan to stop at helping you get rest. “We are very interested in new habits [and] how to facilitate [them],” Carrascal says. “Our team is confident in . . . launching new solutions to enable contemporary self-care.”