For housewares company Oxo, creating and testing new products requires a lot of stuff. “Our stuff, competitors’ stuff, inspiring stuff, things from other industries. We’re just a giant stockroom of parts and pieces and materials,” says Oxo President Larry Witt.
Known for its innovative and deceptively simple designs for things like vegetable peelers and salad spinners, Oxo uses all this stuff to figure out where competitors’ products fall short and how previous designs can inform new products. Inspirations range from the internal workings of children’s toys to the click-retract mechanism of a plastic pen. But for all the inspiration this material provided, it eventually became too much.
“We took a look around and realized we were surrounded by stuff,” Witt says. “It was choking us.”
That was about five years ago, and the realization (along with an expiring lease) led Witt to start thinking about a bigger and better office for a company of tinkerers. Working with New York-based Ampersand Architecture, he turned the company’s design prowess inward and began to rethink what a new office could be and how it could address all the clutter and clog.
The result is a 56,170-square-foot facility on two floors of the Starrett-Lehigh building, a classic art deco warehouse and office building in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. About 29,000 square feet larger than its previous office, which Witt says had at least 25 more people than it was designed to handle, the space accommodates both the people and the material that the company relies on.
The new office features flexible workspaces that range from communal tables to library-like quiet rooms with acoustically treated desk walls. Two-person meeting nooks line a hallway, and standard workstations sit alongside bigger tables for collaboration. A large kitchen space and cafeteria has at least four different ways to make coffee, and a separate test kitchen features viewing windows to see products go through the rounds with chefs. Completed a few months before the pandemic hit, the office is only just beginning to hum, Witt says.
Solving the stuff problem was a main concern. The new office’s space-saving innovation is a system of movable storage containers with kitchen-grade drawers. Designers use these rolling carts for each of the 100 or more projects the company works on every year, containing all the design prototypes, parts, and inspirational products used to inform the design process.
“What it allows us to do is have an office that looks neat and modern and really well organized while just below the surface is absolute chaos,” Witt says.
This emphasis on controlling the messiness of design also applies to the lab spaces used to test out new and emerging products. Conor McNamara is senior vice president of engineering for housewares at Oxo and he says the previous office was highly constrained when it came to the often unconventional engineering required to test out new products.
One example was a stool that needed to withstand weights of up to 300 pounds before it could go to market. The team built a device that could load and unload the weight onto the stool thousands of times. “So that involved winches and garbage cans full of water and all kinds of stuff,” McNamara says. The testing process took up a lot of room and caused a lot of mess.
The new space has been designed to accommodate this kind of hard-to-predict spatial requirement, with movable work surfaces and easily accessible power supplies. “When we got a chance to design the new space we made sure it was as universal as possible,” McNamara says.
The lab space is able to easily adjust to new testing processes, whether it’s a robot repeatedly opening and closing the lid on a sippy cup, or a hydraulic device punching open a chip bag clip thousands of times. A room full of 3D printers is operating nearly nonstop, generating new prototype parts for products that then need their own testing and tweaking.
Gadgets and mechanisms are everywhere. Storage, McNamara says, is always a challenge, but it’s this testing and tinkering space where much of the company’s innovation occurs.
“Originally we actually thought about putting a lab in the middle of the office with glass walls and making it a real feature of the office,” McNamara says. “But they knew we didn’t stand a chance of keeping it clean, so we moved it down to the second floor.”
So the stuff problem hasn’t been completely solved, McNamara concedes. But the chaos is at least partly controlled.