On March 21, 1998, at 12:23 a.m., Alex Lee found a "disgusting, soaking wet" woman's black wool glove with a ratty, faux-fur cuff in the middle of 14th Street, near 6th Avenue in Manhattan. Lee, 39, president of OXO International, the company best known for the Good Grips line of kitchen gadgets--hand tools with wide, black, rubber handles--happily picked up the glove and took it home.
The next day Lee carried the scruffy mitt to the OXO offices located above Chelsea Market, a former Nabisco factory. With little fanfare, he added it to the "Glove Wall." Glove Wall? That's what OXO's 21 employees, nearly all in their 20s and early 30s, call the divider in the communal lunch room. Presently, 120 hand covers are on display--a child's lavender mitten; a striped ski mitt. Each is identified by a tag that tells who found it, when and where. They are odd gloves, in every size, that Lee and co-workers have found here and there.
Visually this wall of things lost is a fun and funky company art project. But it's also a reminder of the company's corporate mission and the niche in the world of house and garden tools that OXO has found and grown.
"These gloves represent the spectrum of hand sizes that our product has to fit," says Lee, a native of Hong Kong, who joined 10-year-old OXO five years ago as director of product development. He admits to being "driven to design easy-to-use products for the largest spectrum of the population, from healthy 20-year-olds on up." And driven, Lee is.
OXO produces ergonomic products in four lines for specialty and department stores, Target, Kmart and Wal-Mart stores. From a simple start with 15 basic kitchen gadgets, the company now produces 350 tools and useful accessories for house and garden. Sales have passed $60 million worldwide during 10 years. A set of kitchen knives and redesigned barbecue tools will arrive in stores this winter. No fewer than 50 new products are in development including workshop tools, office supplies and a car-care line.
OXO products have won national and international design awards including the IDEA Gold Award from the Industrial Designers of America and the Design Zentrum Award from Germany. Several Good Grips are part of the permanent collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art and Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design.
Still, according to Lee, a stereotype lingers. The fixed conception? OXO makes "geriatric products for people with limitations." In fact, OXO has fans of all ages who are attracted to the modern design and clean lines of the Good Grips Cork Pull and Cocktail Forks and Bottle Stopper. Practical people appreciate how OXO's "one-handed pump" salad spinner effortlessly does the job it was designed to do.
"The idea was always, from the start, to make useful products for people of all ages and levels of dexterity," says Lee.
When the first 15 Good Grips tools were introduced in 1990 it was seniors who initially took notice. And for good reason. They loved the Swivel Peeler, how the wide, soft, oval handle and bendable fins made carrot peeling a pleasure by improving leverage and taking pressure off the wrist. To this day Swivel Peeler remains the company's biggest seller and most recognizable gadget.
As the OXO odyssey goes, it was company founder Sam Farber, a retired veteran of 30 years in the housewares industry, who came up with the OXO concept--make the best products at an affordable price and they will fly off the shelf.
Farber, a scion of Farberware, the pot and pan makers, and avowed dessert man, was baking apple pies with his wife, Betsey, at their house in the south of France. His wife, who suffers from mild arthritis, had trouble manipulating the peeler.
"Why do ordinary kitchen tools hurt your hands, with painful scissors loops, rusty metal peelers, hard skinny handles. Why can't there be wonderfully comfortable tools that are easy to use?" Farber said in a business profile.
Farber wondered why the gadget category was so sorely neglected.
The peeler was a good place to start. The first vegetable peeler was introduced to consumers in the early 1900s. It was a simple, molded tool, often with a wooden handle. It was far safer to use than a paring knife. Yet the handle, which was not much thicker than a pencil, had sharp edges. It would crack with repeated use. The blade wasn't sharp and it rusted easily.
The problem: It was designed from the manufacturer's standpoint in the easiest and least expensive way. Consumers accepted the common peeler as a disposable tool that needed to be replaced every few years. But most never bothered. Several variations of that same peeler can still be found in most kitchen drawers today.
But Farber was not one to simply muse. He came out of retirement and hired a New York firm called Smart Design. Through research, trial and error, together, they set out to improve kitchen gadgets--a pizza wheel, garlic press, scissors--products of "Universal Design." Farber wanted to create gadgets that felt good in the hand and worked with users, instead of against them.
Initially using Styrofoam, then in stainless steel and flexible Santoprene rubber, they created a line of tools that were not only comfortable to use but also attractive and dishwasher safe. Farber and his family handled the marketing end. Manufacturing was done in factories in Japan, China and Taiwan.
They called the company OXO, a name that Farber liked because it could be read horizontally, vertically or upside down.
In 1992 Farber sold OXO to cookware maker General Housewares Corporation (last week it was sold once again to present owner Corning Consumer Products, a division of Borden). Farber stayed on as manager until 1995 when he hand-picked industrial designer Lee as his successor and Larry Witt, 31, as vice president of sales and market development.
OXO's growth beyond kitchen tools has been steady through the decade, starting with a line of Sierra Club garden tools in 1993. Then came outdoor barbecue tools. Cleaning products, most notably the Soap-Filled Palm Brush, were introduced in 1996. House and garden had become fair game.
"Since Alex and I came on board we've never considered ourselves a kitchenwares company," says Witt, whose background covers every aspect of retailing. "I'm making useful products for my mom and my friends. Products for people," he says.
Ideas for new products come from every direction.
"We look for the ho-hum, accepted products, things people don't even think about and look at ways to make it better," says Lee. They line up competitors' mixing bowls, pastry brushes, whisks, corn holders, dust pans, squeegees and toilet plungers and find ways to make them work better and look better.
The OXO team studies how things should work. Engineers spent a month looking at all the tongs on the market, the shape of the head, the locking mechanism, the tension of the spring. Most were hard on the hand, requiring too much of a squeeze. They set out to fashion a better tong. "It's not invention but quality consciousness and a fresh way of looking at things," says Lee.
Some ideas come in letters from consumer and armchair inventors.
"Would someone in this big world please design a potato masher with a handle [that] resists in the direction of the force applied: i.e., horizontal?," wrote Shannon Corns, from Alberta, Canada. OXO engineers took on the job and created the Flat Handled Potato Masher.
"We listen to everybody," says Lee. "But in the end, 99 percent of the ideas [that people send in] are redundant and not practical."
To discourage knock-offs and to offer products to the widest range of customers, OXO makes four similar lines. The premier and largest line of products is called Good Grips. These tools are heavy and sport soft, flexible fins where the working end meets the handle. Specialty and department stores sell them. A Good Grips Garlic Press goes for around $12.
A year or more after a Good Grip item made its debut, OXO knocked itself off with a mass market look-alike in three lines, each for a national chain. "Kmart doesn't want what Wal-Mart has," says Lee. "All three want their own stuff."
OXO's Soft Works (sold at Target), Touchables (sold at Kmart) and Sensables (sold at Wal-Mart) are slightly lighter tools that perform in a similar manner to Good Grips. Each has a slightly different style handle. They don't have fins. A garlic press from one of these lines sells for $6.99.
No one department or specialty store carries the entire Good Grips line. But Bed, Bath & Beyond and Linens N' Things stores stock the widest assortment. Who needs a Turkey Lifter or Meat Tenderizer? Why seven different ways to remove a scoop of ice cream from the carton?
Says Lee: "The presence of the products builds confidence in a line. Only 20 percent may move. But that 80 percent helps sell the 20 percent."
The variety of gadgets in any store varies by region. Seafood Picks sell better in Maine. Grapefruit Trimmer does better in Florida. Cheese Plane is the favorite in Sweden.
And new products are always going from the drawing board to the testing area in the New York office. Six weeks ago bread knives and spatulas were undergoing scrutiny in the OXO test kitchen.
In a bread knife challenge, the competition's tools were put to a crusty test one by one. They compared how the different handles felt in the hand when gripped, the length and flexibility of the blade as well as how the edge was serrated.
At a center island, housewares product manager Michelle Sohn conducted the final trials of a new "Silicone Turner." It's an extra-long, extra-large, heat-resistant spatula with a clever "neck rest"--a notch on the handle that elevates the head to help keep counters clean. The intended use is for both scraping the last bit of batter from the bowl as well as flipping the pancake.
A factory in China has sent over two prototypes. One has a head that is slightly more flexible than the other. Sohn must decide.
She scrapes batter this way, then that. She flips an omelet under and over. She bends one, then the other, this way, then that.
"There's no magic formula to it. A lot of it's a gut feeling," says Sohn who joined Oxo four years ago and holds a master's degree in manufacturing engineering. One is judged "too flimsy" when undesirable drips hit the counter. She chooses the more rigid spatula as the next Good Grip.
And the testing area was literally humming with a kettle whistle "tonal aspect" comparison. The call of Uplift Kettle, an OXO kitchen accessory with a spout that opens automatically when it's lifted by the handle, was compared with other kettles on the market. "Kettle whistles change from batch to batch and year to year. It's a sound variance you have to check from time to time," says Witt.
One was too soft, one too shrill, another mimicked the drone of an approaching train. There was no winner.
A new whistle for Uplift went back to the drawing board, until a day when the testers could determine it was easy, not only on the hands, but also on the ears.
CAPTION: SWIVEL PEELER remains OXO's most recognizable tool.
CAPTION: NUT/SEAFOOD CRACKER is the anchor for the seafood collection introduced in late 1998.
CAPTION: OXO's Larry Witt, left, vice president of sales and marketing, and president Alex Lee at the company's Glove Wall, a source of inspiration for the company's employees.
CAPTION: CITRUS JUICER is a new twist on a kitchen classic.