variations of handle prototypes for the OXO peeler on a table

Insight - 03/31/23

Design Object Series N. 003

8 min

By the IW team

The OXO Peeler, the Paper Coffee Filter + the Foot-pedal Trash Can

In our Design Object Series we highlight iconic objects designed by women. Thousands of objects that you use and appreciate everyday…surprise! Women designed them! Many of the contributions of women to design have been obscured if not erased throughout history. We want to do our part to counteract this effect by celebrating the women behind a range of objects that you’re sure to recognize. In this issue we salute three women and three designs that have improved our daily lives in the kitchen: Patricia Moore and the universal design principles she applied to the OXO Good Grips Peeler, Melitta Benz and the paper coffee filters that revolutionized the coffee experience, and Lillian Moller Gilbreth and the incredible motion studies that led to the foot-pedal trash can.

The OXO Good Grips peeler

The OXO Good Grips peeler is a best-selling kitchen tool, with over 40,000 reviews on Amazon and millions of units sold. It is also an important case study in universal design and product ergonomics that revolutionized how everyday objects were developed. The design was developed by SmArt Design in conjunction with gerontologist and industrial designer Patricia Moore, one of the founders of universal design. Universal design is the process of creating objects and services that are accessible by all, independent of age, physical size, mobility, ability, and any number of factors. More often than speaking of it as a distinct discipline, we speak of designs that adhere to universal design principles. 

The OXO Good Grips peeler has an incredible history, of which this is just a taste. Serial entrepreneur Sam Farber was cooking with his wife Betsey in the south of France, and Betsey, who had mild arthritis, was having a difficult time using a vegetable peeler. Couldn’t Sam do something about this? Kitchen tools hadn’t been taken seriously on the market, and a ‘nicer’ kitchen tool typically just meant a tool that was made with more expensive materials, not one that offered superior performance. Sam reached out to SmArt design, a company he had worked with before for his range of Copco kitchen tools. He knew he wanted to make a range of tools, so they needed a handle that could be used for many different tool types. “These were little items that had no batteries, no moving parts, but they provided a model that has been moving up the food chain ever since,” Moore explained, “Sam understood the duality of creating–that you need both form and function.” 

The OXO Good Grips Swivel Peeler was developed to have a large, universally comfortable handle with an oval profile that doesn’t accidentally rotate in the hand. Image via OXO.

The development team wanted a handle that would be comfortable to hold for long periods and offer a secure grip even when wet. They found an innovative rubber-like polymer called Santoprene, which was being used for gaskets, this was the first time it would be used for a consumer product. They made hundreds of prototypes to understand the form that would work most effectively, and got feedback from those with all kinds of hand sizes and needs. They decided on an oval profile that wouldn’t easily rotate in the hand, a large, thick grip that would be easy to hold for those with low strength or impaired hand mobility or arthritis (or anyone), and textured fins on either side to provide a more precise grip for those who applied more pressure, and a visual cue of the tactile appeal of the tool. 

SmArt Design went to a Japanese knife company for manufacturing as none of the manufacturers in the US or Taiwan were confident they could successfully execute the delicate fins. This allowed them to have a superb blade, which is another reason that the peeler is such a hit. Not only is it comfortable and convenient to hold for all users, it is wonderfully sharp. The result of OXO’s undertaking is an iconic design object that established best practices for the entire design industry. Moore explained, “We were rethinking how you design. It became a social challenge.”

The paper coffee filter

Until 1908 it was common for coffee grounds and brewing water to share a vessel. The water would be poured directly over the grounds into a pot or mug and the grounds would gradually settle to the bottom of the container, becoming a thick sludge that the drinker would ideally leave behind but of course, that wouldn’t always work. Lots of clean-up was involved with this process, too. The French press was one solution to separate the grounds from the water, though it was only suitable for certain types of coffee and there was still the business of cleaning the apparatus. 

The paper coffee filter would change all of that, effectively filtering out the grounds and leaving behind a neat, disposable bundle for quick, painless clean-up. Coffee made with a filter was smooth, and sludge-free, and the filtration could influence the flavor positively as well.

Melitta Bentz was a German housewife in Dresden, passionate about good coffee. She made a cup each morning, irritated with each granule of ground coffee accidentally ingested. One day, fed up with the mess and inconvenience of the old way, she punched holes in an old tin pot and layered a sheet of her son’s blotting paper inside. She added coffee grounds and hot water, got a clean cup and a relatively clean pot, and never looked back. It’s said that she tested and refined the filter and the porcelain pour-over component with friends during her “coffee afternoons.”

Melitta Bentz developed not only the paper coffee filter but an entirely new system of making coffee based upon those filters. Image via jaune 10.

She was granted a patent within two years, in 1908, and set up a business making paper coffee filters in her Dresden apartment, with her two sons making deliveries and her husband creating displays to explain the new product. When she showed the product at the Leipzig Trade Fair the product took off and the company began to grow rapidly. The product was so clever in part because it was not only a product but a system. It took some education and training to help new users understand the idea, but once they saw the benefits they were quickly converted. The Melitta company is still one of the largest paper coffee filter manufacturers in the world. Though hundreds of styles are now available, the Melitta filter is the ancestor of them all.

The foot-pedal trash can

Many of the vegetable peelings and used filters above end up in our third critical kitchen design object, the foot-pedal trash can. While the concept of public sanitation has been around since the ancient Roman era, the first garbage receptacles didn’t come on the scene for hundreds of years, not until the late 1800s when the careless tossing of trash into streets and public waterways had become a public health hazard that could no longer be ignored. The ubiquitous foot-pedal trash can that we see in kitchens today was only designed in the last 100 years, in the 1920s. The development of this incredibly useful kitchen tool was brought about by an incredibly intelligent psychologist and engineer, Lillian Moller Gilbreth

Gilbreth was remarkable in many ways, most famously for being the model for the super-mother in the Cheaper by the Dozen movies, which tell the story of a family with 12 children and their clever systems for maintaining a functional household. The movies were based on books written by two of Gilbreth’s children. She is also known for her motion studies, detailed time-motion studies she did with her husband Frank Gilbreth in 1911 to understand how workers move when completing tasks as well as the time it takes to complete each task. These motion studies, and later studies around fatigue, were critical in streamlining factory processes. She also gave this kind of careful attention to offices, hospitals, sports arenas, kitchens, and her own domestic labor, determined to optimize those as well. 

The foot-pedal trash can allows users to access the trash with their hands free. Image via Simple Human.

Gilbreth worked as an industrial engineer for General Electric, which led her to design several improvements for the kitchen throughout the 1920s. She observed thousands of women at work, and from the insights she gathered from that research she developed the foot-pedal trash can as well as the shelves inside refrigerator doors, including the egg and butter trays. She also did the research that standardized counter, stove, cabinet, and other fixture heights in kitchens.  Next time you are at the trash can with your hands full, you can appreciate that clever, hands-free foot pedal action and the efforts of Lillian Moller Gilbreth to improve everyday life.

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