“What’s New?” is the big question at each International Home + Housewares Show. Retailers, media and exhibitors hunt for the latest products, trends and ideas. In 2014, the Show offers an exclusive, one-time opportunity to a select group of young companies whose products demonstrate high design and innovation. These budding entrepreneurs appear in Design Debut, a unique “incubator” section of Discover Design.
“Once the companies experience a successful introduction to our Show, we hope that they will return to exhibit in Discover Design with a full booth presence,” explains Laiza Altaf, Trade Show Sales Manager.
Design Debut introduces nine companies; some are U.S. designers who launched their first products with Kickstarter support. Other entrepreneurs come to Chicago from the U.K, Spain and Italy to dip their toes in the global market. Make time on your Show schedule to get acquainted with these mini-exhibitors and get inspired by their fresh ideas.
Bruce and Stephanie Tharp, a husband and wife team of industrial designers, joined their educations, professional experiences and parenthood to kickstart their new business. Both professors at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), the challenges of living with two young daughters in a home near campus on Chicago’s Near West Side propelled them to make and market their own product concepts.
Stephanie received her undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan in Mechanical Engineering and worked at Ford Motor Company as a product development engineer for several years. She then earned a Masters in Industrial Design at the Rhode Island School of Design. She is now Associate Professor and Program Chair of Industrial Design at UIC. Bruce holds a PhD and MA in sociocultural anthropology from the University of Chicago, a Masters of Industrial Design degree from Pratt Institute and a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Bucknell University. He is an Associate Professor and Graduate Program Chair at UIC. He has lectured, exhibited and published nationally and internationally.
Bruce, tell us about your company. How did it start?
Stephanie and I started our design studio, materious, in 2005 shortly after we met. A year later we got married and settled down in Chicago, where we have been since.
How did you get the ideas for your products? Did you have a “light bulb” moment about a problem that needed a solution?
Cubby® responds to problems that we encountered living in smaller, urban spaces. The first product that we ever designed together was a free-standing coat rack that was really beautiful and even won “Best of Show” in a DWR (Design Within Reach) product competition. After the winners’ exhibition we were excited to put it in our apartment but it was way too big for the space. So we went about designing a solution for not only our coats and hats, but also the other stuff that we would have put on a small entry table – if we had space for one! So Cubby® was born. It got a lot of initial attention, garnering three competition awards including Interior Design magazine’s Best of Year award for accessories.
Is this your first product line or have you had earlier experience in taking a new product to market?
Cubby® was our first product for a mass market. We have had a few smaller run products that appeal mainly to a design-centric gift or museum shop market.
Industrial designers know manufacturing technologies and today’s popular crowdfunding platforms allow you to take your ideas to production. Like many designers, you launched your first product with Kickstarter support. How did that go?
The Cubby® story is interesting as we originally had licensing contracts with two different companies who wanted to produce them, but they both ended up pulling out as they worked through the development issues. This took several years to play out as each week we were getting requests from people all over the globe who had seen them on the web. We realized that it was probably not going to ever get to market unless we did it ourselves. The tooling was quite expensive, especially since we wanted to make it locally in Chicago, so we turned to Kickstarter. We almost doubled our funding goal and shortly were in business.
We are strong proponents of crowdfunding and decided to launch the Cut/Once ruler on Kickstarter as well.
Did Kickstarter attract retailers to carry your product?
Kickstarter has been great in getting attention and we have been contacted by retailers and distributors (as well as customers) from across the globe.
What inspires your passion in your work?
Design is in our blood and there is no shortage of passion for shaping our built environment to be more functional, beautiful and, we hope, meaningful. Simply, if we did not love design we would have quit a long time ago, as it is not easy. But we believe in what we are doing and think that by creating smart, responsible, and useful objects that are well-designed, we can make the world a little better place.
Why did you decide to try the International Home + Housewares Show? Have you exhibited at other Shows?
This will be our second trade show—our first was at last fall’s NY Now gift show.
What do you see as consumers’ biggest concerns regarding housewares products?
Our market loves great looking and innovative products, but without sacrificing functionality. They want it all, and if they can get it, they are usually willing to pay a small premium for it.
What are some of today’s challenges that new product development professionals face in the housewares market?
For the small entrepreneur I think it is distribution. In our circles design and development are the fun part and where our strengths lie. Getting the product out to the world is the hard part for us. Also I think that it is a challenge to make products responsibly. We try very hard to source close to home and to minimize the product’s footprint. There is always room for improvement, but there is a difficult balancing act to pull of with pricing. In a tight economy, a more expensive responsibly manufactured product is not always an easy sell.
Thank you, Bruce, for sharing your experiences what issues designers face as they try to make and market their own creations. We wish you the best of luck at your first Show with us. We hope your daughters continue to suggest ideas for new products—they’re learning at early ages about what it takes to run a business!
Visit materious at Design Debut S4083 and learn more about their products by contacting Bruce Tharp, principal + designer, at www.materious.com
Discover Design is the premier design destination at the International Home + Housewares Show. Located in the South Building, the invitation-only category features more than 100 exhibitors from around the world. Companies driven by innovation and design present distinctive products and collections in Tabletop, Gift, Textiles and Home Décor categories. The Discover Design Gallery, accessible to buyers and media, features select products that are entries in the Global Innovation Award (gia) for Design. Learn more about Discover Design exhibitors and their products by checking Housewares Connect 365 here.