Innovative design director helps revive Tupperware's domestic market

March 22, 1992|By Nancy Feigenbaum | Nancy Feigenbaum,Orlando Sentinel

Morison Cousins keeps a collection of ordinary things on his shelf at Tupperware Worldwide Headquarters in Kissimmee, Fla. There are two plastic sugar bowls, several cameras, a water pitcher and a few napkin holders, plus whatever else he has recently picked up.

To Mr. Cousins, none of it is ordinary. He picks up the white water pitcher and traces the lip with his finger, showing curves that weren't obvious. The pitcher suddenly looks extravagant.

"Beautiful lines," Mr. Cousins said, admiring his find.

Mr. Cousins' eye for the elegant brought him to Tupperware in October 1990 to redesign the company's core products.

The company was in the midst of cutting hundreds of jobs, upgrading its production equipment and restructuring departments to become more profitable. As part of the changes, Tupperware decentralized its design team, separating North America from other areas and creating Mr. Cousins' post of director of design for the region.

Mr. Cousins' reputation for practical, modern designs made him a strong candidate for the job.

"Morison is one of the key members of a whole new team that is bringing products to market much faster than we've ever done before," said Bob Donegan, vice president of marketing at Tupperware North America.

Domestic sales of the all-American brand have dropped 23 percent since 1986. But sales abroad have risen more than 90 percent in the same time, eclipsing sales in the United States and more than offsetting the decline.

It's not up to Mr. Cousins to alone save Tupperware's domestic market -- the company has other ideas, such as modifying distribution and attracting more sales consultants. But Mr. Cousins believes the design of a product relates directly to sales.

Mr. Cousins has been making objects of practical beauty for more than 30 years, most of that time with his brother, Michael.

Anyone with a hair dryer is likely to recognize a Cousins design -- simple, often white appliances with geometric shapes and a few whimsical touches.

Mr. Cousins said he wasn't looking for work when Tupperware called. He first refused to consider its job offer, saying too many companies hired designers to be managers. But after assurances Tupperware was serious about design, he agreed.

At Tupperware, Mr. Cousins began his work recasting the famous canisters, which are known for their "astro-flex" lids, the ones with a round fan pattern.

The new canisters are white, round-bottomed and sleek, with simple lids that lack the old design. If they sell as well, Mr. Cousins' influence could be felt in hundreds of thousands of households.

Mr. Cousins is in his element.

"The things here are really mass-produced," he said. "The quantities are enormous."

Mr. Cousins' friends were surprised that Tupperware sought him because it's rare for a U.S. company to seek a celebrated designer.

"He's a major coup for Tupperware," said Charles Mauro, president of Mauro/Mauro/Design in New York, which specializes in making products easier to use. "He has an outstanding reputation."

Mr. Cousins has tried to explain his philosophy to other employees at Tupperware. He uses slides to show how most other products have moved from stark and functional designs to ones with smoother, more elegant lines.

The next line of products designed under Mr. Cousins is scheduled for release this month. The company is keeping its identity under wraps.

"I think it's so much fun," Mr. Cousins said. "When the anthropologists dig it all up, this is what they're going to be digging up."

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