Student designers create simple, elegant products for homes of the future

January 23, 1994|By Cynthia Hanson | Cynthia Hanson,Contributing Writer

Ask college students to create housewares for the home of the future, and you'd expect them to design products more far-fetched than functional.

But when the National Housewares Manufacturers Association sponsored its recent contest for industrial design students, the results were all manner of small appliances, gadgets and hand tools.

"The product ideas show that today's industrial design students can be futuristic, but they also show good design and business sense," says Thomas P. Conley, executive director and chief operating officer of the Rosemont, Ill.-based association. "Most of the products could be manufactured with current technology or the next generation of current technology."

Among the 183 entries -- all from undergraduates in accredited design programs -- were an organic waste disposal, a vacuum cleaner for smooth floors, a hair dryer for pets, a pincushion and ++ a sonar-sensing ironing system.

"I was impressed with the students' attention to detail," says Marilyn Johnson, an industrial designer with Regal Ware cookware company in Kewaskum, Wis., and one of five judges for the contest. "I also was struck by the variety of the projects. There's a lot of invention in the minds of these students, and that's good news for the design profession and housewares manufacturers."

Here's a look at some of the top student entries, which were displayed at the recent International Housewares Show in Chicago:

* Expandable mini-microwave (first place)

Erin Grassie had a big idea for a small appliance.

"I set out to create a small microwave oven with the ability of a large microwave," says Ms. Grassie, 21, a junior at Arizona State University. "Right now, most microwaves [ovens] are pieces of kitchen furniture that take up counter space that people don't have, especially if they live in an apartment. And the really small microwaves are great for heating up small things, but you can't fit a plate in them."

She solved that dilemma with her expandable mini-microwave, a 15-pound appliance that is anything but obtrusive.

To make the microwave more heat-efficient, Ms. Grassie changed the shape from rectangular to round. To increase durability, she replaced the touch panel with buttons. And she developed a front cooking cavity that telescopes four inches on a horizontal track, enabling the microwave to accommodate a dinner plate.

Ms. Grassie's research included studying literature on microwave technology, visiting repair centers to find out the problems with current designs and interviewing her university's engineering faculty to learn about electronics.

"Repairmen told me that the touch panels always are wearing out," says Ms. Grassie, who will spend a third of the $3,500 prize money on a drill, drill press and hammer, so she can design products at home.

"I eliminated that problem by using buttons, which let the user choose the appropriate heat setting."

Ms. Grassie based the model microwave's electronics system on a new, but unmarketed power supply system developed by the Toshiba Corp., which she read about in an electronics magazine. It's "half the weight of the power supply in a regular microwave and half the size," she says, noting her microwave could be mass produced today using conventional electronics. "Plus, it cooks 30 percent faster."

One judge, Ken Foran, vice president of research and development for Rubbermaid Office Products Division in Maryville, Tenn., hailed Ms. Grassie's microwave as a pragmatic solution to the energy and space problems that conventional microwaves present.

"Everything about it is based in reality," he says. "It could be produced and manufactured."

Meanwhile, Ms. Grassie hopes the housewares industry recognizes the importance of conserving space and maximizing energy.

"Consumers need appliances that are small but powerful," says Ms. Grassie, who will take her winning entry to the Amient Fair in Frankfurt, Germany, a leading international home-goods show, in February. "Something like my microwave incorporates the best of both. In American design today, I think it's almost a case of over-design and under-research. People design a product so it's 'more' and 'better,' instead of thinking, 'What does the consumer want and need?' "

* Picnic cart (second place)

Ah, the problem with picnics.

You have to pack and haul a bulky cooler.

You have to tote a heavy blanket -- or, worse, a clumsy, fold-up table.

And then you have to hope that the ground you find is flat enough so your soda doesn't spill the second you set it down.

Well, Toulee Moua, a senior at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, thinks his 25-pound, plastic, foldable picnic cart has eliminated those hassles. It combines the mobility of a cart with the utility of a cooler. It's multipurpose to the max and can fit in the back seat of a car.

Store your ice and beverage in one compartment and your sandwiches, salad containers and bags of chips in another. Roll the cart on its wheels and then slide the table out when you're ready to eat.

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