Engineering Experiences

It can be easy to underestimate Scott Amron. Seated at a conference table in the Metropolis offices, setting out objects he’s created with a childlike enthusiasm, Amron seems far younger than his 32 years. He’s given to the occasional naïve pronouncement, too—“People look at you different when you wear a suit”—delivered with the sly solemnity of someone revealing a trade secret. And when you ask Amron what separates him from other industrial designers, he replies, “I’m not really a designer,” a belief he reaffirms by admitting that the invention he’s most proud of is his Fruitwash Label, because “it’s not even an object—just an experience.”

Yet as this observation suggests, beneath Amron’s appealing manner lies a singular, lucid creative vision. In the course of a circuitous, two-hour conversation, it emerges that the ultimate Scott Amron product is a perfect moment—one derived from a design object so sublime in its solution to a problem that it rings an indelible note of joy.

Not surprisingly, the designer, who grew up in the aptly named town of Plainview, New York, backed into his profession. After studying mechanical and electrical engineering at Stony Brook University on Long Island, he began creating embedded systems—“which is taking an object and making it smart,” he explains—for industrial design companies (notably the product innovation firm ECCO Design), and discovered a kinship with the product-development guys. “I didn’t realize it, but I really wanted to realize an idea,” Amron says. “I didn’t know that what I was doing was industrial design. I’d imagine a better experience, and then build an object that could facilitate that better experience.”

The newly minted designer began haunting housewares conventions, where he pitched product ideas to manufacturers. “I thought licensing was it,” Amron says. “I loved the idea of having money come in quarterly for something I wasn’t working on anymore.” The reality, alas, was disappointing: “Royalties percentages are low, and you don’t have control over what your idea turns into.” A more vexing problem was that many of Amron’s products, in his own estimation, didn’t need to exist. “For instance, I did a spoon rest that was a kitchen timer,” he says, grinning with embarrassment. “The idea was, you have to stir something every two minutes, you put the spoon on the rest, and after two minutes it would make a sound.”

The first truly Amron-esque product was also one of the first he developed himself, a nifty refrigerator-style magnet called the Endo that’s both superstrong—the Web site of Amron Experimental shows it holding up a Converse Chuck Taylor high-top—and has a push-button release so you don’t have to take it off the fridge to stick something beneath it. Amron found an equity partner to whom he sold a half-interest, and used the money to perfect the object, file a patent, and manufacture several thousand Endos, which he began selling through venues like the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. (Amron has successfully applied versions of this business model to most of his subsequent ventures.) Having it both ways, the designer also persuaded the pioneering housewares company OXO, which first embraced the universal-design model some two decades ago, to spin off a modified version called the Press Clip while continuing to market the original.

Amron excels at playing the character of himself, and this, along with his improving design skills, contributes to his success. “He knows how to sell ideas through his personality,” says Juan Escobar, the OXO product engineer with whom the designer developed the Press Clip. “He’s full of great energy, always wide-eyed and optimistic about what could be.” Escobar also appreciated the designer’s approach to product development. “He’s like one of those kooky inventors who takes an everyday problem and works it out in an elegant way.”

This is, in fact, the secret of Amron’s success. Like an artist struggling to find a subject suited to his talents, the designer became increasingly absorbed, post-Endo, in the existential question of what, exactly, he should be inventing. “I hated it when I came up with an idea to improve some object and I’d show it to someone and they’d say, ‘That’s cool, but I wouldn’t use one of those.’ It’d kill me. So I wanted to focus on universal objects.” To Amron, this meant only the most quotidian of items: “Everyone uses a key, everyone brushes their teeth—you can’t go wrong!” Accordingly, the designer began by looking at the ordinary activities in his own life to which everyone could relate, and that he felt could stand improvement. This led him to a methodology of practice. “First I try and figure out how I want an experience to go,” he explains. “Then I decide whether or not there’s an object that will facilitate that experience. Then I figure out the best way for that object to function, and how simple I can make it.”

Viewed from this perspective, the Fruitwash Label is indeed the perfect Amron invention. “Fruit labels drive me nuts—the word ‘pesky’ comes to mind,” he says. “For years, I thought, if it’s really gotta be there, it should do something.” One day, while washing an apple and struggling to peel off its label, inspiration struck. “I thought, ‘Oh, man, wouldn’t it be cool if the label helped to wash it?’” The result: a label impregnated with a produce-cleansing agent that dissolves in water and removes wax, pesticides, and bacteria—an annoyance transformed, with the utmost simplicity, into a satisfyingly clever benefit.

Amron’s Heatswell take-out coffee cup grew out of another daily-life pet peeve: the insulation cuff that’s supposed to keep your hot drink from burning your hand. “They never work, they fall off, they manufacture and ship separately, and forever I was trying to think up ways to make a new heat shield,” he says. Amron began by toying with various mechanical solutions, eventually coming up with a stackable cup the mid-section of which swells with insulation when a hot liquid is poured into it. In the designer’s comically arresting YouTube demonstration video, the thing looks like it’s having an allergic reaction. “I was approached by companies looking to spend fifty times what a normal cup costs, because it’s so cool, it’ll attract customers,” he declares.

One doesn’t doubt Amron’s desire for success. Yet the more you talk to him, the more apparent it becomes that he has a divided soul: Partly he’s the pragmatist who wants to sell to “everybody,” partly the self-contradicting American Dreamer in pursuit of tantalizing ideas. “Certain things don’t need to exist, but I get stuck on them,” he admits. “I’ve got to realize them enough so that they’re real.” By way of example he cites his Die Electric line, a surrealist selection of largely non-functional products—Off, a combination light switch/coat hook, makes the most sense: “I wanted to call attention to the fact that using electricity is certainly not cleaner than putting gas in your car.

I thought it would go somewhere, but it didn’t.” Nonetheless, Amron considers his nose-following to be essential. “Sometimes, if you keep going with a bad idea, you can grow it until it becomes something you’d never have expected.”

If there is one product that seems to embody all the designer’s impulses, it’s his six-years-in-the-making Rinser Brush, which Amron’s equity partner, Mike Mochiachvili calls “the last stop for the toothbrush industry.” The designer describes it as, “intense, like a Porsche.” This turns out to be a toothbrush with a built-in water fountain: turn on the tap, position the little channel beneath the bristle head under the water, press a button, and an eight-inch-high jet of water rises with majestic elegance from a pinhole in the handle.

Amron killed himself on it, sweating through “a Dyson amount of prototypes” to get the fountain to work consistently from sink to sink, to achieve an impressive jet height, to put control in the user’s hands. The catch is that this less-than-necessary item retails for $34.99 (the online pre-sale price, prior to the product’s November release, is $22)—and when the battery dies, you need to buy a new one.

When asked what malaise would compel someone to drop $35 on a toothbrush-slash-fountain, Amron doesn’t really have a good answer (though he points out that, eventually, the price will be between $5.99 and $8.99). He talks about the space-wasting glass on the sink, the drag of having to use your hand to rinse your mouth. But only when he describes the experience of use—“It just feels so nice”—is Amron persuasive.

“Not everything belongs in the world,” he adds. “But I really want one.” The response is telling, for what lies at the heart of Amron’s oeuvre, and augurs well for his future, is the pleasure principle. The Rinser Brush, he declares in Amron-ese, “is not neces-sarily necessary, but it’s a necessity,” partly because everyone brushes their teeth but, more to the point, “it’s fun, it adds levity to life.” It also fits into the designer’s belief in a defining trait of the national character, one Amron owns in spades: the sky’s-the-limit optimism about what American ingenuity can accomplish. “We’ve become so beaten down by the whole ‘we’re lazy, inefficient, we pollute’ thing that we’re afraid to have an impact anymore,” he believes. “What I learned from this was not to be afraid to work something through and see where it leads.”

It all adds up, not to a series of objects, but to a cohesive idea of happiness. When it’s suggested that, whether we’re brushing our teeth, washing an apple, or lifting a latte, he wants to make a small but significant transformation in how we enjoy our lives, Amron looks blissful. “What a society,” he sighs. “How cool is that?”

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