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If You Design It, Will They Come?

A new design distributor tests the American market, with products that are quirky, functional, and oh-so-Japanese.

“Bringing new designs to market is a gamble,” says Kip Kotzen, founder of Neo-Utility, a just-launched design distributor, which aims to plant new products in museum stores and niche retailers across the country. That risk is true of almost any product, but for high-design products especially: Since the market remains relatively tiny and rarefied, it’s nearly impossible to reach any great economies of scale. And that’s particularly true in America, where the market still hasn’t bridged the gap between niche retailers, and mass market behemoths like Target.

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So starting Neo-Utility, even in a booming economy, was a dicey proposition; Kotzen, though he’s worked at Vitra and Areaware, still can’t say exactly what’s going to be a hit: “It’s more about a personal attraction, and trusting it.” He just has to trust his gut. Neo-Utility’s first collection reflect Kotzen’s taste for function, over decoration; he’s working with several design companies such as Anything and IDEA, which have won mountains of awards elsewhere but whose products remain almost unseen, stateside.

Here’s a look at what he’s hitching his star to:

Anything is the outcome of a collaboration between British designer Michael Sodeau and the Japanese company Suikosha, and recently won a Red Dot Best of the Best award. The idea was to create an entire “architectural landscape” of objects that look distinct but complementary, like a well-designed city skyline:

ANYTHING

You can think of IDEA International as Muji’s funkier younger brother. They’ve got a range of colorful knick-knacks, many of which were actually designed by Muji contributors. For example: The travel clock you see below is by Industrial Facility. It’s smaller than the picture suggests, fitting into the palm of your hand:

IDEA

Very Good and Proper is a design trio featuring alums of Thorsten van Elten and Established & Sons, and they aim to be a kind of grown-up Ikea, producing inexpensive products that have maximum functionality and looks, using the barest minimum of materials:

Very Good and Proper

The Boskke Sky Planter, designed by Patrick Morris, is probably Neo-Utility’s most immediately lovable offering. Your plants sit upside down, thanks to a collar that holds the soil in place. (Video here.) A reservoir up top waters the plants gradually:

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Patrick Morris

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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