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It's the kitchen, Jim, but not as we know it

It's the kitchen, Jim, but not as we know it
Best Awards John Britten black pin winner Mark Elmore is an assuming and unsung hero of Kiwi industrial design.

John Britten black pin winner Mark Elmore is an unassuming and unsung hero of Kiwi industrial design.

Twenty-eight years on and still innovating. Understanding the user is at the heart of Elmore's design philosophy

When John Hatrick-Smith made the decision to travel to Wellington to offer a certain Wellington Polytechnic School of Design student a position at Fisher & Paykel, he probably couldn’t have predicted the impact his new hire would have on the business. In his 28 years working for the company, he’s managed to transform it from a traditional engineering company that manufactured whiteware for a mainly domestic market, to a modern, multi-award winning design-led company that produces innovative user-centered products for people around the world. 

One judge describes him as a revolutionary figure in the industrial design industry, albeit a quiet and unassuming one. That’s a whole lot of kudos for Fisher & Paykel’s head of industrial design Mark Elmore, this year’s Best Awards John Britten Black Pin winner. You’d be forgiven for thinking all these accolades might have gone to Elmore’s head, but if there’s one message you’ll hear time and time again from his peers, it’s that Elmore is one of the nicest blokes you’ll ever meet.  

Fisher & Paykel senior industrial designer Mike Jensen has been working with Elmore for 17 years, so he’s developed a decent insight into what makes Elmore tick. While he pays tribute to Elmore’s  ‘nice guy’ creds, he says they’re backed by an equally driven personality that’s not afraid to dabble in all parts of the Fisher & Paykel business, with his influence “integrated right through the company”. 

In a crowded market where outsourcing manufacturing to lower wage countries is commonplace, Jensen says moving beyond innovation has been imperative. People expect innovation from their appliances, so you have to focus more on the brand and the lifestyle opportunities for customers – a philosophy Elmore has been instrumental in implementing. 

“Mark’s always been a real advocate to show that we need to be better, we need to be different and we need to really understand the customer,” says Jensen. “Otherwise we wouldn’t survive against tough competition, because we’re only a small company relative to our competitors.” 

But Elmore is adamant that simply having a good idea matched with determination isn’t going to cut it if you want to create a world-beating product. You need to factor in what people from Berlin to Boston want to buy, which means taking a more methodical approach to developing great products based on a deep insight of what excites customers and designing a product to meet that need.  

With a particular penchant for the physical and architectural changes that have occurred in the kitchen, as well as the sociological and psychological ways in which kitchens have changed to become the social hub of the home, understanding the user is at the heart of Elmore’s design philosophy. A great believer in user studies even before they were commonplace, he’s always wanted to create desirable products that fitted into the design of the home and the lives lived around it. 

“If you ask people what their problems are, they will tell you what they think they are,” says Elmore. “But if you watch them you’ll realise there are other problems they have learnt to work around.”

Under Elmore’s leadership, the company has been making waves on the international appliance market, with its dishdrawer the first major commercial success story to be carried on Elmore’s user-centered philosophy. 

Jensen describes the ergonomic design features of the dishdrawer as an obvious example of user-led design because “no-one likes bending down to load dishes”. Based on customer insight and a healthy dose of commonsense, the stylish drawers can be placed up high and side-by-side for easy access. 

The success of the pioneering design has been pivotal in driving export sales into the US and Europe and in establishing a completely new market for dishwashers — the singles market, empty nesters and also importantly, for the Jewish market, where dishes used for dairy and meat meals need to be separated.

Other design successes include the easy clean Izona Cooksurface and most recently, the Designer 90cm Oven. “Many of these products have become important parts of the landscape of New Zealand domestic life and relieved us of drudge work and kept us clean, healthy and well nourished,” says one judge. “He is an unsung hero who deserves to be recognised and his contribution celebrated.”

Drive, leadership, vision, creativity, skill, energy and discipline are all qualities a John Britten Black Pin winner must have. Good thing Elmore has them in bucket loads.