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And the winner of Idealog + Studio ZQ's 2019 Wool-ovation competition is... Becs Bartells' wool coffins

After a day spent in Christchurch with all of the Idealog + Studio ZQ finalists pitching their ideas, the grand winner of the competition has been chosen. Congratulations to Becs Bartells, who will see her design for strongwool coffins be developed as a product in the New Zealand Merino Company’s innovation space, Studio ZQ, while also jetting off on a trip to San Francisco to meet some movers and shakers in the industry to help inspire her and further her concept. Here, we have a chat to Bartells about her winning design.

Back in June, Idealog and the New Zealand Merino Company joined forces to celebrate the opening of its Studio ZQ innovation space in Christchurch and our design community’s talents by asking our audience to design a product that harnessed the potential of strongwool.

The power of a deadline saw the entries flooding in at the last minute, with 92 entries and 783 people’s choice votes. Judges from both parties deliberated and narrowed it down to nine finalists with a diverse range of product ideas, as well as one People’s Choice winner.

The finalists then gathered in Christchurch at Studio ZQ on Friday – some by video call, and some in person – to pitch their idea in four minutes to the judges. To narrow it down to the very best idea, judges from Pāmu, Studio ZQ and Idealog posed the following questions to the finalists:

  1. The problem – What is the underlying problem that is being solved? What does the concept do that is fresh and valuable?
  2. Viability – What is the market opportunity? How scalable is the concept? How will you make money?
  3. Opportunity for wool - How will this benefit strong wool growers, e.g. volume, value, global positioning? What does wool bring to the idea to make it unique?
  4. Market familiarity – How potent are the competitors?
  5. Potential for impact – Wow well does the concept addresses an important social or environmental problem, how will this be measured?
  6. Where to next - What are you going to do in the next week, month, year?
  7. ZQ (X) factor – Judge’s discretion

While judges agreed that the diversity and depth of designs was absolutely brilliant, there could only be one winner. Motherload nappies and the Insulating Beehive Cover designs were given a highly commended award, while Becs Bartells’ strongwool coffins was crowned the winning entry.

Thanks to our friends at the New Zealand Merino Company, Bartells wins travel and accommodation to Christchurch worth up to $1200 to take part in a one-week immersion in Studio ZQ working with the team to develop her ideas over the course of a week, as well as a five-day all expenses paid trip to San Francisco, USA worth up to $6000, where she'll be meeting with experts such as Professor Baba Shiv, professor of marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Alex Castellarnau, a user experience and design executive who has led creative teams at IDEO, Dropbox and NIO. 


Bartells'  award-winning entry 



Mini-prototypes of the coffin design

“I was excited, and I wasn’t expecting it actually,” Bartells says. “I want to do some positive things in the funeral industry with the caskets. I think I’ll learn a lot from being down there [in Christchurch at Studio ZQ] and what you can do with wool, so I’m quite excited.”

Bartells is an industrial designer based in Auckland with her own studio. She says she left full-time work four years ago as she hated the corporate world, and has since been painting, designing and illustrating, as well as tinkering with a few start-up ideas.

“I’ve found what I love doing – creating stuff that ends up in the real world,” she says. “I’m poor as hell but very happy.”

A recent business idea she’d been working on went pear shaped, so she started focusing her efforts on developing the idea of coffins that are better for the environment than what’s available at present.

“It started with my grandma’s funeral – I thought, ‘Is there an opportunity to do something that’s affordable for people but environmentally friendly?’” Bartells says.

“The current coffins marketed as being environmentally friendly, but are they really? I’ve spoken to funeral homes and I think there’s a lot of opportunity there in the industry, it’s pretty archaic.

“They all do things the same way – there’s no innovation happening. No one asks questions because people are grieving, so they take what they’re given. For me, I see some opportunity.”

She says had been researching for about a year on whether cardboard coffins were a viable idea through marketing validation, prototyping and seeking investment, when she saw the Wool-ovation competition.

“I already had the idea but I saw the Wool-ovation competition and thought, that could actually work well with strongwool, as it’s tough and used in carpets, so I did some prototyping.”

The strongwool caskets design

Bartells’ design is a pitched as an eco-friendly alternative to Medium Density Fibreboard (MDF) and wood caskets that are already on the market.

Seeing as one tree is needed to manufacture five caskets, she says cutting down a tree to make a casket that is just going to be buried or cremated again makes no sense environmentally.

“Wool is commonly used for the liners and dressings of caskets. But why not make the entire casket from this?” she says. “Wool has emotive attributes as it’s softer and provides a more comforting send-off to the hardened and rigid aesthetics of a timber or MDF caskets. So, a wool casket is not just a greener, eco-friendly solution. It has a more emotional appeal to the traditional caskets in the market, which can appear quite cold.”


Becs with the miniprototypes 


Testing the cardboard casket structure to 240kg

The design is made from 100 percent New Zealand strongwool with a recycled cardboard structure and a padded wool layer lining the base, sides and lid.

When it comes to the funeral industry, the business of death is always booming. Figures from Statistics NZ show that there were 33,342 deaths in 2017, while New Zealand’s death rate is 7.55 per 1000 people. The market need is there, while trends such as the circular economy and more environmentally aware consumers are forcing traditional industries to innovate.

“Wool caskets solve a serious environmental problem in regards to the manufacturing of traditional caskets and the impact that current casket or coffin manufacturing has on our environment, including deforestation,” Bartells says.

Where to next

Bartells says the next steps to take in the design process are to continue product development at Studio ZQ by making mini-prototypes from cardboard and strongwool.

She has already created mini-prototypes with cardboard and wool felt to explore what they could look like, which she showed the judges during her presentation.

There’s also still room for other designs to explore, too. Bartells had a couple of different entries in the mix for the Wool-ovation Competition, and she says she’d like to further develop these.

“I have an ideas list, I wake up in the night with ideas and put them on my phone. This idea stuck with me because all coffins look the same,” she says.

“This is exciting and we’ll see what comes from what this, it’s a matter of not spreading myself too thin.”

Other than her own design, she says her favourite out of the bunch was the Wool Beehive Cover, which was highly commended by judges.

“It was quite tangible and could be implemented reasonably quickly. There was a lot of thought put into that.”

For now, Bartells will head down to Christchurch soon to develop her idea with the New Zealand Merino Company at Studio ZQ, and she also has her trip to San Francisco to look forward to.

And her advice for people quitting the corporate world for creative pursuits, like starting a product company?

“Get used to living life on the edge. If you want security, it might not be what you want to be doing – but it’s bloody fun,” she says.

The other finalists have also been offered the opportunity by the New Zealand Merino Company to continue to develop their ideas at Studio ZQ. Be sure to check back to Idealog for more updates on how these ideas – including the strongwool coffins – are progressing. 

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