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April 22, 2009

Otis, my man.

Some of the most heated discussions I’ve been involved in at DWR have been over naming products. People take this very seriously, and yet, we all know that the name is forgotten as soon as the customer gets the product home. I seriously doubt that anyone says “Andrew, how many times do I have to ask you to get your elbows off the Spanna Extension Table and put your Fog Linen Napkin on your lap? Shape up or I’ll send you to your Matera Bed with Storage without dinner.”

Dare to dream, DWR.

At least I don’t have to name cars. This morning I idled behind a Toyota Rogue (are they kidding?) and pitied the poor bastard who came up with that one. Actually, make that two poor bastards. Toyota used the name in the 1980s and Nissan recently slapped it on the back tailgate of their compact SUV.

Nail polish colors would be fun to name, and I’d suggest the name “Less is more,” in case anyone from Revlon is reading. Naming lingerie would also be enjoyable (again, I suggest “Less is more” as the name).

At DWR, the name “Otis” was recently suggested for a new table we’ll be introducing. My mind immediately went to elevators and “Otis, my man!” in Animal House. Generally, we try to avoid using personal names because: 1. It’s too much like other retailers, and 2. If a customer has a bad association with a name – an ex-boyfriend or a mean boss, for example – then that product is not going to elicit feelings of serenity and relaxation.

Of course, we make exceptions, so you can stay seated in your Ray Club Chair and keep reading rather than emailing me to point out this fact. (That goes for you lounging on the Albert Sofa as well.) So, I gave some thought to Otis. Mostly I wondered how Otis Elevators got their name. It turns out that Otis was the last name of the man who founded the company in 1853. Elisha Graves Otis did not invent the elevator, but rather, he invented a safety mechanism that prevented these “lifting platforms” from plummeting to the ground. (Kudos to them for not choosing to use his middle name.)

The company made its first elevator sale to a furniture factory at 275 Hudson Street in New York City. The price was $300, and it was partially paid for with a cannon. Otis elevators were originally powered by steam, in the 1870s they switched to hydraulic elevators that relied on water pressure, and in 1889 the first electric elevator was installed. This innovative company also solved the problem of how to install an elevator into the curved lower legs of the Eiffel Tower. The solution was a hybrid of sorts – part elevator, part inclined railroad similar to funicular lifts used on steep hillsides. The Otis machines went into service in 1889 in the north and south pillars, only to be dismounted in 1910. The relationship between the Otis Company and Gustave Eiffel had its ups and downs (forgive the pun), causing dramatic statements like, “we have borne and suffered and achieved on your behalf,” to be written to one another. Read more about it on the Otis website.

As far as naming conventions, the elevator had its awkward moments, from “ascending rooms” (apparently they did not descend) to “hoisting apparatus” which was the name Otis used in his 1861 patent. For our table at DWR, we named it the Metric Table – look for it in June. The name Otis will remain in my tickler file, in the event that we introduce a table or chair that’s height adjustable. For insights about our own name – Design Within Reach – read a recent blog post by our CEO.

Gwendolyn Horton


Actually, your comment on naming your products is hilarious. My husband and I bought a shelving unit from Ikea when we were first married, known as the Robin shelf. To this day, we lovingly refer to it as Robin. It's become a member of the family. A conversation might go like this, "Honey, where are my keys?", "Oh, they're on Robin." We love that little shelf! By the way, my husband and I are both designers, so we love product names and one day hope to own a Barcelona chair of our very own.

I love the stories behind the names of people and products, but what moved me to comment is that the name in question here is Otis. My two year old son is named Otis and oddly enough my husband came up with the name because of the "Otis, my man" quote you referenced from Animal House. Of course it has nothing to do with an obsession with the movie, but a love of the name. And it always elicits a strong response; people either love it or are puzzled by it. I take delight in both.

So keep the name in your tickler file and I hope you use it someday on something he'd like to use. The height adjustable chair is an excellent idea...

Oops, forgot to mention Mirra, don't want to hurt his feelings.

I name companies and products for a living--yes, that is my job description--so I got a particular kick out of this post. You're certainly correct that some products are more fun to name than others. One of my more enjoyable assignments was for a well-known ladies' unmentionables company. The creative process was delightful, but I regret to say the client was not as smitten as I was with my favorite name, "Bra Mitzvah."

You are probably too young to remember or don't live where people bought American cars, but the American Motors Rambler American had a higher trim level on the hardtop model called the Rogue. It was quite successful in its day, from 1965 to 1969. I can find no confirmation that Toyota ever used the name, nor do I recall ever seeing it used, until the Nissan. I wonder if they even know the meaning of the word?

When I think of Otis, it was always the elevator, as they were very common in the better Detroit Office buildings.I guess my knowledge and memory go back more than 15 years.

I think IKEA has gone over the top on using silly names. If they were named after the actual designer, design manager, or the look of the design, it might make more sense. I would just as soon live without the "designer" name, if the design was actually affordable!

My vote is for a table....a coffee table that raises and turns into a dining table. The perfect table for small spaces and the name otis!

My kids have always grown up with "Go place that book on the "Nelson," or go sit in the "Eames."

Our mid-century furniture are part of our conversation now just as one might talk of the family pet.

Great Post. Regarding Otis and elevators. A secretary at a firm I worked for when I moved to town was was puzzled when the elevator company (Otis) came to do mainenance on the elevators. There were three men there to do the service. After they left I walked up to her desk and she said "David, can you belive all three of those guys names were Otis?!" She was referring to the company name patch stitched on there work shirts, obviously thinking it was their name tags.

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