Thomas Both & The Art of Tableless Dining
Mix and mingling at cocktail parties, couch lounging on movie night, and eating Sunday breakfast in bed just got a whole lot easier with Thomas Both’s Ooma Bowl design. “It struck me that all the plateware we use is designed for tables, yet often we eat without a table. So my point of view was to design something that is suited for eating without one, and to do it in an elegant way.”
Thomas earned his BS in Engineering at Harvey Mudd College and shortly after worked as a mechanical engineer for three years. Yet as a person who was a bit more right-minded, Thomas recognized that he held a creative heart, and wanted to finally wear it on his sleeve. He was admitted to Design School at Stanford University, which paved his way to teaching innovative designs at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. “Now, I work much more as a designer than an engineer, but both play a part.”
Observing small living spaces was how Thomas’ inspiration behind the Ooma Bowl came about. After speaking to people living in small apartments he was inspired by the idea of tableless dining. Thomas realized that most non-table plateware lacked a level of elegance, such as bad TV dinner trays or strange party plates. Soon, he turned these discussions and observations into a real life design solution.
Thomas believes that a strong perspective helps design a unique product. He didn’t want to just make a cool looking bowl; he wanted the design to be tied in with a direct purpose. In the early stages of designing the bowl, a friend of Thomas’ broke his leg and was stuck in the hospital for a quite a while. Because the Ooma Bowl was “a bowl that’s designed to be held” without the use of a table, Thomas took this opportunity to have his bedridden friend become one of his first experimental guinea pigs. “I called him up. While everyone else was checking if he was okay and visiting him, I asked him if he’d test out my prototypes. He liked the feeling of being locked into the bowl, not holding it but the bowl holding you.”
Thomas brought his designs to the next level of actual production. At first, he had no experience with ceramics. “Except maybe in grade school messing around with clay. It was a dining design project that just so happened to end up in a ceramic piece.” He had to learn about slip casting, working with clay, glazing, and firing all at once. After rough prototype after rough prototype, including failed plastic forming attempts, Thomas finally made the first buck out of REN shape into two pieces. “One side on a lathe, and the other just sort of by eye and feel.” He then glued the sides’ backs together and made adjustments. The next iteration he worked on was stacking and getting a nice feel in the hand, which was much more work than he ever anticipated.
Once the design was perfected into its brilliant form, Thomas found a manufacturer in Los Angeles, but just as it was a difficult process to design the perfect bowl, it was probably an even more nerve racking time to manage the products. “Selling and managing production, storage, sales, and shipping is a lot of work. I had way too many boxes in our living room for a long time. That part wasn’t so much fun for me; it was more of an on-going nuisance.”
Yet, after only a short hiatus, Thomas is proud to see that the Ooma Bowl sought its way back out into the world, licensed, and it’s now an exclusive item on the UncommonGoods site. Sarah Stenseng, our Senior Product Development Associate who attended Stanford with Thomas, worked with him to get the Ooma Bowls back into production. Thomas says, “The Ooma bowl would probably still be sitting on the sidelines if it wasn’t for UncommonGoods.”
Thomas’ advice for designers who are producing a product from just a simple idea is to “get engaged and excited about how people do things and how they think within a certain domain , and pay attention. Opportunities will emerge. Then you have to try things. Make stuff. It can be crappy, you’re just working on the concept. Work your way to a product idea that you’re excited about and other people love. Then you can bring more refinement to it and move toward manufacturing.”