For the Love of Objects

Industrial designer Sean Simmons has spent three decades creating innovative solutions

and elegant designs for the stuff of everyday life.

by Tom Wofford

Artco-Bell stacking chair. A collaboration between Dorsey Cox Design and Objective Design to design the first institutional ergonomic stacking chair system

Consumers have always been emotionally attached to certain products, tools and machines that share our lives, make our lives easier and, when of a certain quality and style, become objects we think of as meaningful extensions of our personalities.

From our automobiles and kitchen appliances to the continually evolving cell phones, computers and plethora of other personal information devices that help define our identities, some products have the power to create unique personal bonds with us.

When future archeologists excavate our present-day age, these are the items they will put in museums, the fruits of the hard work and ingenuity of industrial designers, someone like Sean Simmons of Chelsea.

“One of things I learned early on as a creative person is that only in my career is there an opportunity to do something to impact an object’s use, how it’s manufactured, its design, and how it can introduce innovation into the marketplace,” Simmons says.

Born in Canada to parents from the British Isles, Simmons lived in at least three other states before coming to Birmingham during the seventh grade in the early 1970s. After graduating Hoover’s Berry High School, Simmons went to Auburn University to study aviation management. “I wanted to design airports, and aviation management wasn’t a field you could study just anywhere,” he says.

Simmons had a friend majoring in industrial design, “and I helped him on a lot of his projects,” Simmons says. “I eventually just gravitated to it.” With his new degree in industrial design, Simmons moved to New York in 1981, where he began work for what would become an impressive string of design houses.

Southern Research Institute

Simmons’ first work might not be considered particularly glamorous, but it has been of great benefit to patients and physicians for decades: designing magnetic resonance imaging machines.

“The key thing we identified in research was the possibility of extreme claustrophobia for the patient, so we did a sort of landscape orientation with open architecture for the machines,” Simmons says. Such design considerations, like the rounded, “organic” shape of these diagnostic behemoths, “work together to make the experience as easy as possible on the patient,” he says.

Simmons had a two-decade run in New York, working with some of the most illustrious design groups and creating furniture, lighting and a long list of consumer appliances, everything from shelving, Rubbermaid containers and disposable plasticware that passes at a glance for cut-glass crystal, to space-age humidifiers and elegant space heaters that would look equally at home in a science-fiction film or in your own drafty bathroom.

Windchaser fan for the Sharper Image Catalogue. Unit has random oscillation and speed to simulate a natural breeze.

For close-quarter fish fries, Simmons designed a deep fryer “without the deep,” he says. “It uses half the space of a typical fryer,” rotating inside to get the job done with less oil.

A Simmons-designed household brush employs ergonomics to put the most pressure on the work surface with the least amount of the user’s elbow grease. A flashlight he designed uses notches on the lip so that, when propped on end, it floods light in a 360-degree corona to keep illumination on the work site.

If Simmons’ work were not so impressively expansive, it would be tempting to call him Mr. Coffeemaker. Simmons has created a collection of innovative, and equally beautiful, coffee makers for a sting of top-drawer manufacturers — Melita, Sunbeam-Oster, Hamilton Beach and, of course, Mr. Coffee. (Simmons is also responsible for a particularly beautiful toaster oven for high-end manufacturer Delonghi.)

After more than 20 years in New York, Simmons moved his wife, Ann, and their three kids to Chelsea in 2003. Sean and Ann, a Livingston, Ala., native who met Sean while they were students at Auburn, wanted to be closer to their aging parents. “We like New York, but we wanted our children to also have a different kind of experience,” Simmons says. “And they have all loved it.”

Simmons runs his studio, Objective Design, out of an office in the family’s Shelby County home.

While the fields of industrial design and architecture share a great deal of philosophical ground, “Industrial design is more likely to have a single defined client, to involve a known object, an identified market and established manufacturing processes,” Simmons says. “Those are the factors that will inform and inspire the design.”

Humidifier for DeLonghi, Italy. The vertical humidifier uses the fan more to drive a shaft and impeller to pump water to the top of the filter/wich rather than capillary wicking to increase life of filter and allow for a taller wick allowing the unit to be placed on the floor and not on furniture.

“Sometimes the changes are incremental, sometimes they can be revolutionary, but they are usually always evolving,” he says.

Considering the enormous impact the discipline has on everyday life, industrial design is almost unknown to the public, and the achievements of the Industrial Design Department at Auburn University are rarely heralded outside members of the field.

“Industrial design at Auburn has a long history, and it’s been a strong program from the start,” says Dr. Vini Nathan, dean of Auburn’s College of Architecture, Design and Construction since last summer.

Founded in 1945, Auburn’s industrial design program was one of the country’s first such programs and among the first to achieve national accreditation. “Our early faculty came out of the Bauhaus and Ulm schools of design in Germany, and they built the program correctly from the beginning,” Nathan says. She noted that DesignIntelligence has ranked Auburn industrial design in the national top ten for 10 consecutive years.

Industrial design head Clark Lundell says the department’s focus is largely on innovation. “We’re continually facing new technologies, new resources, and we work to integrate them into the everyday,” he says. “We use that strategy to bring to the competitive world market a sense of uniqueness.” He points out emphatically that “innovation has to be palatable to the consumers’ taste. You can innovate all day, but it has to be sensitive to the market, sensitive to the issues at hand, for the product to be successful.”

The department has collaborated with more than 50 industry partners over the last 15 years, companies like 3M, IBM, Frigidaire, Emerson and Eastman. Lundell is particularly pleased with the Personal Equipment Restraint System his students helped design to overcome the challenges of working in weightlessness. It’s been in use throughout the International Space Station for almost a decade.

For Viante Home Products. Developed a substancially improved coffee maker via propriety technologies in order to deliver the coffee experience of European processes with the convenience of automatic drip machines.

Innovative solutions are what Simmons has built his reputation on for three decades, and as much fresh thought as he has brought to the design of the domestic java machine, Simmons still sees lots of room for improvement.

“There is still so much opportunity with coffee and coffeemakers,” Simmons says. “Current drip makers are convenient and fast, but they do not give you the rich, full coffee experience you get from actually brewing it.” Simmons has new designs that can change all that, to remove the limitation of drip makers and bring rich, European,  coffeehouse-style coffee into the kitchens of everyday Americans. Simmons is reviewing possible investors to fund the manufacture of his new, innovative designs.

The flavor of the coffee will certainly make these products hot, but it’s Simmons’ design that will make them a cool (and affordable) addition to your kitchen.

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