A “Konversation” with Modko

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Raising a cat is not easy, and cleaning up after one is even more difficult. Messy litter boxes have long been the headache of many a cat lover but Modko, a New York-based company that creates products for the modern home, has both you and your favorite feline in mind. Modko’s Modkat Litter Box has been, and continues to be, a creative solution combines clever engineering and aesthetic sense. Modkat is a top-entry litter box, and a space saver in any urban home. Other products from Modko include Flip Litter Box, a front-entry alternative, and Katch Litter Mat.
The creative minds behind Modko belong to Brett Teper and Richard Williams, two very inspired individuals who each bring over 15 years of experience from working in the design industry.
Join GBlog in our conversation with Brett as he tells great stories behind Modko’s products, reveals where Modko is headed next, and even shares a few tales from his own creative journey.

When did you decide to start Modko? Was Modkat the catalyst to Modko?
Rich and I actually had a graphic design business before Modko. At the time, Rich’s wife was pregnant and couldn’t tend to the cat anymore, so cleaning the litter box became his responsibility. He was fed up with the litter box they had and one day his wife asked, “Why don’t you design one?” Rich came in the next day and pitched the idea to me.
I had product design experience, but hadn’t applied it very much in my career. We started sketching some ideas, but were busy with the other business. Once we got to a place when we thought it was a viable product, we thought, “We have to do this or else we’re going to regret it,” and we went all in. We launched Modkat, got this amazing response, and were selling them really well. And we though to ourselves, “Why don’t we just do this and start a company?”

Was it difficult at first to balance the business aspect of starting a company and the more intuitive, creative drive?
We had to learn the manufacturing and logistics side of things and also the financial aspect. We actually lucked out though, since we had a relationship with a manufacturer in Taiwan from a previous project. When we started with Modkat, we flew out to Taiwan to meet with him, and he was excited about the idea. He actually started his own company and that was the beginning of it. There are many elements to starting a company, and this was just one of them. We always laugh because we had always said, “it’s so cool, why can’t everyone do this?”, but now we think, “god, it’s so difficult, how can anybody do this?”

When working together, how do you and Rich collaborate or divide the work?
In our graphic design business before this, Rich was always the print guy and I was always the online web and 3D guy. On paper, we always say that Rich is in charge of the brand and that I oversee the
engineering and process of making the product. Ultimately, Modko is a two-man show, so we share our responsibilities and work.

Nowadays, what is a typical day at work?
Each day has different challenges, ranging from writing text for the website one day and working Quickbooks the next. A good day for us is when we are brainstorming and really designing. That’s our goal: to do that as often as possible, get out of the office to look for inspiration, or go to the opening of a new place. We have the types of brains that make us really think about everything we see and touch.

Are there particular aspects of your studio space that help ignite passion and inspiration?
We are in the penthouse of a building in the Financial District, and we have windows on three sides of the studio. It is a very small studio, 600 square feet, but we hang any ideas or sketches we have on a huge pin-up board on a wall. For things that inspire us, we either clip magazines or download it to put up on the wall. We put post-it notes on everything and just have discussions in front of the wall.
We have also become very dependent on a piece of software called Evernote, which has become a place where we can collaborate when we are not in the office and need to bounce ideas off each other.

Is there anything else that the two of you find absolutely essential to your studio?
Foamcore. We go through a lot of foamcore. Sometimes modeling clay, and sometimes we work in wood depending on the shape and size of the product. We work in Solidworks and Illlustrator… I’ve become sort of a master at rendering in Illustrator. I never thought that I’d be doing 3D drawing in Illustrator, but that became a pretty important tool for me. Another huge thing is a millimeter-to-inch conversion because when working with Asia, you have to work in millimeters. I’m starting to learn the ways of the rest of the world!

So, how would you describe the style of Modko’s products?
I would definitely say that we’re minimalist and modern, and that it’s all about functionality and keeping it simple, clean, and modern. People have always told us that our style looks German or Swedish, while other people say that it looks Japanese. I just like to say that it’s modern and fresh. At Modko, we like to add some thoughtful features. For instance, on Flip, we added feet as a way of making a large object feel less cumbersome. By lifting it off the floor we add a little shadow to it, and in turn, make it seem smaller to the eye than it actually is. Scale is really important to us since we primarily design for an urban environment.

Are there any principles of design that form the “ten commandments” at Modko?
Well, we don’t have ten of them, [laughs] but our three main goals are:

1)  they have to work better;
2)  they have to look better; and
3)  most of all, they have to be something that we personally would buy on the market.

We’re not big about taking something that is out there and making it look a little bit different. We want to design things that we can make work or look substantially different. In terms of testing that function, do you go through multiple iterations of design, or take it to friends for product trials?
The first product Modkat was a response to a need from Rich. His cats were sort of the test bed, but then as we had actual prototypes, we started lending them out to friends. I had a neighbor with a kitten at that time, and Rich has a large cat – I believe the cat was over 16 pounds – so there was range in the type of audience. And also, Rich was testing two cats, so that was really important as well. We wanted to make sure Modkat would accommodate a wide variety of cats.

Flip was the product that succeeded Modkat. Was that something that naturally came about?
We had a lot of potential customers that had these preconceived notions that their cats would not use the top-entry. There were some valid concerns that some cats were old or heavier such that they wouldn’t be able to use Modkat. We decided to come out with another option that would satisfy this market of customers.

One thing we’re curious about is the different liners for Modkat and Flip. What were the reasons behind the materials that were chosen?
With Modkat, we explored every material you can imagine for the liner. We didn’t want to use a plastic bag because they rip a lot, they are wasteful and unsightly. We wanted something that could stand on its own in the box. The Modkat liner has a band that travels the circumference of the box, so it stays snug. With Flip, that kind of band would not be as successful because of the shape. And, the price was too high, as Flip is about half the cost. We needed an alternate solution, something more rigid and economical. We were really inspired by shirt boxes from the dry cleaners and takeout boxes from WholeFoods, they folded flat, were seamless and were coated to be liquid tight. A simple inexpensive solution! Actually, we like it so much, we’re designing a way to use it inside of Modkat as well.

The fill meter on the liner is very cute as well; it’s such a great idea!
We always laugh about that because people ask us all the time about how much litter to use. We get people saying, “Oh, it’s such a mess inside”, and they’ll send us a picture of their litter box, and they’ll send us a picture of two pebbles of litter in there. We just figured, why does it have to be guesswork? Since we have to print on the liner anyway, we might as well indicate it on there.

Katch litter mat is shipping this month; can you tell us about its conception?
The last time we were in Taiwan, we visited two different manufacturers and were looking at silicone and TPR (they use it for the sole of sneakers). Instantly we got inspired by that material, since it was springy and would be comfortable for the cat’s paws. We wanted something that looked sophisticated and worked with Flip. The shape of Katch is actually the same as the lid of Modkat to achieve consistency between our products. Divots on the mat and the walls on the side catch the litter and keep it in place. There are two handles that are on the side and a spout in the front so that when you pick it up with two hands, the litter will fall into the center of the mat and out the front.

It sounds looks like a lot of thought went into the litter mat!
I think we worked on the mat longer than we worked on Flip. You conceive this product in an hour, and you think it’s perfect, but six months later, you’re still working on it.

And what ideas are currently in the works at Modko?
We always have a million things going on, but the main one is a dog product called Shake. Shake is an answer to the indoor dog potty. The problem that we found with products currently on the market is that they are kind of nasty to clean. Our concept for Shake is that it is like a small briefcase that folds open into two grids. The dog goes on there like a standard grid dog potty. At the end of the day, you fold it up – so you never have to touch it. It seals shut and has a fill cap on the side. You fill it with water with a little soap if needed, close it and shake, and then dump it out into the toilet. Shake works really well, but is also great for traveling. When your dog gets comfortable with it, you can take it wherever you go.

Are there any other conventional items that you’re itching to redesign?
I mentioned the toilet seat – we’re calling that Lou – and we got pretty far with it though it wasn’t quite where we wanted it. It has kind of been pushed aside, but I think in a few years, we’re going to retackle that idea of doing a toilet seat. It’s going to be a big thing for us.

Is there anything else happening with Modko?
Well, I could talk forever about Modko, but one of the exciting things for us right now – and we’re crossing our fingers – is that we’re actually looking to start warehousing some of our products ourselves. We currently outsource our warehousing to a facility on the west coast, but we would love to have our hands on the products before they go out to our customers for quality assurance and potentially to personalize some of the packages. We actually have a bid on a warehouse space in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Now, a personal question. Are there any favorite design pieces that you particularly like? For example, the Eames Chair or the Noguchi Table?
I love all the Eames stuff; that’s an easy one. One of the biggest things for me was the Aeron Chair. When I was in college studying industrial design, I actually met one of the designers, Bill Stumpf, and he was in the process of designing it at that time. He talked to us about it and we all thought it looked cool, but we didn’t really know what it was at the time. After I had graduated, I was walking down the street in SoHo one day near a store called Modernica, and they had one in the window! I stood there in awe staring at the thing, and I was a fresh graduate, just moved into the city with no money. I talked to the lady of the store, and she said, “You know, we just got a shipment of them in, but they’re all kind of called for right now. If you’re interested, I could sell you one and tell someone else they have to wait.” I asked her how much it was, and she told me $1,200. And I had no money… but I ended up walking out the door with it. And I still sit on the chair to this very day.

One last request: tell us a little about Modko TV! Those videos get a get responses — are you planning any new features?
We found that some of those videos have hundreds of thousands of hits, and they are amazing marketing tools for us and great tutorials for our customers. We are producing a Modkat commercial campaign, and have just put some music to it. It’s awesome!

Can’t get enough of Modko? Meet the Modkats (our furry friends) by checking out the video campaign.

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Kimberly is a graduate from MIT's Department of Architecture, and has recently joined the publication team at MIT OpenCourseWare. While architecture remains her first love, her interests encompass literature – epic poetry and Medieval romances are her favorite – and also fashion.


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