Ed Kilduff needed just four weeks to develop the prototype of the Original Rabbit Corkscrew, but the actual product didn’t hit the market until three years later. During that time, the designer shuttled back and forth between his Brooklyn apartment and China, where the corkscrew was being made. When he was home, he would wait by the fax machine for nightly updates from the factory. “Usually the message was that certain parts were too thick to mold,” he says. Back to the computer he would go, “to amend the design by millimeters, and send it back to them.”
Corkscrews play a central role in the theater of wine. Great examples are celebrated: Sommeliers love to compare them, and “best of” lists love to rate them. The design journey from sketch to a bestseller is one that demands precision, patience, and practice, and many of today’s most trusted corkscrews have a backstory full of twists and turns.
Bringing a corkscrew to life
For Kilduff, the Rabbit project was his big break — and a lucky one too: Not long out of design school, he met Bob Larimer, owner of a company called Metrokane while walking the floor of a trade show. Larimer had the soon-to-expire patent of Herbert Allen’s lever-pull corkscrew, a design based on three movements: gripping the handles around the neck of the bottle and using the lever to push the screw into the cork and back up again, a movement that pulls the cork out. The Texan engineer, who developed equipment for oil drilling, also designed the Screwpull in 1979. This Teflon-coated screw with a self- pulling effect is now in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Kilduff told Larimer he would inject a little personality. It was 1997 and blobjects, or blobby shapes, were on-trend. “I just took that look and softened it up a bit. I also made sure there were fewer parts sticking out because it’s such a mechanical device.” It was only once the full model had been built that its distinctive shape became evident. “I showed the prototype to my girlfriend, and she said that it looks like a rabbit, which I originally thought wasn’t very cool,” he says.
The speed of success caught Kilduff by surprise. “Our first production run of 10,000 pieces went to Japan and every single one of them broke,” he says, adding they “were shut out of the Japanese market for years” in consequence. Around 40 different parts were required and Kilduff recalls how, in those first days, there was always something wrong. “We had too many orders to manufacture too quickly and the question with every shipment was how big a problem we had,” he says. Eventually, the problems were solved. But, in almost every manufacturing run, the product was tweaked. “We’re taking tiny improvements, like the rubber would change or the tension of a spring would be adjusted.”
Often, it’s on seemingly microscopic details where a designer’s energy is spent. In making the OXO Vertical Lever, corkscrew lengths kept its designers up at night — more specifically, a stubborn, 49-millimeter cork that couldn’t be pulled entirely out of the bottle. The team working on the project wanted to make a product that would work on all corks, no matter their length. One of the designers, Dario Narvaez, explains that the solution involved “increasing the overall height of the corkscrew while maintaining the same ergonomics.”
Even once a corkscrew has proven itself as a sommelier or wine enthusiast’s staple, designers will tell you that there’s always room for improvement. “We’re constantly looking to reinvent classic items,” says current Rabbit Division President B.J. Stein. Many of these updates aren’t obvious and are often linked to what he calls “creative use of materials.” The latest-release Rabbit Wing Corkscrew, for instance, uses multiple grades of plastic, stainless steel, zinc, and a non-stick coating on the spiral. “This mix of materials allows you to have comfortable grip surfaces, allows the corkscrew to be secured around the bottle, helps the gears work well together, and enables the worm to go in and out of the cork with ease,” he says. Stein adds that the company has spent a lot of time trying to reinvent the geometry of how the corkscrew works, “to make the whole process easier.” In the end, he says, “We realized that we should keep to the proven design and focus on smaller features, such as material selection, weight, durability, and a bottle opener, to really set us apart from the competition.”
With so many corkscrews, what gives one, in particular, a greater chance of success in a crowded market?
“Corkscrews can be unreliable, intimidating, and uncomfortable to use,” says Lua O’Brien, OXO Category Director for Barware. “Ensuring that our design works easily, every time, on every bottle, helps give us a competitive edge.”
Janet Taylor, whose father Mark Taylor invented The Durand, says that many of today’s corkscrews are more about the sizzle and less about functionality. “The device needs to perform consistently even in the face of user error and the method of using it has to be easily taught and learned.”
Her father’s two-part creation — a helix corkscrew and ah-so cork puller — has become the product of reference for opening vintage wines. “The criteria for designing The Durand was the need for a solution that worked every time when dealing with crumbly, old, wet, distressed corks in great bottles of wine,” she says. Taylor knew immediately how the device would work conceptually. “But the devil was in the details.”
Named for close friend Yves Durand, a wine mentor to Taylor, the intention was to share his creation with friends and members of the wine community. “It was all of those groups who convinced him that the world would want the device,” she says. Today, over 100,000 units of The Durand have been sold. “I have spoken to only three or four people who were using it wrong,” says the designer himself, Mark Taylor.
The process never stops
Rigorous testing precedes a new corkscrew release. “We have a wine re-corker in the office,” says OXO’s O’Brien. “It is a huge steel lever that inserts a fresh cork into a bottle. We will keep bottles representative of different sizes and types in our office, and then re-cork them over and over again to test them.” To test his design, Kilduff says that the factory recreated the top of a wine bottle in metal and ordered “bags and bags” of corks from Portugal. Only a handful of people were trusted to test it, mainly the owners of a wine accessories company in France.
Now based in Hawaii, Kilduff has swapped kitchen tools for cannabis packaging and owns design studio Pollen Gear. As payment for his now-legendary corkscrew design, he says he received a low five-figure amount, plus equity when Rabbit — and its offshoot brand Houdini — was formed as a company. For a long time, he would turn up to parties and be recognized as the rabbit guy. “People would ask me where my boat was,” he says. And that’s what would keep him up in the middle of the night. “We were selling a lot of corkscrews, it was my design. Why didn’t I make more money from it?” he laughs.