Designer Kurtis Sakai creates emotional connection to objects so they’ll last a lifetime.
Kurtis Sakai has a smidge of turquoise paint on his shirt collar as he slides into a WAYB team lunch at a new restaurant in Pasadena. “I had to sneak back to the office and fix the paint on the ducts,” he explains. While most employees would leave an office paint job to the contractor, the exposed ceiling ducts weren’t up to Kurtis’s exacting standards. Wrong color? No. “It was flat. It should have been semi-gloss. It was going to drive me nuts,” Kurtis says with a laugh, tucking into his meal.
For Kurtis, a passionate product designer, there’s no such thing as a small detail. As the lead designer for WAYB, Kurtis is designing the kinds of family products he wished he had as a dad: beautiful, thoughtful, and made to last.
Kurtis, right, has an impromptu kitchen meeting with Head of Product and Operations Jeff Lockie (left) and CEO Tio Jung (behind Kurtis). Above them, the now-semi-glossy turquoise ducts at WAYB HQ.
“When I was raising a kid, baby products always left me thinking that there’s so much room for improvement.” Kurtis spent 20 years designing outdoor gear and footwear, and one day he got a call from two of WAYB’s co-founders, Michael Crooke and Tio Jung. They were starting a new company to make family products that would be better for people and the planet. He jumped at the chance to reinvent baby gear. “I realized I could combine my love of being a parent, my experience as both a hard goods and soft goods designer, and the desire to help change an industry.”
For WAYB CEO, Tio Jung, Kurtis was the rare designer who could balance several priorities. “Kurtis cares equally about how a product looks, how it functions, and how sustainable it is,” says Tio.
“He raises the bar on everything we do,” says Michael Crooke, WAYB’s Chairman. “The caliber of his work is incredible. He’ll work tirelessly to find the highest-quality, eco-friendly materials and to create a design that makes a product an absolute delight for the consumer. The end-user may not even realize that the item is made with sustainable materials, they just know they have a beautiful product that solves a problem for them.”
"The end-user may not even realize that the item is made with sustainable materials, they just know they have a beautiful product that solves a problem for them."
Rooted in Nature
Growing up in Nevada County, California, on the side of an extinct volcano, Kurtis and his brother lived close to nature and were taught to respect their environment. He fondly remembers playing in the national forest that was their backyard, even if it wasn’t always easy to be the only Asian-American family in town. “I think my parents were way ahead of their times,” Kurtis says. “When we built a house we kept all the trees we cut down and converted them to firewood. My mom home-cooked every meal. We never had processed foods. It gave me a bit of a complex because in addition to looking different from everybody else, no one wanted to trade with me at lunch.”
“All I wanted was a store-bought Ho Ho but no one would give that up for a homemade cookie or a PB&J on homemade bread,” Kurtis recounts with a laugh. “But I look back on that now and it really set the standard on how I wanted to live my life and raise a child.”
The Sakais also brought their children up to think ahead to save resources. “My parents made it a point to consolidate their errands to avoid making repeated trips up and down the mountain. It really taught me to be efficient with how I drive my car. To this day I have at least two car-free days a week. Even teaching my son to drive, I’m telling him, ‘If you get in the car, be thoughtful about it.’ It’s not just being economical, it’s being mindful. I’ve applied that to how I live my life.”
The “less is more” approach guides Kurtis in his own product purchases. “My parents always taught me that you don’t need a lot of things, but if you do get something, get something that’s good. Something that lasts. Buy it once, and if it costs more, do without until you can get it.” Kurtis went without a music player for years to save up for a high quality stereo, which he still uses. He simply won’t settle for something that’s not well-made or well-designed. It’s not just about investing in a quality product, it’s about the happiness he gets from a product he respects, and worked hard to get.
“Whether I’m designing a product or purchasing one for myself, I ask myself, ‘Do I really need this? And if I do, will it serve me well, joyfully and indefinitely?’ It took me five years to find a can opener I liked. I endured using a Swiss Army knife until then. But I have something for life and it brings me a smile every time I use it. In holding out for that right product I formed an emotional connection to it.”
"It took me five years to find a can opener I liked. I endured using a Swiss Army knife until then. But I have something for life and it brings me a smile every time I use it.”
Kurtis at a WAYB team meeting.
Welcome to The Jungle
When Kurtis began his career at IBM and Adidas he was intent on learning from the brilliant designers around him, who immersed themselves in their product categories and the lives of their consumers. He hadn’t thought as much about the resources needed to bring one of his designs to the shelf until a trip to China to review footwear production. It reminded him of a book he’d read in high school, Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” which details the harsh life of a worker during the American industrial revolution. As Kurtis describes it, “It felt like stepping back almost a century in time, to a similar industrialization. To see the actual human and environmental cost of what it took to make affordable consumer products was life-changing.”
The trip was pivotal for Kurtis, who says, “I came back from that trip with an aspiration to shift my career away from designing short-term solutions based purely upon styling and trend and working towards long-term investments. It’s alarming to see how short of a lifespan can be for certain products in the context of the toll it takes on using precious resources.”
When Tio and Michael told him that WAYB would re-imagine baby products to be more sustainable, without compromising quality or design, Kurtis knew it was the opportunity he’d be preparing for his whole life.
When Kurtis joined WAYB, his first task was to design a portable travel car seat, the Pico. Tio had seen parents struggle through the airport, lugging giant plastic car seats, and thought there could be a smaller, lighter version that was just as strong and safe.
For Kurtis it was the perfect chance to redesign a product he had hated as a dad. “I remember the moment I started to install my son’s car seat, and I was looking at it, and it dawned on me - how is this any different than a Rubbermaid bin with foam in it? And I was shocked. It was a plastic bucket,” he recalls. He set about creating a sleek and functional design that was gentler on the earth, and would make parents happy. Kurtis believes that when a product brings a person joy, it’s more likely to be cared for, used longer, and kept out of a landfill.
The answer for WAYB was to create an aluminum frame instead of a plastic one. “Aluminum is the go-to material for lightweight, strong, and beautiful,” says Kurtis. “Airplanes and spacecraft use it because it’s so durable without adding weight. In a lot of products, the aluminum frame would be hidden. For us, the custom, extruded aluminum frame is the centerpiece of the Pico. It’s the backbone of what makes this product safe and easy to travel with, and it’s an element of beauty and quality.”
The WAYB Pico travel car seat features a strong aluminum frame and ultralight 7000-series aluminum tubing in its headrest and seat.
Beyond the aluminum frame, WAYB’s goal was to simplify the materials as much as possible, starting with the most toxic and environmentally-harmful. “One of the first things we figured out is that we really wanted to pull foam out of this product,” says Kurtis. “We discovered upon taking apart existing car seats - and something I saw in my soft goods background - a lot of companies like to use foam. It makes the unboxing experience pleasant, it adds cushion, but it’s a short-term gain, because foam breaks down quickly and it off-gasses. It very quickly loses its appeal and given the bar we were setting for ourselves for sustainability and toxicity, we couldn’t work with the foams available.”
The WAYB team assumed that foam was necessary for car seat safety, and partnered with the University of Oregon’s lab to use green chemistry to invent a better foam. Along the way, they discovered that their aluminum tubing was strong enough to withstand a crash, but also flexible enough to absorb impact. The foam would be primarily for comfort, not safety.
Suddenly the solution appeared. As Kurtis recalls, “We found out we could make a technical mesh that met our exact needs and we realized we could just use the tension of the fabric to make a comfortable seat. So we leapt from trying to reduce foam or find a better foam to taking nearly all of it out. [It’s] one less thing that breaks down and goes in the trash can. It’s wonderful."
“We can’t make something that's 100% environmentally sound, so the next best thing is making something durable, well-made, and to create an emotional bond so people feel invested in the product. That can come through function and aesthetic. And it’s really about simplifying. As a designer I ask myself, “Do we need this? Can we remove anything superfluous, anything that will be dated?”
“We can’t make something that's 100% environmentally sound, so the next best thing is making something durable, well-made, and to create an emotional bond so people feel invested in the product.”
Downslope from another extinct volcano sits WAYB’s factory partner in the Philippines. Kurtis and WAYB’s Director of Product and Operations, Jeff Lockie, have arrived for the first of many product reviews they will do on this week-long trip to the manufacturer. They’re turning the CEO’s air-conditioned office into their home base: the gleaming meeting table is quickly covered with aluminum color samples and fabric swatches, while the 3-D printer in the corner hums nonstop.
Designer Kurtis Sakai takes over the CEO's office onsite at the manufacturer. Here he reviews Pico prototypes with Jeff Lockie and materials lead Y.U. An.
The CEO doesn’t appear to mind his office takeover. He’s I.S. Jung, an engineer who built a manufacturing empire by producing technical gear for some of the world’s best outdoor brands. He’s also WAYB’s third co-founder and, most importantly, Tio’s father. The two Jungs always dreamed of creating their own brand but never wanted to compete with their valued outdoor gear clients. They had the idea to bring the family’s expertise in light, portable, durable products to the baby industry, and WAYB was born.
From the moment Kurtis enters the office, he has been laser-focused on WAYB’s first product, the Pico travel car seat. As soon as he sets eyes on the latest prototype he is transfixed, inspecting every detail. He talks out loud, asking questions like “I wonder if we could add a pull tab here.” While Kurtis and Jeff are in constant communication with the design and engineering team in the Philippines, nothing compares to seeing the product in person.
Kurtis gets his first look at the latest Pico travel car seat prototypes. Reflected is I.S. Jung, one of WAYB's co-founders.
To be hands-on with the Pico, Jeff and Kurtis travel to the Philippines several times a year, and their counterparts also visit the U.S. for product reviews and to conduct safety tests on Pico prototypes; while the team has lofty ambitions for the design, functionality, and innovative materials in the Pico, the most important factor is whether it passes U.S. safety standards for cars and planes. Every round has passed, but I.S. Jung still reminds them that they can always improve. “Our numbers are good,” he says, referring to the sled test that measures how much a child would move in a crash. “But we think we can make it even better if we try 7000-series aluminum in the seat.”
Engineer I.S. Choi reviews the original Pico travel car seat frame and safety belt position
Moments later, an updated Pico sample appears. Kurtis’s initial offhand question was conveyed to the sample room next door, and they’ve quickly mocked up a new headrest with a pull tab. Beyond the factory’s manufacturing capabilities, this seems to be their secret sauce. The constant desire to improve comes from I.S. Jung, and is visible in the pace and focus of the sample room. By instantly turning every question and suggestion into a physical example, the combined teams can get through many rounds of reviews in a short time.
The sample room goes to work on an update to the Pico's seat frame.
Design with Integrity
Having seen many factories over the course of his career, Kurtis displays a deep reverence for the Jungs’ facility. “Most factories have one specialty, like cut-and-sew,” Kurtis explains, “but to have this factory that had top quality cut-and-sew and also an almost automotive capability with aluminum - extruding it, machining it, bending it - it became very apparent that this company was very special and it was clear that we had to communicate the specialness in our products.”
WAYB’s integration with the manufacturing company gives Kurtis more control, and peace of mind, than a typical production process. “For a lot of products, the different components are farmed out to different factories. It opens you up to a bait and switch. And that’s where a lot of scandals happen, like toy cars with lead paint. It’s because there’s not really a system put in place to ensure that there’s an integrity of product. With our factory, the integrity is there. It’s critical to the product. We know the makeup and quality of every component. Our car seat is not just a nicely shaped plastic bucket.”