This Ashtray is No Monkey Business

Oded Friedland, the founder and co-owner of Monkey Business, has been a devoted surfer for years. Ever since he was a teenager, Oded has been going down with friends to the Tel Aviv beach, where you can find him to this very day on mornings when the surf is high. It gives him the opportunity for some creative thinking, he says. Appropriately, Surfing and the Sea are where his design career started many years ago.
Oded was born and raised in Tel Aviv, and already as a young boy with capable hands, he would make keyrings to sell at school, a hint of his future career as a designer and entrepreneur. Inspired by a design student he met, he started painting and printing on shirts. While in a surfing championship abroad he met the directors of fashion company Gazoz, which led to the design of hundreds of t-shirts for the popular Gazoz Sunsation surfwear line, worn by almost every youth in Israel in the late 80's and early 90's.


Oded says his creative energy is a fusion of inherent need with opportunities and materials that everyday life throws his way. Once he recognizes a need and has a concept, the process of creation is relatively quick.

After his military service, Oded enrolled for the Graphic Design department at Bezalel Art & Design Academy. A friend of the family who saw some of his works recommended that he enrols for the Industrial Design department too, to which he was ultimately accepted. Back then he was devastated by not achieving his first choice of graphic design studies, today he sees it as "one of the best things that ever happened to me". Yet, graphic design still plays a major role in his work: "my work is like graphic design with the extra third dimension", he says.

The Plughole Ashtray
Oded's first product, the plughole ashtray, is a great example of his associative thinking, connecting the need and the thought about the product, to things he sees in front of him.

While still an industrial design student in Bezalel, Oded was asked by a friend to design an original ashtray that would keep the smell of cigarette butts inside. Brushing his teeth several hours later, his eyes were drawn by the sink plughole and the drain stopper.

Oded' first sketches of the ashtray


This was the spark that led to one of Monkey Business' best loved products, now available again in a limited edition. The development from initial sketches to final product was quick. The first version of the ashtray had a relatively "rough" look compared to the item sold today. it was made at almost no cost at a metal caster's shop in Jerusalem, using aluminium sand casting, while the remaining parts, including the drain stopper, were bought in a hardware store. The idea was to use easily available, simple and inexpensive means, a production mode suitable for a student without the initial capital required for mould production.

The first model: "Freddy made"


After showing the ashtray to his schoolmates, Oded immediately wrote 25 orders for the product. It was there and then, he says, that Monkey Business was born. The ashtray evolved as he kept improving it, responding to clients' demands, such as the request to make the plughole deeper. He ordered 100 casts each time and self-assembled each ashtray, using a rotating cheese board as his "production line".

Growing more confident, Oded decided to try and sell the ashtray in shops, among them Plastic Plus, the first design shop in Israel, where the ashtray was received enthusiastically. It sold reasonably well and was even featured in local media. That’s when he decided to take aim at the international market. This attempt got off on the wrong foot, with a multitude of package options that turned out to be useless and cost all the money he had earned from earlier sales.

The failed packages


"You learn from failures"
"You learn from your mistakes", he says, "not from your successes. These may boost your ego, but failures actually get you somewhere, if you only have an open mind". In that respect, the ashtray did not only pave the way to start Monkey Business, but also served as learning curve in his development in practical, commercial design. The designer, he says, should take into account making mistakes with the next product as well, as long as they're not the same mistakes.

The ashtray grows deeper


The ashtray eventually became one of MB's bestsellers and a design classic. Its story now features in Oded's course "VAT Included" in Bezalel, where he teaches young students aspects of design and entrepreneurship. He encourages them to start off with simple things that require fewer resources. "Good ideas are realised in small steps", he says, "and there's much to be learned, especially if you know your way". The course gives the students a taste of the complete design and production process: in three months' time they think up products, design them, examine production techniques and eventually sell the products. It is a practical process with genuine insights on what one can or cannot do: something that might seem terribly complicated in October becomes a product in January. The ashtray itself went through several more phases, and is now made using a metal injection machine. The drain stopper was later produced – by the original manufacturer - according to a Monkey Business design; and is now self-produced using MB's own mould.

Today's ashtray: original design & production


The ashtray gained Oded a modest reputation outside Israel, and he started attending design conferences abroad and looking for distributors, coming up with more original items, and making his living by providing design services. The aim was not to make a fortune; he just wanted to do what he enjoyed.

The key to good design: addressing both functional and aesthetic issues
Today, Oded's wish has become a reality. With his wife Liat, who joined the studio in 2003 and handles sales within Israel, and his brother Omri, who became a partner in 2002 and handles the studio's overseas activity – Oded can now devote himself exclusively to the creative development of new items. Together, this family business makes up a complete design, production and sales chain, from the designer's desk to the item on the shelf.

Oded says he still takes to heart the success or failure of new items. He says the ideas for good products come by identifying real, everyday problems, which haven't been addressed yet – either functionally or aesthetically. That's how he came to think of Dolica, the sheep to keep, a cool storage solution for cotton buds; or the Doorganizer, which cleverly reminds you of everything you need to take with you, on your way out.
When Monkey Business just started, there were still many unchartered territories for product designers to explore. Design was limited to specific fields such as lighting and furniture. Designed ashtrays have been around for a long time , so have drains – but no one had combined the two, until the Plughole Ashtray was born.
Today everything is much more "designed", says Oded, and cites the recent evolution of designed doorstops, as a case in point: Oded's follow up to the Plughole Ashtray was Otto Doorstop – back then a refreshing take on the standard doorstop, with a little figure of a monk to hold the door open. Today, there are numerous figures holding doors open around the world, and it seems much harder to come up with original ideas.
On the other hand, we live in a highly dynamic world that generates new needs on a daily basis, such as neat stands for mobile phones. The future holds many challenges for product designers, and everyday life, says Oded, is the best place to look for ideas.