Pitcher Perfect: The Story Behind Soma's Design

Since the idea for Soma was first hatched at a small dinner party, simple, modern design has always been considered essential. But simple doesn't mean easy. In many respects, a "less is more" design approach requires a lot more thinking and planning. Every feature, every detail, must have a purpose, both in form and function.

At Soma, design is our first core value, alongside health, sustainability, and giving back. We've developed a unique design philosophy and product-development process. As such, members of the Soma community around the world often ask about how that philosophy and process came about. With that in mind, we wanted to pause and give an inside look at Soma’s perspective on design and answer some of the questions we often receive. 

How would you describe the Soma design philosophy?

The key phrase is “less is more.” The bottom line is that the most beautiful things are the simplest. The hard thing to do is to minimize. A lot of people add more features because they think more is better, but it’s really the opposite.

Where did the idea for Soma come from?

The idea for Soma came during a dinner party, when a friend asked me for a glass of water. I went in the kitchen, grabbed my Brita, and I looked at it and thought, “There’s no way I’m putting this ugly thing on the dinner table.” So I decided to pour the water from the Brita into a glass wine decanter, but as I did, the lid of the Brita fell off, water splashed everywhere, and I thought, “Why don’t they design something that’s beautiful that actually works?” That’s when the light bulb went off.

The magic really happened when we connected with our industrial designers -- Joe Tan and Markus Diebel. Both of them went to Art Center, which is one of the top design and art universities. They both worked at IDEO. Joe co-founded Incase where  Markus became the VP of Design. Their design language is very simple. They believe in modern, minimal design. When we partnered with them, everything came together. And the Soma design language was created.

There are a lot of factors that go into a new consumer product. How important was design in Soma's creation?

Design is critically important for two reasons. First, this is a product that people display in their kitchens or on their tables at dinner parties. It must be beautiful because beauty has intrinsic value. Second, from a function standpoint, this is something they use every single day. How they pour, how the water trickles through the filter. Every interaction with the product is important.

How did you merge form with function? It would seem easier said than done. 

First, we thought about it in terms of materials. So our glass Carafe is one of the first glass water-filter pitchers. And we wanted to use glass because it elevated and differentiated Soma from most products on the market. It has a great feel in your hands. We had a really strong point of view as far as glass. And if you look at all our products, materials are a big difference. The pitcher handle is made from wood. The filters are plant-based.

Second is how it looks. Fully differentiated. Our Carafe is the only water filter pitcher on the market without a handle. It has an hourglass shape. I’m looking at it right now: It’s just so simple and pure. One of the things about a Soma Carafe -- it’s the same silhouette 360 degrees around. There’s no external handle, no external channel for the water to pour out of. It has a hidden channel. I can’t think of another product in another category that does that. And it’s not an easy feat from a design and engineering standpoint. But we didn’t want to break the form with those external parts.

The last thing, as far as form and function, is the role of surprise and delight. With all our products, you don’t have to remove the lid to fill it. You just turn on the faucet and the weight of the water opens the inlet door. And when you’re done, it magically pops up and closes. It’s convenient and hygienic, but there’s also this user experience of delight when it just opens, almost magically, and then pops back closed.

What surprised you early on?

One of the biggest challenges we ran into with the design of the Carafe is the volume of water it holds and how that impacts the size and shape of the Carafe. It holds six 8-ounce glasses of water. We knew five to six glasses would be the minimum. If we went above that, it would be too big to hold, too heavy to pour, and it wouldn’t fit in the fridge. We landed on six glasses because it fits comfortably in almost all hands but have nearly a whole day worth of water for one person.

How does the design process differ when you're creating a product people literally use every single day?

For us, I think that goes back to the quality of the materials. We ship a very high quantity of glass Carafes around the world. And we’ve had very few break. Because it’s made from high quality borosilicate glass. It’s light, thin, very strong. It’s the same type of glass used in laboratories.

How has the Soma design evolved?

One of the funny things is that some of the products we’re releasing in 2016, we designed in 2012 and 2013. And I credit that to the strong point of view of our industrial designers. We have a lot of products that are in our back pocket, because once you have a clear vision, you know what it is and is not Soma. The Soma look is as simple as possible. It uses only pure geometric shapes. For us, it’s mostly circles and small cones. It has very few part lines. And so on.

Design is only half the battle. How are the Carafes and Pitchers actually made?

The glass we have custom-made. It’s a really incredible process how they make it. It’s pure molten glass, made of sand, of course. You’re taking molten glass and forcing it into a mold. There are no part lines. Part lines are those seam lines you see on a lot of products. All the plastic parts are injected molded. The unique thing about the filter is that it’s about 70 percent plant-based materials. The outside casing includes plant-based materials and the interior part is made from coconut shells. They take coconut husks that have been charred in a kiln and those become highly absorbent carbon.

After you sketch a new concept, how long is the process until we see a product on store shelves?

From idea to launch, we try to do it in 18 months. We can go faster, but the more time we have, the more time we can spend prototyping and gathering customer feedback.

Who are some of your design inspirations?

Obviously Jony Ive from Apple. Joey Roth has a very simple and beautiful aesthetic. Our friends at Kinfolk also do things that are simple and pure. Heath Ceramics, as well. They’re actually one of our retail partners and they’re amazing.

What does the Soma team want people to take away from the design?

I was just imagining when you walk into an environment that is impeccable in its simplicity and the energy is very peaceful and fulfilling. PUBLIC Hotel in Chicago is like that for me. Or if you’ve ever been to a Japanese rock garden, it’s similar. Just so stunning in its simplicity. There are very few things there, but everything has been placed properly. There’s nothing more you would take away from it and nothing more you would add. Michelangelo is attributed with that quote about seeing David in the marble and his job being just to remove the excess. It’s removing the pure form from the excess, that’s what we’re trying to do when we design products. When you include only what’s essential, that’s the definition of design integrity. When there’s nothing you would add, subtract or change, it’s in its purest form, and that’s beautiful.

What role does water play in all this?

When we started Soma, the challenge we gave to ourselves was to elevate water. Aside from oxygen, water is the most important element for life. Without water, you can’t survive. And we didn’t think water was getting the respect it deserved. So we wanted to create a vessel that was beautiful and worked well for consumers so they would be healthier and happier.