Jean-Jacques L’Henaff admits he went into design for selfish reasons. “I grew up sailing on the West Coast of France and just wanted to design boats,” he says. But the France-born vice president of design at LIXIL Americas, under which bath and kitchen suppliers American Standard and DXV operate, says the work he does now is much more interesting and rewarding.
L’Henaff sits at the helm of a growing design department that has drawn accolades from both the kitchen and bath industry and the design community for its product innovations. These include a self-cleaning toilet and remote-operated showerhead, which were presented at the 2018 Kitchen & Bath Industry Show in Orlando, Florida. Both resulted from extensive consumer research and prototyping, which L’Henaff says is at the center of a user-centric approach geared toward making people’s lives easier—and a little more sanitary.
A former design executive for Kohler Asia, Audiovox, and Terk Technologies, L’Henaff has designed everything from aircraft and subway-train interiors to medical devices and consumer electronics. But what started for him as a personal ambition has become a team-focused enterprise, particularly with the April 2017 opening of a new industrial-design studio in New York that aims to draw on the city’s rich talent pool. For L’Henaff, good design at LIXIL takes a balance between right brain and left brain—complexities addressed in part by his team’s use of Autodesk Fusion 360. “You can’t have a user-centric orientation without developing empathy,” L’Henaff adds. “You have to check your ego at the door and be conscious of that.”
Here, he talks about his leadership style, 3D-printed faucets, a massive public-sanitation project in Bangladesh, and more.
What do you see as your key role as vice president of design at LIXIL?
A few things: I lead design within an organization that was under private equity ownership for a while, where investment in new product development was scarce. One of the roles I play is to bring back design to a central position within the organization, through bringing in the right talent, the right processes, and the right tools, and then guiding us in the right direction. In the end, my job is to set up a team that makes great products to make people’s lives better.
American Standard has developed a self-cleaning toilet, a faucet controlled by a hand wave, and a touch showerhead. Tell me about the design thinking that led to these innovations.
It centers on the user. We spend a lot of time observing people. We look for points of friction, for coping mechanisms that people use to make their lives easier but hide a functional flaw in existing products. We develop products and technologies not for the sake of having more features than our competitors, but to meet people’s needs. We want people to use a product without thinking of it. Quite frankly, one thing everyone hates to clean is a toilet. Just touching them is unpleasant. So we developed a self-cleaning one. The function of these products reflects the needs and preferences of the people using them.
Can you tell us a little more about your R&D process for new products?
We have an observation team inside the design department that charts market trends and participates in research. Our engineering team creates the workflow. We spend time brainstorming and creating ideas and then invite consumers to test them. From research to shaping ideas to testing, we have a continual back-and-forth to ensure the products are engineered and tested properly. Also, not all of our products are new. Updating conventional product lines in existing categories—a wall of faucets at a big-box retailer, for example—keeps us busy.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve ever designed?
The coolest thing is recent: a line of three different faucets—the Vibrato, Trope, and Shadowbrook, which we printed directly in stainless steel. Of course, 3D printing has been around for a while, but direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) has allowed us to print faucets, layer after layer, in different alloys. The waterways are actually embedded in the structure of the walls of these faucets.
The project came from left field: Four years ago, a former American Standard CEO challenged us to design something we couldn’t make—a management consideration to see if we could reduce inventory by printing small runs of faucets. We developed prototypes and models before launching in October 2016. These are highly valuable on the marketplace—we’ve sold a few, not hundreds; it’s an extremely expensive, unique product. The intriguing thing is, it’s changed the way we perceive how we can make faucets. These are products that could not have been developed using traditional manufacturing methods.
In 2013, America Standard partnered with iDE and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on a project that aims to provide safer sanitation for 5.5 million people in developing countries, including Bangladesh. Can you tell us about this effort, called the Flush for Good campaign?
It’s a fascinating story that applied some very interesting design methods. Our product engineers spent time in Bangladesh observing daily habits and trying to understand the country’s economy. They developed an extremely simple sanitation solution: the SATO pan. It costs less than $2 and uses the country’s existing manufacturing and supply-chain capabilities, with one simple modification: a seal cover that prevents insects from going in and out and spreading disease. These are essentially public latrines; there are no toilets in households. You dig a pit and cover it with a concrete cover, with our plastic pan in the middle. A counterweighted trapdoor closes when not in use and the user flushes with just a half-liter of water, creating a water seal that keep out insects. It’s an extremely simple solution that makes a big difference.
What I found fascinating is the way the team created the solution—not trying to impose the technology we use here, but to derive a solution from the people and technology there. The process has been replicated in Kenya. LIXIL, our Japanese parent company, saw the good being done and created a division to take the technology and process and roll it out in more communities. Today, more than one in three people worldwide lack proper sanitation. The impact of a simple, affordable product like SATO can be significant.