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A new ping pong brand designed for today’s art and design obsessed generation
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Outline

round21’s paddle combines a great playing design with unique art on each paddle face that represent the individuality of the player.

Of all the sporting categories, ping pong, is one where the equipment has evolved little and become aesthetically stale without innovation. The start-up round21, based in Washington, D.C., U.S.A,  saw an opportunity to create a new type of ping pong brand that looked as good as it performed. . Tokyo-based, Airline Design was specifically selected to design the paddle. Paul Pugh, Airline’s Founder and Chief Designer, oversaw the design process. The Airline team started by evaluating different playing styles, including grip styles common to North America, the products target market. 

From their assessment, the Airline team made test paddles themselves using 3D printing and laser cutting to establish playable designs. Airline realized early on that they would need a manufacturing partner to construct paddle prototypes, a rigorous user test and validation of the design. Hidakuma was the ideal partner because of their reputation in design and craftsmanship, and ultimately collaborated on two rounds of test prototypes and an initial production run of special paddles for sale and promotional purposes.

round21

Product information: https://round21.com/

round21 products are for sale with three limited edition collections.

  • Support details
    Development of Ping-Pong paddle prototypes
  • Period
    July, 2018 – November, 2019
  • Set-up
    Client: round21
    Producer/product management/creative direction/paddle design: Paul Pugh (Airline)
    Development of racket prototypes: Hideaki Asaoka (Hidakuma)
    ・Production of limited edition for advance events: Kakishita Woody Works. Co., Ltd.

Output

A new Ping-Pong experience; born from art & design and high-quality materials and techniques.

Designed based on ergonomics, the handle is cut into a three-dimensional curve that follows the form of the player’s hand, making a paddle that is comfortable and easy to grip. The design facilitates where you place your index finger and so becomes almost like an extension of your hand.

The best Japanese beech is used to make the paddles, due to its balance of viscosity, strength and weight. They are made by combining the handiwork of Hida craftsmen with advanced woodworking skills with technology. The overall weight of the paddle gives good playing control, particularly for new and intermediate paddles, but is also of a neutral style allowing both fast and spin play for the more experienced.

round21 has developed a proprietary rubber  that allows them to print vivid full-color artwork designs onto the paddles. You can select a design according to your tastes from a great number of designs by artists. This new style paddle can stimulate your senses and express your individuality and playing style.

 Specifications
 Tree species: handle = Japanese beech, blade = Hinoki laminated plywood
 Finishing: polyurethane coating
 Laser processing: Logos etc. engraved into the handle and blade

Process

Starting with paper and ending with wood, an iterative design process.

Paddle Prototypes: The Airline team started with paper to establish the paddle form, moving to playable prototypes and then collaborating with Hidakuma to make prototype paddles as seen on the far right.

Hidakuma was asked by Paul of Airline to develop the ‘blade’, minus the rubber, and the ‘handle’ of the racket. What they tackled first was selecting the woods to be used for the blade and the handle and verifying the manufacturing process. Careful attention was paid to the tactile feel of the wood as it’s the part of the paddle that the user grips. 

They made prototypes using several different species of tree for both the blade and the handle, documenting the weight, the direction of the grain at the time of processing, and things noticed during the manufacturing process. They had many discussions with Paul. As even the same kind of tree can have different knots, grain and color, they also inspected whether the characteristics of individual paddles influenced usability. The Airline team then conducted testing with prototypes of various wood styles in the Ping Pong halls of Tokyo before arriving on the final specifications.

The wood that has been selected as the most suitable for the handle is Japanese beech, which has viscosity, a uniform color, and a beautiful smooth grain. Originally, the beech handle was to be colored but, when he saw it, Paul said, “Don’t color it. The natural color of the wood is more beautiful” and so the finish retained the natural color of the wood.
Incidentally, Japanese beech is one of the trees that grows abundantly in Hida. In Hida City, the Japanese beech tree, as a powerful tree that symbolizes the magnificence of the natural forest and the richness of nature, is known as ‘The Tree of Hida City’.

The handle form that was created by gathering real ping pong player input and preferences.

When making a prototype, complex curves manufactured by three-dimensional cutting using CNC are combined with work done by hand. We clarified that process and the time required. We were able to cooperate with a local sign maker to use their CNC, which they usually use for door plates, to create prototypes. In order to efficiently assemble a three-dimensional handle, a ground-breaking assembly jig was made with a 3D printer. When we went to the factory for discussions with a series of jigs and prototypes, the factory made an even better jig and production moved along swiftly.

In the manufacturing of the limited-edition paddle for the promotional events, the Kakishita Woody Works in Takayama, Hida, who make wooden lighting fixtures, completed 250 rackets with speed and technology that exceeded all expectations. The success of the production was made through the skill and experience of the craftsman involved and harnessing the power of technology.

Attention to Detail

Paul came to FabCafe Hida’s studio to understand the process and give input on the work.

Hidakuma’s Hideaki Asaoka (Hide), who is in charge of this project, told us about how when Paul first came to Hida and saw the first completed prototype he said, with a big smile, “It’s cool!” and started doing practice swings with the sample paddles.

Hide states, “I think that this project brought to us by Paul is a great challenge for Hida’s craftsmanship”. Because these are small items, there are certain costs and time required. It cannot be mechanized, and precision is required down to the exact decimal point, so there can be great variation in the cost per unit. These challenges are also heightened by the dwindling number of factories in Hida and in Japan that can make these small items. In reality, even with this project, at first it seemed that it was not profitable and that the production would move elsewhere. A year later Hide had an exchange with Paul that left the deepest impression. Paul said, “I can’t get this quality elsewhere, so I definitely want to make the paddles in Hida”.

Members

Paul Pugh, Airline Design
Founder + Chief Designer

Airline Design, is an international design studio based in Tokyo with team members and clients spread across North America and Asia.

With 30 years of experience as a designer, Paul’s work as a creative leader is well-known. He and his teams have designed products used by millions for some of the world’s most respected brands. Before Airline, Paul was a vice president of design for frog design, executive creative director for Amazon Kindle and vice president of connected fitness products for Under Armour. 

Paul has been the founder of three companies including Airline. Paul’s career began in architecture and includes many years in software UX and most recently in product and industrial design. This unique experience enables Paul to work across domains to design integrated experiences, with a clear understanding of both the software development process and manufacturing.

Hideaki Asaoka

Belongs to the company Hida no Mori de Kuma wa Odoru (Hidakuma). From Hida City, Gifu Prefecture. After graduating from Nagoya University of the Arts, he worked in furniture manufacture and design at a furniture manufacturer and an interior design business. In 2016 he joined Hidakuma, working in a wide range of areas including product development, design, production and construction. He has extensive knowledge of wood and a profound respect for craftsmen. He works hard every day to confer new value to wood.

Jasmine Maietta, round21 Founder

Jasmine is the founder of round21, a lifestyle brand that merges art + sport to unlock self-expression, creativity and connectivity. Prior to launching round21, Jasmine led marketing for some of the world’s leading brands including Under Armour, Reebok, Hasbro and the new fitness brand, Peloton.  She believes that art and sport create culture, community, and communicate beliefs that shape our world.  Her vision is to make round21 a brand known for empowering human creativity & connection, starting with Ping Pong.  It was important to Jasmine to partner with the absolute best designers and makers for the origin product, and she looked to Japan because of its reputation for high quality, beautiful and functional products.

Member’s Voice

Our client found table tennis to be a sport category that was fairly static and ripe for innovation. There are many good products, particularly made in Japan, but they are visually conservative and haven’t gone through the same usability rigor as other sport and fitness equipment categories. Our client, round21, had a clear vision to create a highly crafted product that brought art and design together. While the red and black paddle faces qualify for tournament play, Jasmine took the risk to take over that space with vibrant art. Players can now pick designs that best represent their personality or play style. Airline was primarily involved in developing the paddle. We started working in cardboard and 3D prints, testing the designs in the Table Tennis halls of Shibuya. When we got to designs that felt good in the hand we reached-out to the talented team at Hidakuma to help us create samples that we could test with real players. Those samples help establish the final design and Hidakuma was also engaged to make a run of production paddles.

Paul Pugh
Airline Founder + Chief Designer

For a long time, I have been devoted to basketball but for the past year I have not been able to resist becoming a devoted Ping-Pong player. Small things look bigger. Through this project I have realized the challenges and difficulties of our usual task of making large furniture.
It would seem that making small things would be cheaper but, in fact, it costs more to make small things. Because the production of small things can’t be mechanized, there is more work to be done by hand and, as such, the efficiency is lower. When making big objects you can get away with a few slight mistakes as they don’t stand out. But with small things you need to be precise, down to the decimal point. Because delicate work is required there are many losses.
The cost fluctuation of only 100 yen per unit has a significant impact, so we must think about how to make the item efficiently, in one process.
Also, most significantly, there is a decrease in factories in Japan that can produce small items.
I think that this project brought to us by Paul is a great challenge for Hida’s craftsmanship. It uses various people’s ideas and skills. And, with the help of technology, we were able to face every challenge. This is fantastic paddles that has brought together the gems of everyone’s wisdom and skills.

Hideaki Asaoka
Hidakuma

In a lot of ways, the story of round21 can be summarized by “play in style.” Because ping pong has been played by some of the greatest icons, creatives, and makers of our time (presidents and heads of state, musicians, professional athletes, entertainers and the rest of us), I believed it was time for a brand to give these creators a way to express themselves, have fun, and look good doing it. To live up to the hype that round21 will create, we needed products that expressly presented art in a sophisticated and crafted way. We looked to Japan (home of A Bathing Ape, UNIQLO, COMME des GARÇONS and Harajuku) to inspire a new way to play. We have good taste, so it wasn’t easy, but after multiple rounds of concepts, consumer testing, and testimonials, we knew we had the original round21 paddle.

Jasmine Maietta
round21 Founder

Do you want to develop products that make use of broad-leaved trees?

Hidakuma will harness their wealth of knowledge about trees to connect you with Hida forest and Hida craftsmen and will support your product development. Do you want to join us to create products born from the forest?
For enquiries see here.