Blending Form, Function: 1

Matt O'Conner
In 1869, Dr. George Taylor patented a steam-powered apparatus to help treat a condition then commonly referred to as "female hysteria," the symptoms of which included anxiety, irritability and sexual fantasies.

The device was said to treat hysteria by massaging a woman's vulva until she experienced relief. Since hysteria was regarded as a recurring condition, women were advised to repeat the treatment as needed.

While Taylor's invention was hailed by physicians who apparently weren't up to the task of manually relieving the long lines of female patients suffering from hysteria, it wasn't much to look at — picture a billy club attached to a Victorian-era sewing machine.

But it only takes a quick jaunt through the cyber aisles of to see that sex toys have come a long way, baby.

These days, sex toys are as varied in appearance as the people using them and designed to be as pleasing to the eye as they are to other parts of the body. Manufacturers are using abstract shapes that look more like art than sexual aids, developing space-age materials that are lifelike and waterproof and creating upscale packaging that looks as likely to hold the latest Calvin Klein fragrance as a g-spot tickler.

There is still room in America's night stands for an eight-inch polymelt dong, but it's likely to be sharing the space with exotic devices of every size, shape, color, contour and texture imaginable, from an exact replica of a favorite adult star's private parts to a vibrating bunny that lovers two time zones away can use to have a satisfying Internet romp.

Fashion Forward
"The sex toy business is very much like the fashion business," John Shamel, design team director for North Hollywood-based Doc Johnson, told XBiz. "It reflects what's going on today, what's popular in the culture."

Shamel said inspiration can be found everywhere, whether it's the lobby of a boutique hotel, the cosmetics counter at Barneys, the pages of Cosmopolitan and FHM or the 200 or so customer emails the company receives every day. "We don't look at what the adult world is doing; we look at what the world is doing," he said, adding that most of the company's designers come from traditional advertising backgrounds.

Rick Plank, owner of Phallix Glass, maker of high-end, collector-quality toys and novelties, agrees with this approach. "We want to blur the line between art and sex toys," Plank told XBiz. "We have up to 100 artists working on designs at any time; that's an intense amount of creativity. My ultimate fantasy is for our products to be interesting and beautiful enough that 200 years from now, they could be set up as pieces in a museum."

This emphasis on artistry can be attributed in part to the changing demographics of adult entertainment. Like other segments of the industry, the novelties sector has discovered that sex sells to women as well as men, as long as the seller does their homework. When the iconic TV show "Sex and the City" devoted an entire episode to the virtues of a vibrating pearl bunny, it didn't create female interest in sex toys — it reflected an already healthy and rapidly growing interest in them.

Target Market: Women
Pipedream COO Nick Orlandino told XBiz, "The market is probably 75 percent women now, so we put a lot more energy into female products."

Doc Johnson's CEO Ron Braverman agrees, stating that many of the company's designs are now female driven, from introducing colors like Bubble Gum Pink to bringing pop icons like Hello Kitty places they've never been before.

The packaging also must appeal to female sensibilities, but not at the expense of more masculine tastes. "We try to put couples on the package in an effort to appeal to both genders rather than just singling one out," Orlandino said.

Jonathan Plotzker, product division manager at Good Vibrations, added that his company often opts for gender-neutral packaging — sometimes as simple as clear plastic — so that customers can focus on the products themselves without being hindered by stereotypes about who the toys are made for.

On the other hand, good looks will only get a toy so far. Sleek, contemporary design will undoubtedly help make a good first impression and attract interest, but when the customer rips open the pretty purple packaging and takes his or her new toy for a test drive, it had better get the job done.

In part two we'll take a closer look at the design and development process.