Build a better paper towel dispenser, and the world will beat a path to your door.
That, at any rate, is the hope of John Erdman, a dedicated problem solver who’s good with his hands and has an eye for design. The problem he set out to solve some four years ago was one that few have tackled, let alone recognized as a problem: How to dispense paper towels, one a time, using only one hand. Erdman, who works as a sales director for a company that makes electric car charging stations, and calls himself a “major foodie,” constantly found himself frustrated as he attempted to, say, grab a towel while handling raw poultry. He located a few one-handed dispensers on the market, but none met his high standards.
The typical paper towel dispenser, says Erdman, “looks awful and takes up a lot of counter space.” He had just built a house on Cape Cod, and he was unwilling to clutter up the kitchen’s sleek design with some ugly, space-hogging towel roll. In a flash of insight, he says, he realized he had to solve three towel-dispenser problems: “One, make it look nice; two, get it off the counter; three, make it so you could do it with one hand.”
Thus was born the 1HandR (pronounce it “one-hander”). Erdman describes the awkwardly named but surprisingly attractive dispenser: “Picture two upside-down Kleenex boxes strapped together on their long side, on the bottom of a kitchen cabinet.”
Got that? It’s a little tough to imagine, perhaps, but in real life, the thing makes perfect sense. Erdman has one installed both at the Cape and his South End townhouse, where it fits unobtrusively into the handsome kitchen, mounted under the hanging cabinets. The 1HandR works on a principle similar to that of the commercial towel dispensers found in public restrooms, and like them, it uses folded towels, not the typical rolled ones.
Those folded towels represent both Erdman’s greatest challenge and the 1HandR’s biggest advantage. “Everyone asks, ‘Where do we get the towels?’ ” Erdman says. No consumer wants to make a special trip to some out-of-the-way commercial-supply store to buy paper towels, and some of those folded towels — at least the ones you see in public places — are hardly absorbent. Fear not. Erdman is a detail guy, and he’s done extensive research on the subject of folded towels; he might be one of the nation’s foremost experts on the topic, having personally tested and evaluated 25 types of folded towel. On the company’s website, he has a chart comparing the features of nine brands of folded towels, and his top-choice towel, the Kleenex Multifold 1890, is available at Amazon, Costco, Staples, and Office Max, among other non-obscure locations. (The 1HandR takes “M-fold” towels, not to be confused with the similar-looking “C-fold” towel, the kind you probably know and do not like.)
In Erdman’s telling, the advantages of folded towels are many: They are cheaper than rolled towels (less than half the price per sheet), take up less storage space, and typically use more recycled material, hence more environmentally friendly. The best-quality ones are as sturdy and absorbent as rolled towels.
Erdman built his first prototype dispenser years ago, from wood and Plexiglas. It worked pretty well, though it was hardly a thing of beauty, and friends urged him to create a commercial, mass-produced version. After he came up with a steel dispenser, a connection at RISD eventually led him to Todrin Industries, a metal fabricating shop in Lakeville, where the 1HandR is now manufactured.
The 1HandR is currently available in a matte powder-coated steel finish; Erdman is still working out the kinks in the brushed stainless version. That powder-coated dispenser is priced at $69.95, and the stainless steel would be pricier still. Erdman says it’s “more money than I wanted it to be, but at least it feels sturdy. And it pays for itself in a year.”
It’s still early days for Acme Home Arts, the company Erdman founded to make the 1HandR, and he does it all: design, marketing, sales, promotion.
As better mousetraps go, a one-handed, under-cabinet paper towel dispenser may seem less than urgent. But Erdman makes a compelling case, and he’s convinced at least one doubter. “My mother, who’s 85 and doesn’t cook, was initially skeptical,” says Erdman. “But now she expects it to be a success.”
Jane Dornbusch can be reached at