Core77 Design Awards
- Other Years
Prrl Labs creates cannabis accessories that lead with design. As a result, they elicit joy and delight, while freeing users from the harmful effects of combustion. Co-founded by friends Mark Lewis and Josh Winicki, they set out on a quest to invent the simplest, purest, and most effective ways to enjoy herb.
Their first product, the ceramic Neo, debuted in late 2020. It's a powerful, compact replacement for the butane lighter that works universally with any pipe or bong. It heats herb enough to release the aromatics and active ingredients, but doesn't burn them. Thus, it eliminates toxic smoke and ash, while delivering the full taste and desired effects.
With the Neo's early success, customers requested a companion pipe optimized for vaporization. Lewis, a former aerospace engineer, teamed up with award-winning industrial designer (and Prrl Labs shareholder) Michael Stefan. "Given my experience in technical design with Coach and Tumi, I was thrilled by the challenge of designing an elegant pipe to complement the 'retro-futuristic' look of the Neo," said Stefan.
The resultant 'Terp Surfer' pipe re-imagines traditional construction, materials, and style to create a unique design. The name is derived from the way the Neo allows one to "surf" the aromatic terpenes by varying one's breath.
Body/Stem The sleek, aerodynamic geometry of the Terp Surfer replaces the thin stem of a traditional pipe. "The subtle lines of the wood deck add a beautiful, organic feel while the shape evokes an airfoil, surfboard, and other dynamic forms," said Stefan. Wood was chosen for its aesthetic and functional properties. Its insulating powers reduce the common problem of messy resin build-up that plagues other vaporizers.
Quartz Herb Capsule Lewis leveraged his aerospace background to optimize the pipe's airflow. Most pipes have a single draft hole, which creates hot spots. "We designed the capsule with multiple holes to spread the heated air evenly," he said. "We chose clear quartz to stay visually connected with your herb and see the warm glow of the Neo as well as the formation of vapor." The capsules are removable for easy filling and cleaning.
The magnetically-attached CNC machined titanium bowl can be used with a simple screen in the bottom, or with the herb capsules. Similar to the docking ring on a spaceship, it provides an airtight seal with the Neo to ensure optimal airflow. Aesthetically, the curves and facets of the bowl are borrowed directly from the Neo and tie the system together.
The combined material elements coalesce into a unified design language that balances both form and function, while pairing with the Neo for a sublime smoke-free experience. By taking a modular approach, the Terp Surfer has a future-proof design that enables customization and serviceability. Furthermore, Prrl Labs will soon announce an organic, plant-based insert that enables enjoyment of cannabis concentrates in addition to dried flower.
"Prrl Labs is committed to helping our customers address their health and wellness needs, while designing innovative and tasteful products that challenge the status quo," noted Lewis.
In 1973, Oregon became the first U.S. state to decriminalize cannabis, but it was a 2016 ballot measure legalizing recreational cannabis that inspired a group of friends to form Prrl Labs. Many friends that enjoy cannabis together have great ideas, but what caused the Prrl Labs team to actually bring a product to market was their background in aerospace engineering, economics, industrial design, and a shared dream to take the harmful effects of smoke out of smoking.
Prrl Labs co-founder and CEO Mark Lewis realized that superseding the ubiquitous butane lighter with a device that provides perfectly heated air was a design and innovation opportunity that could free people to vaporize their herb from almost any pipe or bong. Burning cannabis produces carcinogenic byproducts, strong smells, and destroys many beneficial compounds. Vaporization, on the other hand, heats cannabis at sub-combustion temperatures to extract the aromatics and active ingredients, but without burning. Hence, it eliminates the ash, coughing, and acrid smell that is commonly associated with cannabis use.
In late 2019 Lewis connected with award-winning industrial designer Michael Stefan at a Portland start-up incubator called "Starve-Ups". Stefan was once the Director of Advanced Hardware Development for the luxury brand Coach, but left to follow his cooking passion by co-founding Oomph Cooking Blends. The challenge of Prrl Labs' mission intrigued Stefan, so he signed on as the designer to help the team realize their vision. In return, Prrl Labs gave him a stake in their company.
The Neo, their first design collaboration, is a compact, battery-powered device for delivering sub-combustion heat to any pipe or bong. "The Neo solves what economists call 'switching costs'," said Prrl Labs' co-founder Josh Winicki, who has a PhD in economics. "Through the power of design we believed we could break down the psychological barriers keeping people from trying dry herb vaporization," he added. Other vaporizing devices on the market are closed-system, black box products that force the user to completely change their practices. Because the Neo simply replaces the butane lighter, it only requires a small change in routine.
Lewis and Stefan immersed themselves in the design process for the Neo. "We wanted the aesthetic to make a bold statement about the emerging Prrl Labs brand," remembered Stefan. Lewis recalled, "One of our taglines at the time was 'The Neo exists at the nexus of nostalgia and innovation' because of the intense joy that early testers described when they transformed a treasured pipe from their youth into a powerful 21st-century vaporizing device." Stefan and Lewis wanted to capture this emotion in their design, so they gravitated toward a "retro-futuristic" aesthetic. "I grew up near the Space Needle in Seattle, an icon of retro-futurism," said Lewis. "Giddiness about the future was the central theme of the 1962 World's Fair—that's the feeling we wanted to imbue in all of our products."
The Neo's evocative lines arise from the intersection of conical volumes and angular planes to create jewel-like facets reminiscent of futuristic ray gun from the perspective of a mid-century comic book. When the Neo was released in 2020, the reaction was immediate and sales poured in from all over the world. Multiple five-star customer reviews noted its unusually attractive design and thanked Prrl Labs for "ruining smoking" for them.
Re-imagining the Pipe Most pipes have a single hole in the bottom of the bowl that is inefficient for vaporization as well as irregular bowl shapes that make it difficult to create an air seal. Prrl Labs wanted to develop an iconic companion pipe specifically for the Neo to give people an easy experience right out of the box. Thus, their priorities for the new pipe were: a) ease of use, b) efficiency, c) complementary styling, and d) modularity to accommodate future design versions.
About the name Terpenes are the aromatic compounds responsible for the way plants, fruits, and herbs smell. Cannabis has one of the most complex terpene profiles of any plant and studies suggest these compounds increase the bioavailability of cannabinoids like CBD and THC. The Prrl Labs team found that by adjusting the heat and air flowing through the cannabis, they could taste different terpenes and took to calling this practice "terp surfing," giving them the name and design direction for the new pipe.
Innovative Design Approaches From Lewis' background in rocket science and his team's experimentation with dozens of pipes, they knew the shape and size of the pipe's bowl was the most critical factor for efficiency. So, they developed a flat-bottomed, multi-hole bowl with a pressure chamber beneath it to create optimum airflow through the herb. The quartz bowl is easily removed for filling and cleaning, while also enabling the user to pre-load multiple bowls.
Instead of a traditional pipe stem, they wanted something that pushed the design aesthetic - eventually landing on a sleek, aerodynamic "deck" like that of the Silver Surfer's surfboard.
To connect these two elements, they designed a "docking ring" that mated perfectly with the Neo, while also complementing its futuristic design motif. The docking ring is attached with neodymium magnets to create a swappable, modular approach, while also providing the user easier access for cleaning.
Material Selection To balance the high-tech feel of the Neo's ceramic zirconia and electronics, they chose wood for the body of the Terp Surfer. This added an organic elegance that not only feels great in the hand, but also provides many options for selecting woods and grain patterns—making each pipe unique to the user. The insulating properties of wood result in less build up of messy resins, which reduces the need for cleaning. Furthermore, a patina develops with use, making the object more personalized over time.
Many dry herb vaporizers hide one's herb in a chamber. But, the Prrl Labs team wanted to accentuate the visual connection with the herb. So, they made the bowl out of clear quartz crystal and elevated the it above the lip of the docking ring so that users could receive visual feedback from the glow and vapor formation.
Titanium was chosen to create distinction. It is more inert than stainless steel, preventing any metallic taste in the vapor. It is light, durable, and stays cool to the touch so that the user can handle it even during heavy use. Furthermore, it is easily anodized to create a vibrant array of colors—adding to the potential for future customization.
Together, the wood, titanium, and quartz create a complementary balance of materials that pair well with the Neo.
Prototype Feedback User feedback from early prototypes was instrumental in the iterative process. Walnut was chosen to match the black Neo, while lighter-colored sugar maple was chosen to go with the white Neo. Users found the Terp Surfer so efficient that the Neo's power settings had to be adjusted lower to prevent combustion. Additionally, a silicone o-ring was added to both keep the quartz bowl in place as well as create a more flexible seal with the Neo.
The Terp Surfer pipe was released in November 2021, enjoyed brisk holiday sales, and received glowing reviews from its users. In January 2022, a locally-produced limited edition bamboo version of the pipe was also released, selling out quickly.
Innovation Roadmap As the legal cannabis market continues to quickly expand and evolve, the Prrl Labs team is continuing to enhance the Terp Surfer design. "We see the Terp Surfer as a platform, not just a product. We want it to have increasing value over time for our customers, like a Tesla with updated driving software," Prrl Labs' COO Harvey Mathews reflected.
For example, one of the fastest growing cannabis product categories is that of 'concentrates,' which are waxy extractions mainly used in dabbing. These products are good for farmers to extend the shelf life of the herb, desired by consumers for a cleaner taste, and needed for the higher dosing requirements of medical patients. Prrl Labs has recently developed an organic, plant-based disc/pad that can be inserted into the titanium docking ring, replacing the quartz bowl. This pad enables efficient enjoyment of concentrates without the intense high temperatures experienced when dabbing.
The Role of Design "Tasteful design has the capacity to build social acceptance and shorten the time wasted with post-prohibition social stigma," observed Lewis.
Prrl Labs believes that beautiful design plays a significant role in normalizing cannabis use and moving beyond traditional stereotypes.
Lewis added, "We want our products to be proudly displayed on bookshelves, coffee tables, and kitchen counters in order to start thoughtful conversations just like those we have today about coffee, wine, and beer (all of which were banned at one time)."