How a simple idea went from the sketch page to the award-winning Waterpipe of today
Before there was a company called Heir there were just 4 friends in a college living room looking at the crusty beaker bong in front of them. This coffee table centerpiece wasn't just an eyesore, from top to bottom it seemed devoid of a single practical design feature. How do I hold it? How do I clean it? What happens when this $200 wobbly glass monstrosity tips over?
It was the elephant in the room, and we wanted a bong that would blend seamlessly into everyday life, both functionally and aesthetically.
This simple desire would become our design approach for other projects in years to come. But on that day we set to work envisioning what the modern bong would look like.
Let's unpack some of the problems with traditional bongs
Non-intuitive: Poorly articulated for holding or seeing into the bowl
Fragile: Unibody glass design easily broken, expensive to replace
Dirty: Impossible to clean interior, outside of soaking in alcohol and using special tools
Outdated: Grungy and whimsical styles
We set out to make a cleanable, intuitive, durable, and modern bong, and opted to call it the Waterpipe instead to express the transition of this stigmatized object to a more commonplace and ubiquitous feeling item in the home.
Here's how that went...
Resin is the nasty foe that lurks inside every smoking pipe, waiting to harass you when you try to wash it away with water. Pipes are like pants, in that you can get away without washing them every time you wear them, but after 3-4 days people are going to start to notice.
Our answer to the cleaning problem was to make the inside accessible for cleaning easily, with a brush or by hand.
The removable glass chamber was one of the first "big" ideas in our initial design sprint, and one we built into every concept going forward.
Disassemblable design opens up the inside for easier cleaning
Stooped over like a caveman, worried about lighting your hair on fire, and awkwardly holding the beaker tube for dear life so you don't drop the glass. The first hit anyone takes from a beaker-bong is a cough-fest waiting to happen, just from the tension of trying to do everything correctly.
We set out to design a mouthpiece that could be understood and used intuitively even by someone who had never smoked a bong before.
A procession of sketches and models followed, in which we thought through how to articulate the main touchpoints - grip, bowl, lighter - in a way that felt natural and gave a sense of controlled confidence while smoking.
As we refined further we referenced Scandinavian designs, branching forms with minimalist character, and pushed for a visually simple yet ergonomic solution.
The mouthpiece keeps your nack at a natural angle, provides a comfortable grip, and places the bowl directly in sight. The result is a smoother, more controlled hit as you relax and breathe comfortably.
At this point you might be asking, but did you think about how this modern-bong would smoke? And to that we say yes a thousand times we did our homework.
A simplification of how a bong makes hits "smooth"
Hot air and gas is passed through water during which it exchanges some of it's heat and also filters out particulates before also further cooling as it exchanges heat with air and chambers in the tube section.
When smoke is chambered in the tube, it continues to exchange it's heat with the surrounding air. The more time it spends chambered, and the more distance it travels increases this effect.
From this analysis we saw two things to consider when engineering a better hit.
How to maximize the surface area of smoke in contact with water, in order to increase the water's cooling and filtration
How to increase the distance smoke travels within the pipe, to increase the cooling effect of smoke travelling within the pipe.
We tested a range of percolator designs, and studied how variables like hole size and proximity affected the overall size of smoke bubbles passing through the water. Another important consideration was how to minimize "chug" which is what happens when the water becomes so turbulent that smoke is essentially passing through without coming in contact with the water, thus not being cooled and filtered.
Our refinements led to the 8-slotted percolator design at the end of the downstem, selected for creating a consistent and steady torrent of bubbles without churning up so much water that the smoke goes through unfiltered.
The result is a blissfully smooth smoke cloud, transformed from a hot torrent of gas and ash where it started in the bowl.
We created a new architecture with the Waterpipe that places the bowl at the top of the pipe, with a downstem extending down the full length of the chamber. This was done with the intention of extending the all-important cooling-distance within the pipe, but without creating an overall taller (and thus inherently more tippable) monstrosity.
2 years later we would release the shorter size variant Waterpipe 11, which changed the smoking experience to one more akin to a common bubbler by reducing the chamber size. We saw that a smaller, more handheld size was just as enjoyable for many who aren't interested in chambering large hits as you do with a traditional full size bong.
Aura Waterpipe concept design - May 2015
In May 2015 After a full 3 months iterating and testing new ideas, we had developed a concept design which we called Aura Waterpipe. This design won acclaim in the Core77.com design awards, and launched our little project with a small following online.
However, it would be another 2 years before we ever sold a single piece. Why? The Aura concept design, though sleek looking and theoretically very nice to use had not seen the real world.
We wanted to understand the ins-and-outs of living and smoking from this pipe daily and continue to develop solutions for all of those untold quirks that would arise.
Production of a consistently high quality product is an entirely different set of problem solving than making a single prototype, and we invested the following phase of development selecting materials and manufacturers to uphold our vision of a durably made and ultimately beautiful end product.
First production Waterpipes heading out of the garage in 2018
The Waterpipe is an assembly of Glass, Steel, and Ceramic, each material playing it's part in specific ways where needed. The stainless steel bowl is drop proof because we found that with glass bowls this was the most commonly broken component as it is passed around and accidentally dropped. The glass chamber is where we allowed durability to take a backseat and allow a view inside the pipe, although 7mm glass has plenty of strength to survive the bottom of the sink or short drops. The mouthpiece and downstem are alumina ceramic - a high-density material that is common in dentistry and aerospace, and in this application an expression of the overbuilt quality we wanted to achieve.
Altogether this modular assembly has the benefit of allowing a single part to be replaced if needed, and we've been restoring customer's pipes since day one with low cost part replacements from our shop.
With time we've packed the Waterpipe with what we call mini-vations - subtle features that make the process of loading lighting and cleaning easier. Things like the Smoke Tool which is a handy assistant for ashing the bowl, the coozie to protect the glass and hide resin, and the bowl cap that keeps snuffs out embers and keeps the ashen smell contained.
At the end of the day we want to make enjoying good smoke an effortless ritual.
Behind every piece we make is a time-worn process of living with our designs and making strides forward. Honesty and simplicity are our guiding rules in this search, and finding a balance between a feature laden swiss-army-knife and a minimally beautiful home display-worthy object you'll cherish is where we hope you'll find we've landed.