Kay Ruggles was well-known in bathroom circles in the late 1960s. He was the guy who invented the plastic, one-piece sink-and-counter top. You can find them in nearly every motel and subdivision in America now, but back in the '60s the design was revolutionary, and it made Ruggles sort of a legend.
When Richard Nixon wanted a new bathroom for Air Force One in 1969 it was Ruggles who got the job. Design us a bathroom with lots of mirrors and lights, the Boeing Co. told Ruggles, because the president has quite a 5 o'clock shadow and he needs to shave a lot.Although Ruggles remains generally unknown in his hometown of Holladay, where he still lives, the fame of his bathrooms eventually spread all the way to Yugoslavia, where Marshal Tito ordered one, and to Borneo, where the Sultan of Brunei ordered two, with leather toilet seats. Eventually Hugh Hefner had a custom-designed Kay Ruggles bathroom. So did Ted Kennedy. And Disney World.
Ruggles was also the guy who designed the very first plastic, tubular trash can.
But Ruggles isn't the kind of man to dwell on past glories of sinks and trash cans. What he wants to talk about now is The Red Eye No Wait Waiter Call System.
Here's the scenario: you're at a restaurant and you're ready to order, or maybe you want more water, and you can't get the waiter's attention. Or, conversely, you're in the middle of a crucial conversation or are in midbite, and the waiter interrupts to ask "Is everything OK?"
Ruggles likes to eat out a lot. As proof, he points to his stomach, then proceeds to explain his invention. It's a little knickknack that sits on the table. When the diner wants the waiter or waitress's attention, he presses down on the knick-knack, activating a red light.
Ruggles and his assistant, Karen Kerr, whipped up some prototypes of The Red Eye No Wait Waiter Call System and took them to the Executive Chefs Grand Tasting and Product Convention in New York City last month. The executive chef at the Plaza Hotel's Gauguin Restaurant was "very interested," they say, so Kerr and Ruggles came back to their design room in Holladay and made a cast plastic Red Eye No Wait Waiter Call System that looks like the head of a Tahitian woman.
Ruggles has believed in plastic since the early 1950s. He brought the first batch of fiberglass into Utah, which he used to build a plastic car for his senior project at the University of Utah.
After college he got a job designing the fiberglass body of the first Corvette. From there he moved on to fiberglass truck cabs and fiberglass power boats and fiberglass internal insulation for rocket motors.
By then plastic was already becoming a synonym for tackiness and artificiality. But Ruggles had faith that the stuff could also be used to transform the mundane into something simple and sleek.
His designs over the past three decades have included ski gondolas, monorail coaches, tubular water slides, window coverings, tables and doorknobs. One of his recent inventions is a technique to add color to concrete floors to make them more attractive. There is a Ruggles floor at the new Fuggles pub downtown and in the new entryway of the Salt Lake Art Center.
He's devoting his attention these days to The Red Eye No Wait Waiter Call System. Next month he'll pitch it at the Executive Chefs Convention in Los Angeles. If it starts to generate a lot of interest, he'll do what he usually does in these circumstances: He'll sell the company to someone else.
He has a low boredom threshold, so he usually moves on once a product gets past the innovation stage. Manufacturing, he says, is for people with discipline. Bathroom giant American Standard bought his sink patents in the 1970s. A division of Levelor recently bought his window covering company.
Ruggles mumbles these accomplishments. He doesn't even mention that his design for the gondolas at the Mammoth ski resort once won the Society of Plastics Institute's annual award for the best product made out of plastic.
He's as rumpled and low key now as he ever was, says Howard Clark of Clark-Leaming Designs, who has known Ruggles since the early bathroom days. Clark remembers the meetings he and Ruggles used to have with executives from American Standard.
"When is Mr. Ruggles going to get here," someone would ask, looking right past the guy whose shirt tail would invariably be half in-half out.
"I think he's already here," Ruggles would say with a grin.