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The most inspired cubes since Rubik

It’s not easy being hip and green, but a new product launch this month aims to breach the divide. Since 2000, Method, a start-up from San Francisco, has been shaking up the drab cleaning-products category with its minimalist, almost no-label bottles, which contain eco-friendly detergents that tease with a whiff of gentle luxury.

The question is, now that the Doves of the world also churn out green tea soap in clear dispensers, how does an outfit with 80 employees and $33.5 million (€25.5 million) in annual sales out run the big guys?

Answer: by bringing someone like Josh Handy on board as a “professional disruptor”. Before he joined the company, Method’s new chief innovator worked as product director for the British-Egyptian designer Karim Rashid.

Handy had a hand in developing Bloq, Method’s new line of bodycare products, to be introduced in the US and Canada this month, and in the UK at the end of the year. The opaque rectangles in four colours and scents are a radical departure from the company’s signature curvy designs that made their bottles of washing-up liquid collectors’ items.

Bloq was a spur-of-the moment creation. After toying with a completely round bottle code-named “Seed” for half a year and investing a six-figure sum on development and sourcing, one night Handy thought up a simple cube container. He admits that he was high on flu medication at the time.

“Seed was stunning, everyone said so,” says the designer. “But you couldn’t place it properly on store shelves or in the shower. When the team saw the cube, they all just went: ‘Great!’” It took two weeks to throw out all the previous work and go with the simple blocks. They are manufactured in Taiwan since no US manufacturer could meet the demanding specs.

“It’s a big, risky leap for Method,” admits co-founder Eric Ryan, who has big plans for the eco-brand. He already has the next radical idea up his sleeve: to put the full list of ingredients on all of Method’s cleaning products. “Transparency – it’s not required and nobody does it. We will.”

Bloq is available at Duane Reade:
www.duanereade.com and Target www.target.com Prices range from $6 to $8 (€4 to €6).

Bouncing back

Beirut’s retail resurrection

In Beirut, however bad things get, business rarely comes to halt. So just two blocks from Hezbollah’s ongoing demonstration, the massive 110,000 sq m Beirut Souk project – a combined retail, leisure and residential scheme – is firmly back on track. The first part should open later this summer, with the rest by 2009. Part-designed by Spanish architect Rafael Moneo and Australian Kevin Dash, it will include hotels, two museums and a department store operated by luxury retailers Aishti.

Flying high

Black Sea black spot

Has sunny Bulgaria become a little too popular with British, German and Swedish holidaymakers and bargain holiday home hunters? Well, the country’s airports are certainly struggling to cope with the ever-increasing passenger traffic. Bulgarian carriers transported 744,000 passengers in 2006, up 27.4 per cent on 2005. Sofia International Airport (pictured) handled two million passengers last year, and its new Terminal 2 was opened in December 2006.

Bulgaria’s two other major airports, Varna and Bourgas, near popular Black Sea resorts, are expanding to cope with the influx too. The German airport operator Fraport, which runs the concessions, says construction of new passenger terminals at both airports will begin next year. The initial investment will be around €45m.

Urban spacemen

Manhattan to Mars in a Coke can

New York has become an unlikely space-exploration hub. Hi-tech firm Honeybee, which is headquartered in the city, is currently making the first extreme-temperature motors, capable of functioning at 460c, for missions to Venus (previous missions have had to be aborted because of the intense heat). In August, Honeybee will also launch the Icy Soil Aquisition Device, a scoop for digging trenches on Mars.

But the product it’s currently proudest of is the RAT, or Rock Abrasion Tool. Roughly the size of a Coke can, it also weighs scarcely more than one, and it’s the first machine to penetrate rocks on another planet.

The RAT is attached to the arm of Nasa’s Mars Rover, which holds it in place as its tiny synthetic-diamond teeth gnaw at the planet’s surface, nibbling off a fraction of a millimetre at a time for spectroscopic analysis. It has been hard at work since the Rover first touched down in 2004, and is only now nearing the end of its lifespan.

“We are communicating with Mars in our control room over there,” says the company’s founder Stephen Gorevan, pointing from his office to a row of cubicles where his engineers tap out instructions on laptops.

The distance between Earth and Mars varies from 20 to 40 million miles. The conceptual distance between New York and the traditional centres of space exploration may be even greater. But Gorevan, a large, imperturbable man with a Jim Jarmuschian shock of white hair, grew up in New York and founded Honeybee there in 1983, and he believes the location is attractive to Nasa employees. “The people we do business with – from Texas and Florida and California – vie for position to be the point of contact – because they get to go to New York.”

Honeybee’s newest client is power company Con Edison, for which it is developing a new solution to the problem of leaking steam pipes. This is a 9ft-long robotic inchworm that will scuttle through heating ducts locating leaking pipes, cleaning their seams with a milling operation, and then welding them shut, at a fraction of the cost of having to dig up an entire street.

Loaves and fishes

Can a beef-heart kebab save Peru?

In Lima, a messianic chef named Gastón Acurio is trying to save his country through food. “Behind our very dear national cuisine,” he recently told an audience of university students, “there are opportunities to create concepts that could generate huge benefits to Peru – financially and for our country’s brands.”

The son of a prominent senator, Acurio trained in Paris and opened his first restaurant in Lima as a temple of French cuisine before having crisis of conscience.

“I realised that my job was not to find wild mushrooms in France – I had a thousand Amazonian and Andean fruits and wild herbs. My job was not to make boeuf bourguignon; there are 200 different stews in Peru. It was the food, the ingredients, that made me appreciate my country.”

Within months he turned Astrid y Gastón into a showcase for traditional Peruvian ingredients, and in the process more or less invented an indigenous haute cuisine. Acurio has since opened branches in five Latin American cities and is planning two more in Mexico City and Madrid. He’s launched his own versions of the country’s classic bistros, cebicherías, sandwich shops, and anticucho stands, with an eye for their appeal to foreign diners.

But before foodies start complaining about sacrificing authenticity, consider that an anticucho is a kebab, that the most popular kind in Lima is made from beef heart, and Acurio has every intention of offering these at his franchises.

He sees himself not just as an entrepreneur but as a colonist in reverse, whose restaurants will serve as outposts of a Peruvian gastronomic empire. “Imagine a scenario where, when we stroll about a European city we find an anticucho shack beside a pizza parlour, a cebichería next to a sushi bar. Then we must imagine all the benefits that will bring about.”

So what are those benefits? Why should Peru push cebicherías – raw fish restaurants – when it can push copper, zinc, even bird excrement? One answer is that nations that export raw materials are vulnerable to foreign-owned processors and distributors, and to the volatility of global markets. One of the few inalienable sources of value is brand, and one of the things most amenable to branding is food.

This is something France recognised when it established appellations d’origine contrôlées for its wines and cheeses. The AOC on a bottle of Beaujolais-Villages is a certificate of quality and authenticity, and plenty of people will pay extra for it. And what can be done for a specific product can also be done for an entire cuisine.

As recently as the 1980s foreigners came to Spain to swim and sunbathe, but they didn’t come there to eat. According to Jeffrey Shaw at the New York office of the Spanish Trade Commission, Spain spent several years painstakingly branding its national cuisine. Shaw sent delegations of foreign chefs, food writers and magazine editors to El Bulli, the Costa Brava restaurant whose genius was the inventive chef Ferran Adrià. It wasn’t long before Adrià was proclaimed the “Dalí of the kitchen” and Spain was threatening France’s hegemony in haute cuisine.

At the same time, Shaw and his colleagues were conducting a similar campaign for Spanish cheeses, for the quince paste membrilla and its artisanal “breads”. “Those products occupy a miniscule niche in the US market, but they generate $3bn (€2.74bn) in sales, and they create a greater demand for other Spanish products and for Spanishness.”

Can Peru replicate Spain’s success? “We have resources, we have traditions,” Acurio says, “and if we start looking at them as brands, we can go around the world and sell them.”

Reach for the stars

PR reaches new heights in Tokyo

With high-rise property developments springing up all over the city, Tokyo property companies are queuing up to hire famous faces to front their publicity campaigns. From Richard Gere to Ryuichi Sakamoto, stars have been plugging swish new apartment complexes. Leonardo DiCaprio is currently plastered all over the Tokyo subway, lending his star wattage to a new housing project from Orix Real Estate. Now Madonna is the face of Tokyo Tatemono’s new 33-storey tower in Ariakem, Tokyo Bay. Bearing the unlikely name of Brillia Mare, this yet-to-be-opened mega-development – with interiors by Tokyo favourites Super Potato – boasts 1,000 apartments, a rooftop spa, an indoor pool and gardens. The PR blitz is underway with a TV commercial featuring Madonna shot by Steven Klein. Show apartments open in May.

Reclaim the beach

Why sand has become big business

International dredging company Royal Boskalis Westminster had a bumper year – net profits increased 60 per cent to a record level of €100m in 2006. With beaches from the Dominican Republic to Miami eroding and threatening tourism, Boskalis’s land reclamation services are in great demand. Its state-of-the-art jumbo dredgers transport sand from deeper waters back to the beach. The Dominican Republic just paid over €12m to “rejuvenate” and extend Cabarete beach in Punta Plata. Watch this space: Sand could be the next big brand.

Aliens have landed

High-end computers for gamers

Porsche, Jaguar, Mark Levinson, Krell, Runco, Viking. Every sector of consumer technology has its high end. A conspicuous omission, however, has been PCs – it’s hard to talk about a high end in an industry of $600 (around €450) desktops.

There is, however, Alienware, a line of ultra-sleek, ultra-fast computers whose flagship models, the Aurora mALX 19” notebook and the Area-51 ALX desktop, start at $4,499 and $6,049 respectively. The latter features Intel’s quad-core Core 2 Extreme QX6700 CPU running at 2.66 GHz, NVIDIA’s nForce 6 graphics chipset, and two GeForce 8800 GTX video cards in SLI configuration. To fully appreciate these stats one has to be a gamer.

Company directors Nelson Gonzalez and Alex Aguila built their first computers because they couldn’t buy any that were fast or powerful enough for the flight simulators back in the mid-1990s.

“Alienware is the only big company that makes stylish computers for geeks,” says Clive Thompson, technology writer for The New York Times. “They’re really big geeks who got the idea of what you, the geek customer, would want,” he says.

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