The Joy of Cooking

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It's hard to resist the obvious pun on Oven Digital's name, given there's so much cooking at the hot New York new-media shop. Founded in 1996 by Henry Bar-Levav and Miles McManus, Oven Digital started as a two-man, two-computer outfit in a tiny room on Thompson Street in Greenwich Village. With art and techie backgrounds, plus a handful of contacts in the business world (Bar-Levav, aside from teaching sculpture at Pratt, had also been doing systems work on Wall Street), the founders managed to land a beefy first gig - the original website for the Museum of Modern Art. That led to other serious projects, including sites for Bantam Doubleday Dell, HarperCollins, and AT&T. Now, having grown to more than 200 employees in seven offices around the globe, including Tokyo, Sydney, and London, it continues to bake up some sweet sites, both for established businesses and online startups.

Today, one of its prominent clients is Tiffany & Co. "Originally, their website was really not fitting their brand at all," says creative director Michael Felber, a Swiss-born designer who worked for the architect Aldo Rossi before he joined Oven. "It had really deep colors, really bad layouts, so initially the idea was just to take it in the right direction, kind of a cosmetic thing." Oven revamped the look of the site, enhancing the interface with some heavy-duty flash. Now the website is a misty, dreamlike experience that could calm even the most nervous diamond-seeker. The subtle tones of Tiffany blue, softly emerging type, and smooth rollovers that gracefully reveal pull-down menus present visitors with an array of unobtrusive choices, unlike many e-commerce and information sites that bombard shoppers with a laundry list of options.

"Tiffany has a very long tradition and a very hallowed image," explains marketing director Jason Weinstein. "It was very important for them that the image be maintained on the website. If we're going to do e-commerce for them, it can't be like eBay or Amazon.com."

The company's handiwork gets wilder but no less sophisticated for its edgier clients like hip-hop content portal Hookt. Oven created the site's visual identity, which started out as a series of graffiti tags that merely said "Hookt." "We were just laughing, and we said you know what, sorry, with this kind of identity, you just can't build a good site," says Felber, "So we had to reconsider the whole identity before we even started." What resulted was an opening page that features various images revealed through several shifting windows that mimic the movement of the bars of color on a graphic equalizer. A ticker tape menu runs underneath, highlighting the choice links of the moment. Other shockwave-enabled pages on the site give visitors a chance to throw together their own drum tracks or tag the subway line of their choice with an online paint program.

Like Tiffany, the site is highly navigable, and doesn't force-feed the visitor with a text and option-loaded page. "Designwise, we looked for very intuitive navigation," says Felber. "We try not to overfill, but to keep the content clearly organized with not too many choices per page. The user can be easily overwhelmed."

But the jazzy opener and interactive features weren't even the half of it. The designs themselves are brought to life by a well-crafted but often under-appreciated backend. "We built the design interface, but we also built the technology part," adds Felber. "It's funny, because it's like an iceberg. The design you actually see, but there's such a massive chunk of technology and super sophisticated software beneath it. "

Oven frequently works directly with clients and has also worked with consulting firms like Anderson and some marketing agencies. As of yet, they have yet to collaborate with an ad agency, but they're open to it. The industry itself has already gone ga-ga over Oven's work. It earned One Show Interactive Gold for online Broadway theater archive Shubertarchive.org, for Hookt.com, and for Dcn.com, the Digital Club Network, which links alt-music aficionados up to live and archived streaming video of club performances around the world. The company also earned a Cyber Lion at Cannes this year for a channel it created on the Istyletv.com online network (istyletv.com/cars).

Oven (at ovendigital.com) resists being billed as strictly a design company, because the beauty of the work extends far beneath the surface. "Design is usually what gets perceived," says Felber, "but we're very strong in design only because we have very strong technology and strategy that makes it actually happen. My deep belief is that a good design company today is not possible without having amazing technology and strategy teams, because those three components work so tightly together."

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