PHILIPPE STARCK was in NY last week, ostensibly to introduce the Zik wireless headphones he designed for the French company Parrot. But Mr. Starck, who had just flown in from Paris, seemed more interested in holding forth on the future of design.
Designs for the Digital Age
Dressed in yellow pants and unlaced white sneakers, he stood in a smartly furnished room of an upscale town house in Manhattan, jubilantly addressing a small crowd.
“What’s the future of design?” he asked rhetorically. “There is no future. When the product becomes bionic, in the end there is no product.”
The digital age, Mr. Starck said, has created a process of “dematerialization,” in which products like the Zik headphones are simultaneously shrinking and becoming smarter. “It’s the elegance of the minimum,” he said.
The end result? Eventually, he announced, we’ll all be implanted with microchips, and we’ll be the product.
Of course, that could take a while. As technology rapidly remakes most parts of our lives, the furniture industry remains largely slow-moving and low-tech. For many retailers, midcentury furniture designed 60 years ago still qualifies as “modern.”
Even so, in recent years a number of furniture designers have been struggling to adapt — in ways big and small, subtle and not so subtle — to new forms of technology and the proliferation of devices like the iPad, e-readers and ever-thinner flat-screen TVs.
In a way, they have no choice.
“The rate of technological change has gotten so fast that we need to inform the design to reflect it,” said Ryan Anderson, director of future technology for Herman Miller.
In decades past, he added, designers had time to anticipate where technology was headed and to plan for it. Today, he said, “the space and the furniture have to be cognizant” of it almost instantly.
One way that Herman Miller is trying to do that is by hiring someone like Mr. Anderson. Two months ago, his job didn’t exist. Now, he works with the design team to come up with answers to vexing Internet-age questions like what the home office should look like when the iPad and other tablets and laptops have freed us to work anywhere. It’s still unclear, he said, whether people prefer to use such devices on a work surface or, say, on the couch.
But what is clear from a design standpoint is that, going forward, the company’s furniture can’t layer on technology as an afterthought, said Gretchen Gscheidle, who leads product development at Herman Miller and works closely with Mr. Anderson. She added, “We need to have our products accommodate that technology.”
Many companies agree and are taking that idea literally, judging by all the new furnishings that incorporate Apple devices. Consider the iCon Bed from Hollandia, its headboard equipped with speakers, an amplifier and docking stations for two iPads. Or the Fleur de Noyer chest of drawers by Think Fabricate, which features what the company calls “Fleur de Tech” — a fancy way of saying it has a built-in charging station for electronic devices.
One of the most talked about of these mash-ups is the D’E-light by Flos, a sleek table lamp equipped with a dock for Apple devices. Andrew Shabica, a product manager for the company, said it made sense to take an everyday object like a lamp and combine it with the iPad or iPhone, “which has become a staple of our lives.”
Mr. Starck designed the lamp (he hasn’t abandoned the material world yet), and his involvement ensured not only a cutting-edge product but also one that was stylish too, Mr. Shabica said: “He can take our ideas and add geometry, lines. Rather than simply, ‘It’s a couch with an iPad docking station.’ ”
Some designers, however, are wary of this kind of mash-up, for obvious reasons. After all, the chair with the built-in eight-track player was once cutting edge, too.
“Technology moves at such a rate that it’s going to be redundant in a matter of years,” said Edward Barber, a co-founder of the London design studio Barber Osgerby. “As soon as the charging docks change, suddenly the lamp is redundant.”
So, it’s not surprising that retailers like CB2 and M2L are taking a more pragmatic approach, producing furniture that isn’t about incorporating gadgets, but rather about adapting to the way people use them at home.
The Scene XXL chair, designed by Gijs Papavoine for Montis and recently introduced by M2L, for example, comes with the option of an attached “tablet table” and an upholstered high back for privacy when typing or making phone calls. The Tucker laptop table from CB2 flips open to store a laptop or iPad inside and is low enough to use as a work surface while sitting on the couch. The company’s Andes bed has an attached nightstand with cord management built into the design, something unheard of a few years ago. But today, said Ryan Turf, CB2’s general merchandise manager, “we understand that a lot of people go to bed and put the iPhone next to their bed and still need to charge it.”
And as Mr. Anderson of Herman Miller noted, even in the age of Wi-Fi, cord management is still one of the biggest challenges facing designers.
“Seeing a beautiful piece of furniture in a beautiful space littered with cords and cables is not a great experience,” he said. “Making them discreet is important.”
IT may not be possible to make them disappear, but as Harry Allen, an industrial and interior designer, noted, in many ways, “the physical world is disappearing.”
You can see it in desks like the Dyvel Table, an elegant glass-and-wood piece that has done away with drawers altogether. Or in the way lightweight flat-screen TVs and iPods have all but eliminated the need for big entertainment units.
“What’s interesting, from a design standpoint,” Mr. Allen said, “is that the computer gets rid of so many things. You don’t need clocks because they’re on our phone. You don’t need file cabinets because they’re on our phone. A lot of things that used to take up room, like records and books, you don’t need.”
Mr. Allen recently designed two apartments for women in their 20s and recalled thinking, “What is this apartment going to be filled with?” In the end, he left the spaces largely empty, with the idea that they would eventually be filled with art and personal artifacts.
It’s an aesthetic that the industrial designer Karim Rashid has been championing for years. Long before Ikea announced that it was making its Billy bookcase deeper because so many people were using it to hold everything but books, Mr. Rashid ditched all the bookcases in his home, along with his books, CDs and DVDs, as part of his own effort to dematerialize.
Mr. Rashid envisions a world in which furnishings “will start speaking or feeling the technology,” and cites possible near-future advances like upholstery that reacts to temperature, tiny speakers built into seating, and wallpaper embedded with liquid crystals that turn a wall into a giant TV screen. “That’s the epitome of dematerializing,” he said.
Still, “it’s amazing how little there is out there,” he added with puzzlement. “It’s almost like the domestic environment is the last to change.”
Many designers find his assessment frustratingly accurate. Asked to name a product that perfectly fuses furniture with new technology, Mr. Barber said, “Honestly, I can’t think of one.”
While the furniture industry is good at thinking up new “trinkets,” observed Yves Béhar, founder of the design and branding firm Fuseproject, it has been slow to address essential changes in the way we live — in particular, our ergonomic needs.
“Sitting in my couch to watch TV versus sitting in a couch to type on my computer,” Mr. Béhar said, are two different needs. “We’ve had technology in our living rooms for 10 or 12 years, and furniture has not changed at all in response.”
The cautious approach taken by the furniture giant Ikea illustrates the problem. Before Ikea adapts its designs to reflect a trend in technology, said Marcus Arvonen, a senior designer for the company, the trend generally has to be very well established. The company doesn’t want to rush into a trend that doesn’t pan out, for one reason or another.
“We’re not doing frontier solutions for a small group of early adopters,” Mr. Arvonen said, but for a mass market. Ikea itself, he added, started using Wi-Fi in its Swedish headquarters only three years ago.
In an ideal world, technology would be integrated into homes in a more “magical” way, Mr. Behar suggested, in furniture with modularity at the core. In other words, he said, “you would be able to modify the couch that you’re using in a way that makes it adapt to new technologies.”
Until that happens, Mr. Béhar and others might want to check out Jonas Damon’s Alarm Dock for Areaware. Little more than a block of beechwood with a docking station, it turns an iPhone into a nightstand alarm clock.
Yes, it’s simple and retro-looking. But it also acknowledges a new truth: the device itself has become the furniture.
Article from the NY Times