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At Salone del Mobile 2018, the tech world stages a takeover

Is the gap between the tech and design worlds closing?

Google’s “Softwear” exhibition at Salone.
Google’s “Softwear” exhibition at Galleria Rossana Orlandi.
Sean Pierce courtesy Google Design

As one leading tech designer said in an interview during Milan Design Week last week, “99.5 percent of talk in Milan is still around tables and chairs.”

But could the tide finally be turning? This year saw an increased focus on the intersection of technology and design through discussions, exhibitions, and more.

Debuts of big tech brands like Google and Instagram at a week historically dedicated to traditional furniture design were viewed by many in the scene with skepticism—and welcomed by others. After all, isn’t design at its core focused on making the world a better place, using whatever materials are available to do so?

Google stakes out territory

Google staged its first-ever official Milan Design Week appearance at the Salone hotspot Galleria Rossana Orlandi. The tech behemoth’s exhibition, titled “Softwear,” was curated by Li Eldekoort, leading trend forecaster and dean of Hybrid Design Studies at New York’s Parsons School of Design, and organized by Ivy Ross, Google’s VP of design.

Presenting Google’s line of cell phones, cameras, and speakers in seemingly Scandinavian-inspired home settings—including a snug seating area oozing with hygge—the exhibit aimed to show how seamlessly a well-designed tech item can blend in with attractive home furnishings.

Sean Pierce courtesy Google Design

The show was influenced by a prediction made by Edelkoort in 1998—a lifestyle trend forecast for the future, which she called “Softwear.” Spoiler alert: It involved the integration of technology into everyday life.

“I started to see a development in technology which would make it more human, close to us, more interactive with us,” Edelkoort tells Curbed. “But it was still only guessing [then] because we didn’t have smartphones.” In this scenario, working from home would become the norm and boundaries between pleasure and leisure would blur. Today, 20 years later, we have finally arrived, Edelkoort says.

Ross points out that tech products are entering a design-focused refining phase—one that has occurred in the history of everything manmade over the centuries, from windows to doorknobs. “Now that hardware is here to stay, it’s about bringing in some of the art and craft,” she says.

Tech companies get smart about craft

Craftsmanship certainly played a role in Bang & Olufsen’s Beoplay B6 bluetooth speaker, designed by Cecilie Manz (who was this year’s Maison & Objet Designer of the Year). At first glance, Manz, who has a background in traditional furniture design, may not seem like a typical choice. But for her, design is all about problem solving, whether the problem is designing a bathtub or a Bluetooth speaker.

“I should like it; it should not intimidate me; my kids should be able to use it” she says of her philosophy. “Technology should not be approached differently,” she adds. The perforated-aluminum-clad Beoplay B6 is the seventh speaker she’s done for the company.

Tech items, like speakers, she says, are rife with craftsmanship. “You have one engineer for the aluminum, one for the plastic parts, one for the sound, etc. With a chair, there might only be one, so it’s much more complicated.” In the end, she says, everything ends up on the designer’s table. “We (designers) need to have the overview and it’s really demanding.”

Judging by the increase in tech companies in Milan this year, Manz predicts to see more designers collaborating with the tech establishment in years to come.

Speaker design figured into another of the week’s big events: the takeover of the historic Palazzo Clerici by Danish furniture-maker Hay. Hay teamed up with soundsystem company Sonos and coworking juggernaut WeWork to decorate the ornate palace with their pared-back designs in simulated living and coworking environments.

Sonos and Hay collaborated on a line of colored Sonos One speakers.

One of the debuts was a limited-edition version of the Sonos One speaker, available in the friendly, bright colors one expects from Hay. It marked the Danish company’s first foray into the tech world. Cofounder Rolf Hay said that collaborations are the way forward for the furniture and design industry, and an ideal way to keep up with a rapidly changing industry.

“We did a collaboration with Ikea and many said it would be dangerous to Hay,” he says. “But if you look at the industry in that way, it’s so old fashioned.” In the tech world, he went on, it’s common sense.

“You find people with the right knowledge, bring them to one table and do a project together,” Hay added. “I think we can learn a lot from the tech industry in our industry.”

Instagram jumps into the fray

Another of the year’s most talked-about events—eyed with a mix of curiosity and skepticism—was Instagram’s launch of the @design platform. The social media app’s design team says the account will promote designers both well-known and up-and-coming, although details about how it will do so remain scarce.

For the kickoff event in ornate Palazzo Crespi, Instagram hosted a panel to “explore the intersection between technology and craft” as it relates to the app, featuring industry figures like tech designer Yves Béhar, design writer Michelle Ogundehin, and others.

During the talk, Instagram’s head of design, Ian Spalter, argued that social media platforms like Instagram have a place in Milan—not least because designers were some of the earliest users of the platform, thanks to their penchant for visual communication.

Béhar offered some of the most insightful contributions to the conversation, arguing that we should look beyond social media’s dystopian uses and focus on the ways such apps could improve our world. “There is a discussion today on the news level about how these platforms are used to someone’s advantage,” Béhar tells Curbed. “But I think there is another discussion about how tech can serve us and not just be trivial entertainment.”

The Swiss-born Bay Area resident has been beating this drum in his design practice for decades, and much of his work focuses on creating positive social change through sensitively designed tech.

This year in Milan, Béhar presented “Hive View,” a sleek, compact surveillance camera that’s one of the latest endeavors of smart home company Hive. In designing a simple camera, part of his goal was to focus design on “usability for non-tech people.”

“I’m really interested in where tech supports everyday lives, and, specifically, people with special needs, whether it’s in aging or health and healthcare, as well as for children and babies and supporting parents.” Designers, Béhar argues, should ask how technology can support humans during the stages of life in which they most need support.

Recent additions to Béhar’s lengthy portfolio include the Live OS smart desk for Herman Miller, which tells a user when they have been sitting for too long; Snoo, a robotic self-rocking crib (a boon for tired parents of newborns); and Aura Power Clothing, which helps elderly people with mobility challenges.

3D printing has its moment in the sun—again

Also contributing to the tech-meets-design conversation this year were myriad 3D-printing projects.

CLS Architetti teamed up with engineering firm ARUP to create Europe’s first 3D-printed house. Then there was Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA), which unveiled a new chair with Spanish 3D printing firm Nagami. Using a unique combination of computational design and large-scale robotic printing, the film unveiled several pieces of furniture during its Milan Design Week debut, including whimsical chairs “Bow” and “Rise,” designed by ZHA principal Patrick Schumacher for Nagami.

“Bow” and “Rise” by Zaha Hadid Architects.

Created by using structural optimization processes found in nature, the items offer a peek at what digital design of the future can bring, and are part of Zaha Hadid Architects’s “ongoing explorations” into the wide world of 3D printing technology.

Digital design innovations were also present in the submissions for the Lexus Design Awards, a program which pairs 12 up-and-coming design teams with forward-thinking projects to be mentored by established players.

Portugal-based design team DIGITLAB created CO-RKs, a system that puts cork thread through an algorithm-based design system, making it possible to experiment with different material densities and functions—i.e. on furniture or in spaces. The goal was to connect a low-tech sustainable material—in this case, cork thread, which resembles jute—with a high-tech design process, said the studio’s founders, Ana Trindade Fonseca and Brimet Fernandes da Silva.

Since Portugal is one of the world’s leading producers of cork, the team wanted to explore new ways of working with this local material. “It’s not about reinventing the wheel but looking for what we have in our traditional industries and creating innovative solutions for how they are applied,” Fonseca tells Curbed. She cited an interest in working with “the logic of the circular economy” as another reason for using cork, since the material can be made with recycled wine stoppers.

CO-RKs prototype.
Lexus Design Award

With the guidance of lighting designer Lindsey Adelman, the duo created a prototype lamp to give a real-world example of what their algorithm can do. However, the system doesn’t only generate one product: “It also explores different applications, from a product scale to a spatial scale” says Fonseca. In the future, they hope to adapt their algorithm for use with other sustainable materials.

From this year‘s debuts of tech companies like Google and Instagram, to a host of new collaborations and innovations in 3D printing and digital design, conversations—and contention—about the role of technology in the design world will certainly continue in Milan in years to come.

Like or not, the technology-omnipresent “Softwear” future Edelkoort envisioned in 1998 is here. The question is: What will designers do with it?