What Does Luxury Design Mean
in the Technology-Saturated Digital Age?
The definition is shifting.
In the past, luxury design was tethered to the twin peaks of exclusivity and timelessness. A Hermès Birkin bag. A Patek Philippe watch. A Bulgari ring. What elevates these items above mere commodities into the rarified stratosphere of “luxury” is their high price points, yes, but also the artisan skill that doubles as a guarantee against irrelevancy. If the cut, carat and designer is right, a young woman can purchase a pair of diamond earrings and, instead of remorse, feel confident in the knowledge that whatever value it has today, tomorrow it would be worth more. Or, at the very least, it will be passed proudly through generations; the elegant earrings that sparkle on her ears now will someday sparkle on those of her daughter and her daughter’s daughter, a tangible reminder of family history, heritage and unifying good taste.
The Apple Watch Hermès
Above: Natasha Jen, Pentagram.
Left: Dolly Singh, Thesis Couture, with Garrett Reisman, Director of Crew Operations, SpaceX, and former NASA astronaut, Bloomberg Businessweek Design 2015 Conference.
Left:Selvaggia Armani presenting at Bloomberg Businessweek Design 2015 Conference.
But this is analog luxury. Which begs the question: What does that same idea of luxury mean in the digital age, where information is free, products are virtual and technology is dramatically reshaping the way we learn, work, relax, and yes, communicate status?
The expansion of luxury
Technology has a leveling effect, bringing some aspects of luxury design down from the stratosphere onto a plane that more people can access, argues Natasha Jen, a partner at the international design firm Pentagram. In the past, items admired for their high level of craftsmanship were “typically more costly, and designed to serve a select few,” she says. Value and luxury were irrevocably tied to exclusivity.
Technology provides the tools to alter this equation, but it was one company in particular that actually used the platform to do it: “Apple redefined luxury,” says Jen. “Apple’s products, no one would argue that they’re not perfect forms of design—everything about them is impeccable.”
Impeccable design is not new, of course. Apple was revolutionary because it made “impeccable design and craftsmanship available to everyone,” says Jen. “It’s no longer, ‘this is an inferior product because my neighbor has one’ – that notion has loosened up a lot.”
Apple’s expansion of luxury isn’t limited to digital products, either. Instead, it’s had an effect across the luxury industry as a whole. “A lot of the traditional luxury companies are rethinking their entire marketing strategy and distribution chain to appeal to more people,” Jen says, citing the French multinational luxury goods conglomerate LVMH (brands include Louis Vuitton, Givenchy and Bulgari), which recently hired a former Apple executive to be their digital director. “They’re taking digital seriously, and that’s a good thing.”
It makes sense that LVMH would turn to Apple to guide its digital direction; the Cupertino, CA-based company has set the precedent for what luxury design, in the digital age, should feel like by creating products that are at once beautifully engineered and provide a “seamless experience that extends from the hardware to the software,” says Kegan Schouwenburg, the founder and CEO of SOLS, a company that creates customized, 3D-printed insoles.
As it would be for any CEO operating in the digital design space, Apple is top-of-mind for Schouwenburg. That said, with SOLS she is attempting to create a new product category: “Is it luxury or not? Or is there a better world?” Experiential design is one possibility. It’s no longer just about aesthetics, but about the entire user experience that aligns design with value beyond appearances, status and logos.
Dolly Singh is the founder and CEO of Thesis Couture, a company harnessing NASA-style technology to design high heels engineered for comfort without sacrificing style. For her, technology’s influence on luxury design has shifted the definition from rare, timeless items to products that combine beauty and functionality. It’s not that she doesn’t understand the appeal of items built to last a lifetime; her own wardrobe is a composite of pieces that she “collects like artwork,” many purchased more for their timeless aesthetic than practical functionality. Her watch, for example, has remained a constant throughout her adulthood. “I love it – I don’t know if it is working, but I like the way it looks.” This is admittedly at odds with the new definition of luxury design that she sees emerging: beautiful products that “solve problems.”
It also gets to the central tension surrounding luxury design circa now. Tech-powered functionality is often in direct opposition to timelessness—an Apple Watch, regardless of the beauty of its design, isn’t built to last 20 years because in a fraction of that time, Apple will release a faster model. On a scale of timelessness versus functionality, Apple’s products skew heavily towards the latter.
In this respect, again, Apple is a pioneer. “They get us to sink a lot of money on a new phone that is slightly different every year, says Schouwenburg. “And it’s only going to get quicker.”
That doesn’t mean they don’t qualify as luxury design, says Singh. Instead, Apple products have altered the way we define the concept. Agrees Jen, “before Apple, I can’t think of a brand that introduced technological products as something both desirable and utilitarian. Brands like IBM, Microsoft and HP—while delivering functionality—were clunky, and in some cases, downright ugly. Apple redefined the landscape.”
Left:Kegan Schouwenburg, founder and CEO of SOLS.
Companies and products that manage to hit all three notes—beauty, status and extreme functionality—are emerging as luxury design’s next frontier. Perhaps the best example of this? Tesla.
The battery-powered cars are at once extraordinarily expensive, a clear-cut status symbol and roundly praised for the exquisite beauty of their design. In functionality, Tesla is also second to none. Its Model S P85D received an unprecedented score of 103 out of 100 from Consumer Reports, which praised the car for its safety features, fuel efficiency and ability to
accelerate from 0 to 60 miles in 3.5 seconds.
“If you are doing something different that solves a legitimate problem, consumers are going to be excited about it,” says Singh.
If a luxury product sacrifices timelessness for functionality, it better provide real insight, not just disconnected data points, says Schouwenburg. This is the biggest gap she sees in the luxury tech market right now: While there is a proliferation of elegantly designed wearables, few have managed to apply the same elegant design to the interpretation of data. This ties back to user experience—in the new world order, luxury design is synonymous with seamlessness. An expertly crafted smartwatch that merely spits out data points, may not be creating a seamless user experience. Said another way, it’s like a dazzling pair of high heels that are uncomfortable to wear.
Laura Entis, lead author, is a staff writer at Entrepreneur Magazine.
Glenn Entis, an Academy Award winner, is a co-founder of Pacific Data Images, which created the Oscar-winning Shrek movies, past CEO of DreamWorks Interactive, and past Chief Visual and Technical Officer of Electronic Arts.
For all this talk about functionality, what about the other side of the scale, namely craftsmanship and customization? Luxury design’s definition may have expanded to include elegant functionality, but have we abandoned the desire for handcrafted, bespoke and artisan products altogether? Certainly not, says Selvaggia Armani, an architect and designer, whose work straddles the old- and new-world definitions of luxury design.
Armani paints on leather hides; each is unique, and not inexpensive. Customers often purchase them to upholster furniture, or create custom handbags and leather accessories. The hides—which are carefully selected and treated—are built to be unique and last for decades (or, alternatively, through countless cycles of smartphone updates). Armani says many customers purchase the hides with the idea that they can pass them on to their children, or grandchildren.
Simultaneously, Armani designs models for 3D-printed home appliances. She’s drawn to the medium because of its lightning quickness. Whereas traditional industrial design manufacturing “takes months and months,” 3D printing allows her to start the process within two weeks.
These two realms are not as disconnected as they first appear.
Somewhat ironically, 3D printing brings us back to the age of bespoke products, just with dramatically reduced prices, says SOLS CEO Schouwenburg. Her company was founded on the principle of harnessing technology to make customization affordable. “We’re defining a new product category where luxury is driven by technology that can create a product unique to you, as opposed to buying something off the shelf,” she says. “In some ways that’s even more luxurious because it’s the single, only one that exists in the entire world.”
On digital screens, the definition of luxury changes
Analog luxury products are largely tactile, whereas digital products are largely not. “If you look at luxury analog watches, the dials and the numbers are everything,” says Jen. “With the Apple watch, while it is a beautifully designed product, when it’s not turned on you see a black rectangle.” In her view, it’s a real loss; we’re wired to crave textured detail and elaborate craftsmanship. Although design-savvy Apple appears to anticipate this, too. The company recently partnered with Hermès to create smartwatches with stitched wristbands, to be called Apple Watch Hermès. As Pierre-Alexis Dumas, Hermès’ executive vice president in charge of artistic direction said, “I see it as the establishment of an alliance in excellence; like horse and carriage, a perfect team.”
But some horses and carriages are not compatible. Simply put, luxury design that works with analog products doesn’t always translate to digital ones. “Trying to accomplish a feeling of luxury on a digital screen is an entirely different ball game than trying with a tangible object,” says Jen. Analog luxury is about materials, craftsmanship, intricacy and how a product feels in your hand—all considerations that can’t be expressed on a flat screen.
Digital luxury, then, has its own rules, ones that value clean design. Because the digital places more import on functionality, screens are often there to convey information. As such, “clarity is paramount—clarity in itself can be a kind of protean for making something feel luxurious.” While ornamentation reads as luxury in the analog world, in the digital world it too easily registers as clunky and crowded. Simplicity reigns supreme.
The future: technology that disappears
This tension between analog and digital provides further insight into why digital products, for some, will never successfully enter the rarified stratosphere of luxury design.
Upon her graduation from university more than 20 years ago, Armani’s mother gave her a beautiful, classic Swiss watch. She’s worn it ever since. It connects her to a moment and a loved one, which reinforces the durability of its underlining design: “It becomes like a part of you—something personal, something without time.” She says she’ll never purchase a smartwatch because it violates her sense of what a watch should do. “It’s like your wedding ring—you don’t change it.”
This concept—that a luxury product should tether consumers to a past history and is therefore irreplaceable —has been used by luxury brands as a defense against encroaching competition from technology companies such as Apple. For an ad spot that ran during Wimbledon 2015, Rolex hammered home this point.
In the commercial, 17 Grand Slam tennis champion Roger Federer walks through a museum where the walls are hung with images and videos depicting some of the greatest moments in tennis history. As he moves through the space, pausing to admire each memory, the audience hears, in voice-over:
Why this watch?
This watch has witnessed the epic,
World’s most famous fortnight
And the century of traditions unchanged.
It’s heard the hush of the crowd,
The whip of the maestro,
And the lawn of courts center stage.
It doesn’t just tell time,
It tells history.
Despite vocal early adopters of digital design, such as Singh and Schouwenburg, this conveyed sense of timelessness—made possible through physical tactility and the absence of software updates—continues to trump a new world order that values seamless, functional, evolving, and ultimately screen-centered design.
As we move forward, Schouwenburg hopes luxury design will come to encompass the best of both worlds. The dream is that technology becomes invisible. “I love everything that is being done from a software perspective, but I want it to happen in a way that is nonintrusive, where you don’t even see it.” In the past, the Swiss would give the proud owner of a luxury watch a peek at the tourbillon inside, a mechanical marvel of immense complexity from the 18th century. Now picture a Patek Philippe watch with all the advanced software features and capabilities of an Apple Watch hidden inside.
In the future, luxury design may be impossible to spot.
Says Schouwenburg, “It should just disappear.”