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Sleek, abstract, minimal: Why the future of furniture is technology itself

Tuttomio workstation by Emanuele Magini for Campeggi

Emanuele Magini worked as an architect and set designer before setting up his own studio in 2010 to design surreal, often theatrical homeware as an antidote to reductionism. His style as “hopeful,” he says. “My goal is to suggest a different point of view. Our lives are not purely about function – otherwise we’d be like robots.” His self-contained Tuttomio workstation for the Italian manufacturer Campeggi is a plush upholstered pod with a rotating wall that can totally envelop the user to conceal messy papers, cables or NSFW Internet activity.

This time last year, my iPhone lost touch with reality. In a single click to update to the iOS 7 operating system, my apps that had featured the wood-veneer magazine “rack” and the green baize game table – the “skeuomorphic” features pioneered by Steve Jobs to ground his technology in the tactile world and make it less alienating – disappeared. In their place appeared a set of abstract icons with little connection to the provenance of the task at hand, or even the three-dimensional world.

Pundits championed the move: Why maintain a connection to a physical object that itself seems so out of date? My own brain adjusted easily – I clearly held no sentimentality toward a calculator that looked like an old Casio.

The iOS 7 redesign was emblematic of a larger change in industrial and interior design – the shrinking of things to nothing more than their bare essence as technology becomes, not only a facilitator but the end product. Around the same time, I downsized my home office to a chair for typing and a slim-line desk for my external hard drive, where all my old files, now scanned, are stored. In the bedroom, my night table, once laden with (mostly unread) books, now holds a single iPad mini, my replacement for a lamp, alarm clock and all that reading material.

Designers such as New York-based Canadian Karim Rashid have used the term “dematerialization” to denote this act of downsizing our material world as technology performs more highly. In Europe, however, particularly in countries such as Italy with a profound connection to traditional materials and manufacturing, dematerialization is seen as deeply troubling.

Tasca beds by Habits for Orizzonti

The design of the Tasca bed was inspired, says Innocenzo Rifino of the Italian design studio Habits, by the folded pleats in a woman’s skirt. “We changed the scale to make it functional, not just decorative,” he says. The inbuilt pockets respond to any nighttime routine, whether you’re on a tablet or still into newspapers, wearing bifocals or earplugs. The idea was to speak to people’s changing lifestyles in a way that doesn’t risk being obsolete in a year or two.

As “reduce, reduce, reduce” becomes the catchphrase of minimalist designers everywhere, some say we’re losing touch not only with heritage, art and craft, but with touch itself.

“Technology is reducing all our stuff to a black box,” says Emanuele Magini, an award-winning furniture designer based in Milan. “We have a black box to cook, to communicate, to play – we’re reducing the biological shapes of ordinary life, which is reducing the richness and causing us to lose that emotional, tactile feeling.”

Magini’s theory – that contemporary design has evolved at too fast a rate for our minds to cope – has inspired a body of work that harkens to an analog time while still keeping a step ahead of how we live today.

Two years ago, he designed the ipouf, a cushioned stool with an integrated gadget-docking station, for the Italian manufacturer Campeggi. Where other designers might have concealed the speakers in the fabric, Magini created a long adjustable arm that flares out like the bell of a trombone.

Ipouf by Emanuele Magini for Campeggi

“Our entire lives may be on a [virtual] cloud, but you still have to sit, play, cook,” says Emanuele Magini in reference to his Ipouf for Campeggi. The upholstered seat makes a grand gesture of listening to digital music, with a wireless amplifier that creates an ironic reference to traditional music-making. 

“The image of technology today is, ‘everything’s got to be smaller.’ You can’t see the function. So when I’m designing I like to work with icons,” he says. “The object is a language everyone can understand with just a look. You don’t need instructions to understand it.”

The idea is to evoke a sense of security and comfort in our surroundings. With the Tuttomio, his latest for Campeggi, Magini designed a standalone office nook that cocoons the user, whether on a computer, writing a letter or reading a book. “The human body is 500,000 years old, and furniture has always been designed to have a relationship with us,” he says. “All of a sudden it’s moving faster than we can understand.”

As our lifestyles change, manufacturers are feverishly commissioning lines that incorporate digital technology, manage cables and recharge gadgets, but the pieces that survive the next sea change will be those with a focus on our physical habits while absorbed in technology.

Deep Attention and Sleep by Matali Crasset for Campeggi

The French designer Matali Crasset is well known for modular furnishings that switch up in surprising ways. Here, she makes the most of today’s Incredible Shrinking Office, creating a combination home office/bed with a wealth of options. The Deep Attention and Sleep is as simplified a design as you could imagine, yet it adds an inspiring richness to the work environment. 

When B&B Italia launched its Papilio range of cozy upholstered furniture in Milan, the designer, Naoto Fukasawa, defended his reluctance to incorporate technology in the framework. “Technology is smaller,” he said, “but life doesn’t change much. I keep the quality of life there.”

Instead, his Grande Papilio chair has a high, slightly winged back for a sense of privacy, and his Papilio bed has a cushioned, winged headboard to support those increasingly watching a screen in the bedroom.

Innocenzo Rifino, co-founder of the Italian furniture-design studio Habits, went one step further. His Tasca and Kimono beds have pockets and pleats in the fabric of the headboard, designed to slip in a phone, tablet or even ye olde antiquated magazine. They eliminate the need for a bedside table, but not the sensory experience of interacting with something tangible.

“These touch devices we use, they lose the tactile perception of material,” says Rifino. “It’s an artificial experience. People touching and feeling stuff is an experience we don’t have when using these devices. If we can add feeling to an object, it’s some compensation.”

He says designers such as Rashid have a sort of disconnect – from people and from the act of making itself, focused on “shape but not essence.”

Grande Papilio chair by Naoto Fukasawa for B&B Italia

Naoto Fukasawa designed the Grande Papilio chair with ergonomic dips, curves and “wings” to support the body’s natural posture while using the current technology. The shape and 360-degree swivel came out of his observation that people tend to twist from side to side over a period of time in an armchair. Fukasawa’s Papilio bed design enables the use of handheld technology at night with an enveloping, supportive headboard.

Working in Italy, Rifino says, means you have a direct relationship with the army of small companies – artisans, architects, fabricators – who make things, have contact with the material and are involved in every stage of creation. “That has a big influence on the Italian process.”

And the outcome.

Matali Crasset, the French industrial designer who collaborates closely with Milanese manufacturers, launched “Deep Attention and Sleep” for Campeggi as a result of many years studying the unintended ways people adapt their furniture. The intimate, immersed workstation can be reconfigured as a bed and writing table, “merging dreams with reality” for people at their creative peak while lounging.

“Five years ago, my concern was more about digesting than integrating technology,” she says, “but now technology is really structuring our lives, so my approach is more around giving new possibilities for different scenarios within the same structure.” Her Double Side chair has an adjustable back that can flatten into horizontal surface. If the sitter turns to face it, it becomes a writing desk. “The concept,” Crasset says, “is ‘human-centred’, but it allows technology to find a context in our domestic life.”

It makes sense that, as technology rapidly breaks down the polarity between home and office, designers are increasingly speaking to that. “Home is too much of a cocoon for our needs, and the office is too much about showing status and attitude,” Crasset says. Luxury today should be less about the instant gratification of fast, barely-there gadgets and more about objects that cultivate a connection.

Magini puts it another way: “Material is the new luxury. It’s a library rather than just an iPad with 100 books inside.”

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