Google Suggests the Future of Hardware and Technology Is “Softwear”

An intimate presentation at Milan Design Week seeks to promote the idea of home technology as something seamless—and human.

Outside the installation at Rossana Orlandi’s Milan gallery. (Photo courtesy Google)

Twenty years ago, the Dutch trend forecaster Lidewij Edelkoort conceived an idea she dubbed “softwear,” describing it as a something that would blend technology in a harmonious way with everyday life. The concept, in so many ways, was sort of hygge in approach, long before hygge became, globally in the the last year or two, a thing.

Now, for this year’s Milan Design Week—in the throes of election-meddling mayhem at Facebook and public iPhone-addiction denunciations—Edelkoort has partnered with Google to bring this two-decades-old prediction to life, showing that technology, if integrated into our lives in a healthy way, can have profound upsides and benefits. In collaboration with Ivy Ross, a VP of design at Google in charge of all its hardware products, Edelkoort has conceived of a three-room installation at Rossana Orlandi’s gallery (through April 22) in the city’s Magenta district. The presentation includes an audiovisual moment, in the first room, that gives context to Edelkoort’s idea of “softwear,” linking it to Google products of today. In the second space, there are wall hangings by the Dutch designer Kiki van Eijk—who was commissioned by Google—woven in the Textile Lab in Tilburg, the Netherlands. Van Eijk’s creations are based on hand-cut textiles she made incorporating Google’s products. And in the third room, a sort of still-life space, Google products are presented as “snippets of home life,” in Edelkoort’s words.

Here, Surface speaks with Edelkoort and Ross about how the project came together, and why it’s vital for the public to be thinking about the ideas it stands for.

A view of the “Softwear” exhibition. (Photo courtesy Google)

Li, how did you come up with this idea of “softwear”?

Lidewij Edelkoort: It was just a word-play on “software.” I wanted to show how we would live together in the future with new technologies. And now, twenty years later, this is—

The 2.0 version.

Edelkoort: Yeah, this is a revision of what we did, because we’re now living in this “softwear” period. I’ve positioned this as a new retail, where you have the objects, the house, the food, everything related to this new life. Because these objects are designed to be cuddly—they’re round, using textiles—together we decided, with Ivy, to make it a very intimate, human show.

How did you two connect to do this project?

Ivy Ross: We’ve know each other twenty-five years or so.

Edelkoort: I’ve known her since when she had a shop in New York in the 1980s.

Ross: Which people still remember! They ask me, “Are you the Ross who had a design store in New York?” I had a space called Clodagh Ross Williams, on St. Mark’s Place.

Anyway, Li and I have both felt what’s coming. We’re very simpatico. About a year and a half ago, right before Google launched a product and design studio, Li came to see the objects. She said, “Oh my god, this reminds me of ‘software.’ You brought to life what I was forecasting.” It was a great dialogue, with designers around, and we even showed her a few things that were to come. When we decided to come to Milan, we knew we wanted to show the product in the context for which it was created, doing what it’s meant to do, and so I called Li to ask her if she wanted to collaborate. I sent her the products, and she reshot them in the same home she had done the original photos for her “Software” project twenty years ago, except now with our products.

Two videos and a wall tapestry by Kiki van Eijk near the entrance of the show. (Photo courtesy Google)

Why did you get Kiki van Eijk involved to create these wall hangings?

Edelkoort: To somehow illustrate the [textile aspect] of the products. Making these textile collages, she used the actual Google fabrics. She then wove these textiles into new works. This shows the imbedding and the intimacy of these products in our lives. The tapestries are beyond what I expected. They have a surreal effect.

Ross: These tapestries are a great dialogue between art and technology, because they’re using the technology of the big machines to actually be woven.

Did either of you imagine integrating Google technology into the textiles themselves?

Ross: We were just talking about that! In the future, you’re just going to walk up to the tapestry, and you won’t need a speaker—it’ll be in the tapestry.

Edelkoort: We’re very interested in the next twenty years and what is still to come.

Ivy, what’s your ultimate aim with these current Google products?

Ross: The spirit in which they were designed is “How does it fit into our lives? Does it stand out?” I think that technology is no longer about the shiny black box or the metallic surface. It’s “How does it become invisible?” Or, when it’s an object, it’s about making sure it’s beautiful among our other objects. Because that’s the way we live.

So that’s what Li did here—she curated the objects around the idea of how people live with things. It’s really the idea of living with, as opposed to in opposition to. We’re designing from that point of view. Li saw it coming.

Wall tapestries by van Eijk in the second room. (Photo courtesy Google)

Do you think Google design objects will enter the furniture realm?

Ross: Well, you continue to iterate and build. I think the principles in which we designed this first collection are going to stay. Some of which was making sure everything is human—by that I mean soft edges and corners, nothing sharp; it’s not about shiny objects. To me, technology that’s aesthetic is important. You not only want to see but feel. So mixing different materials or surfaces is important. And Google is very optimistic, so for us, a touch of color is key. Google is a brand that is colorful, but we have to do it at the right level. You have to want to live with it, so it’s finding the right moments and touches where it’s appropriate to do that.

Edelkoort: I like this aspect of playing with color.

Ross: Yes, being playful with it, not taking it too seriously! We also do some bold things, like putting surprise colors on the bottoms of the objects. You wouldn’t expect some of these colors. That’s where we’re getting a little, well, Googley.

Do you think Google will become synonymous with “playful”?

Ross: Maybe. Life has to be full of joy. So we think about, How do we bring joy to these products that are going to live on us and around us? I don’t think what we do is going to necessarily look more like furniture; we’re just always going to keep how we live top of mind. It’s really about the dialogue between objects.

It’s so interesting to see certain hardware go in this furniture direction, though, like the Beoplay A9 speaker from Bang & Olufsen.

Ross: I think the A9 is [Bang & Olufsen’s] attempt to make things fit in. I still own a B&O product; it’s very beautiful, very high-tech. Which was great when technology was the new shiny object. But now we’re trying to integrate it more—

To be frictionless.

Ross: Yes! It’s more about fitting in. When technology first got launched, it was all about the shiny object. Now, I think, it needs to be more of a soft touch, because technology is here to stay.

The third room showing Google products integrated into the home via still life-style displays. (Photo courtesy Google)


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