“The angle always is to start with people,” Thomas Overthun, executive design director of IDEO, says about the industrial design firm’s approach to devising approachable, tech-forward products for everyday life. Case in point: the Piro scent diffuser, a collaboration almost a decade in the making with Marcel Wanders and Moooi, whose initial prototype made a dramatic debut at the Dutch design brand’s flower-filled showcase during Milan Design Week. As visitors entered the showroom, they were immediately greeted by an array of dancing Piros in a spectrum of colors, bringing the showroom’s four distinct interior moods to life through smell while whetting curiosity about how the creature-like robot came to be.
It turns out that’s the intended response. “When designing a character, you typically work with a backstory,” Overthun says, explaining that Piro is a factory worker who “has a moment of realization that there could be more to life than making programmed movements back and forth.” When he leaves the factory, he passes by a Moooi showroom and gets drawn in by the brand’s imaginative furnishings and accessories—a life-size horse with a lampshade head and chandeliers made of chicken wire among them. Those experiences inform his whimsical actions—carefully choreographed by dancer and roboticist Catie Cuan—and offer a visceral answer to IDEO’s brief of employing technology in service of beauty rather than efficiency.
“We want our homes to be places of joy, relationships, love, and warmth,” says IDEO partner and managing director Clark Scheffy. “That set us off on this path. Could this robot’s purpose just be a kind of companion or have any interaction that may help you host others beautifully in your home? And the idea of fragrance brings moments of joy. It wasn’t this idea of technology solving functional problems, rather addressing an emotional interaction with people.”
Piro arrives at an ideal time for Moooi. The star of this year’s show was Andres Reisinger, the boundary-breaking digital designer who rose to Instagram fame for rendering dream-like oases of the imagination. When his fictional Hortensia Chair—a gracefully rotund lounger swathed in pink hydrangea petals—went viral and generated market interest, the Barcelona innovator taught himself industrial design and teamed with textile artist Julia Esque to bring the chair to life. Moooi started supplying Hortensia this past spring and recently debuted several renditions in new colorways like pistachio and cream. Reisinger’s approach, Wanders tells Surface, “generates an uncommon freedom in design—the freedom that the digital world gives him to generate ideas that are supposedly impossible.”
Moooi’s other forays into technology are front and center. Ada Sokół, the Stockholm-based artist known for ultra-sensory experiences, translated digital artworks of familiar Moooi animals that appear throughout the showroom’s custom wallpapers onto crystal-clear LG OLED monitors. Their clean presentation almost suggests NFTs, but Wanders demurred when asked about the brand’s foray into Web3 and the metaverse. “The world of NFTs is developing fast, so we need to find the right moment to do something,” he says, “but we’re building something inspired by and for the new digital world.” But as long as we have bodies, he says, physical objects aren’t going anywhere. Fusing the two realms through sensorial delights like Piro is a logical first step.