Core77 sent Lisa Smith and Caroline Linder to this year's Home and Housewares show this past weekend in Chicago, and while shooting a gallery of images for Core readers (up soon!), they've got a few dispatches from the floor. Thanks Lisa and Caroline!
The International Home and Housewares Show, happening now at the McCormick Center in Chicago, IL, is a maze of the bizarre and the banal, including picture frame air fresheners, pet hair picker-uppers, fingerprintless garbage cans, antibacterial marinaters, high-power vacuum cleaners, automatic hair-cutters, gas-powered blenders, anti-static dusters and instant boot dryers. Products for distinct lifestyles are crammed next to each other in one booth, organized by company rather than market niche. In one display, contemporary, white, eco-plastic desk caddies sit sister-like to Disney window decals. At the same time, larger companies really demand the buyers' attention, presenting an impenetrably branded front of air purifiers, rice cookers and vacuum cleaners with gift bags to boot. For young designers, like ourselves, the spectacle is especially nightmarish; it represents the darker side of our discipline--product design gone wild and unchecked in the marketplace (not to mention our worst fear of all...that we'll end up here soon).
The show is primarily intended as a convention where manufacturers, suppliers and retailers can meet and do business. In the US, this means that design is hardly discussed; "Core77?" Though initially alienating, this gap allowed us to access the underbelly of the convention. The salesstaff were not prepped to answer our design-related questions, so we were able to gather sincere answers from them. For example, we asked Brian Maynard (Director of Premium Brand Marketing at KitchenAid) about their color selection process and learned about the history of KitchenAid, the factory infrastructure that made it possible for them to experiment with color, their ongoing relationship with the color industry, the pop-cultural references in the color selections, and the contemporary distribution channels that have allowed for the continued expansion of their color range. Who knew that both Miami Vice and the Southwestern pottery craze are preserved within the wide color range of KitchenAid Mixers? Or that e-commerce has allowed less popular colors to survive by distributing to a differentiated, non-regional market?
Realizing the value of these answers, we navigated the show through direct and genuine questioning of the products. Why did you choose these colors? "The product color spectrum can be combined to convey either Christmas or Minimalism." How do you continue to sell these in high volume if they last a lifetime? "Nothing really lasts a lifetime." What's with these crazy bristles? "Well, they're for pet hair, and pets are a big thing these days." What's the difference between the wooden handle and the steel one? "Just depends on if you'd rather be rustic cook or a professional chef." How did you pick these forms? "Oh, these are historical forms that we made up."
While we didn't necessarily learn anything about the everyday reality of Americans, we did hear firsthand the way that big industry perceives and processes it in pursuit of precise lifestyle specialization. And, in the cross-section of containers, appliances, color fads and problem-solving devices, design does play a part, for better or worse, and it is important for us to recognize this, so that if we do end up there, we'll know where we are and what we can do about it.