Arts & Design

Tech gets homey: electronics designed to be shown off, not hidden

Thanks to an industrial design renaissance, technology for the home is going on display.

By Garage Staff — September 25, 2018

Emma Kemper is not a fan of wires. “I wish everything could be wireless,” says the NYC-based interior designer. “I spend so much time trying to figure out to conceal them.” As the founder of the design firm Emma Beryl, she spends more creative energy than she’d like to admit designing around her clients’ technology. TVs, printers, computer screens — and the tangled nests of wires protruding from them — can kill a room’s otherwise perfectly put-together vibe.

To work with the onslaught of unwieldy cords, glaring screens and hard plastic objects, interior designers have figured out some clever hacks to disguise them. They drill holes into custom furniture to channel wires phone chargers and hide TVs inside of credenzas. Printers are nestled into custom frames, and outlets are placed “just so” to avoid errant cords. But what designers have been craving is technology that blends seamlessly into the room’s surroundings. “Technology shouldn’t be the focal point of the room,” Kemper says.

That’s becoming easier to achieve.Today, we’re in the midst of an industrial design revolution. It’s a moment when even the most mundane objects —humidifiers, thermostats, home security systems, and yes, printers — have gotten  high-design treatment. Look around, and you’ll see it: smart speakers swathed in fabric, desktop computers  enrobed in wood-grain, TVs that double as artwork; futuristic routers.

As devices become ever-present in our homes, thoughtful industrial design — both the way something looks and the way people interact with it — has gone from a luxe feature to an expectation. “Good design is table stakes now,” says Markus Wierzoch, executive design director at the industrial and experience design firm Artefact. In today’s design-obsessed world that might sound obvious, but it hasn’t always been the case.

No need to disguise the printer in the bedroom when it looks as good as HP Tango.

The evolution of design

What good design means today is different than what it meant 20, or even 10 years ago. People used to show off their new technology in their homes. It was a status signifier, says Ken Musgrave, VP head of global customer experience and global experience design at HP. Now that technology is embedded into nearly every aspect of our lives and our smart homes, people want it to blend seamlessly with their surroundings. “In the past, technology was expected to be visible and celebrated,” he says. “Now technology is expected to be invisible; it’s expected to be a chameleon.”

Spot the printer: HP's new Tango printer blends in with other collectibles and treasures.

Spot the printer: HP's new Tango printer blends in with other collectibles and treasures.

The problem with most consumer technology until recently, he says, is that products were designed around tech specs, with the insides dictating how the outside look. “We call this an inside-out approach to design,” Musgrave says. Industrial designers, who were all too often brought in at the end of the process, were mostly there to add superficial flourishes to a nearly  finished device. The result was devices that looked utilitarian — all sharp edges, hard materials and awkward proportions.

As technology becomes integrated into more devices, customers want technology that fits both the décor of their home and the way they live their lives. In response, designers today are taking an outside-in approach, aided by smaller, faster components, allowing the customer’s interaction with a product to drive the way it looks and works. “It [a device] can’t just be pretty,” says Wierzoch. “I think that industrial design, in a sense, can become the ultimate platform to create holistic products that continue to delight customers.” As a result, Wierzoch says he’s seen the role of the industrial designer change from being primarily concerned with material and form to developing a product from a more experiential perspective.

This move towards a more living room-friendly form of gadget was inevitable, says Richelle Nolan, a managing partner at Interior Architect’s Portland, Ore., office. Technology abides by trends as much as any fashion item, and after years of black and grey boxes, we’re due for a more humanistic design moment. “We’re always trying to make technology more adaptable to the human environment,” she explains. “We want to see pretty, soft things and not feel like everything is so harsh and in our face.”

Printing recipes in your kitchen? Tango looks good on any countertop.

The work-life transition

Musgrave oversaw the design of HP Tango, HP’s new app-controlled wireless printer that’s a chameleon in its own right. With its small frame, gently rounded edges and soft felt covering, Tango looks more like an atlas or a collectible that belongs on a shelf than a printer. It’s a symbol of the new era of technology, one where products are marked by discreetness and their ability to look “just right” in any room of the house. With these new high-design home goods, fabric has replaced metal detailing; instead of 90-degree angles, there are curves.

Musgrave says Tango’s apartment-friendly size and style was a reaction to the way people live and work today. A few years ago, he and his team began noticing a change in how people were working. The line between the personal and professional blurred as people started conducting business from home — outside of traditional hours and on their own terms. The apartment was no longer a reprieve from the daily grind of the office — it became an extension of the office. Musgrave saw this as an opportunity to rethink the printer, which had become the kind of device that people stashed under desks and hid in cabinets. “People look at printers and go, “Huh, I’m not sure where they fit from a design perspective,” he says.

The line between the personal and the professional blurred as people started conducting business from home.The apartment was no longer a reprieve from the daily grind of the office — it became an extension of the office.

It’s not just about surface appearance, though. The current crop of well-designed gadgets owe as much to the apps that control them as they do their design features. Something like the Nest Thermostat or Tango printer, for example, offload features onto apps that historically would have been baked into the device itself. Instead of designing a scanner and copier into the printer, Musgrave’s team made it a digital experience that’s controlled with a smartphone. Instead of adding buttons to the printer’s body, users can dictate audio commands through smart speakers with AI assistants. “The hardware and technology used to exist in the box,” Musgrave says. “But once you remove those physical barriers from the design, you can create an extremely high-quality printer in a more compact package.”  

Taken together, these design decisions lead to something that’s a little more harmonious and a little more human. Like the technology of decades ago, our gadgets are once again something people are proud to display at home.


Learn more about HP’s new home printer, Tango.