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For most of us the concept of human individuality is something that requires no explanation. But in fact, the idea of the individual as an “indivisible entity”, as the Latin has it, comes at the end of a long process of historical and social development. Ever since the Ancient Greeks, philosophers have been exploring the question of the individual. It was only as of the Renaissance, the Age of Enlightenment and Modernity that the individual slowly came to be viewed as a social creature. Political attempts to see the individual as part of a community have not infrequently resulted in totalitarian regimes. The act of respecting civil property rights and the political participation of the individual have now become prerequisites for economic development.
Few people have the privilege of being able to realize their own individual wishes and expectations. Conversely, we nowadays find it hard to imagine desires and individual world views outside economic reference systems. With the onset of industrial manufacturing and capitalist economies artifacts produced by individuals were increasingly replaced by mass-produced, marketable products. What we nowadays know to be the requirements of good design began as a criticism of those faulty products that, at first glance, looked handmade but did not meet the standards of mass production and were thus neither serviceable nor did they fulfill aesthetic expectations. The arts and crafts movement in Great Britain and the Werkbund in Germany, Austria and Switzerland all took a critical view of a world of objects without a culture of its own.
Standards in industrial production, something vital to the development of mass-produced products, took root slowly – and did not leave much scope for customization. With his “Model T”, Henry Ford created a car built on a conveyor belt consisting of parts that were always as standardized as possible, a car that became ever cheaper to make and whose retail price dropped consistently over the years. At the same time, the number of models was restricted, something that Ford summarized in his autobiography in this much-quoted phrase – “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” The fact that the Model T was meant to be available only in black fitted in with the production and sales logic of its times.
Then, during the 1970s the range of products available blossomed out into color for the first time – from plastic door handles to typewriters to furniture and automobiles.
At the same time, the actual product culture was considered largely egalitarian with only a few deviations in either direction. For instance, Andy Warhol wrote: “A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can you get a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.” The days when the consumer would be able to choose from a wide variety of different products, the possibility of customer retention through specialization, “upselling” and “big data” were yet to come.
Computerization and the mobilization of society to engage in invention resulted in a large number of personalized machines, with mainframes being replaced by personal computers. The Walkman became the individual-oriented successor to the transistor radio. The mobile telephone mutated into a Smartphone which nowadays serves as the customized key to the digital and analogue things that make the world go round. Quite independently of whether it is used to listen to music, watch films or control light, heat or the preset shower program. It has in the past seldom been the case that more appliances and services have offered individual access via a single medium. As similar as Smartphones are on the outside, the way they are used is normally based on individual choices from a wide range of applications. Not to mention covers, screen protectors and design options, which serve to transform these mass products into individually molded appliances, so that they only exist once in one particular constellation.
These so-called smart appliances and the corresponding services change perceptions, the structure of discourses, decision-making processes and psychosocial scheduling. Our written culture is being replaced by a culture of images, one which will possibly soon be complemented by and overlap with spoken commands and gesture control. The pronounced trend towards dematerialization finds itself confronted with a new dependency on digital networks, services and contractual relationships entered in on by any individual who wants access to the new, smart choices. It has long been the case that individuality means more than creating and interlinking new product and service options.
In furniture design, too, both new and established players are experimenting with the changed opportunities for combining skilled crafts with mass production and of relocating the selection process to the Internet. Something already well-established when it comes to putting together new cars is currently being offered by Tylko, a Polish/German company, i.e. the possibility of individually configuring an item of furniture on the Internet, for example, when ordering their lifting table designed by Yves Behar. The size, finish and appearance of the table can be changed individually using the scrollbar on the company’s website. The shape and appearance of its legs are also variable. Despite this wide variety of options Tylko even allows customers to return tables produced according to individual requirements. British designer Tom Dixon and furniture giant IKEA are not quite that far down the line. During the Milan furniture fair the two cooperation partners presented their project “Delaktig”. People are now talking about IKEA hacks. In the past, the term was used to mean enhancing and improving existing collections. Now, IKEA is moving this technique in-house. Dixon invited students from Tokyo, London and New York to upgrade and change a modular base made of aluminum profiles which can serve as a sofa, a bed or an armchair by adding extra components. According to Dixon, such modifications even include life rafts and modular places of retreat. At a presentation, IKEA’s chief designer Lars Engmann talked about a new “platform” aimed at challenging the upholstered furniture industry. Considering the quality of the prototypes presented in Milan however, this objective does appear excessively ambitious. “Delaktig” is scheduled for launch in 2018.
Is the idea of customization something put forward by companies’ marketing departments and not something inspired by design-related considerations? Tom Schönherr, Managing Partner and Founder of Phoenix Design begs to differ. “We all want to express ourselves and to be unique. This is very much a basic need. And it is possible to make industrial products that little bit more personal through combinations or by changing their surfaces.” According to the designer, this gives rise to “a new harmony between the individual product and its environment.” And how do digitization and customization impact on the bathroom, in particular? “As yet, we have not got very far at all. Things could be similar to the way that they might be with cars that recognize their drivers and adapt all the settings accordingly.” In terms of bathrooms this might mean that they recognize their user’s wishes with regard to mood, luminous color, brightness or water temperature. Anybody attempting to assert their personality rather by distancing themselves from the seductions of customized designs and the options available in this context end up looking old-fashioned, downright behind the times. Indeed, at the end of the day even this is an available option.