The Milan Furniture Fair, aka Salone de Mobile, is the most important design event of the year, drawing designers and manufacturers from all over the planet. So it was a statement when Google, in 2018, showed up at Milan for the first time ever, to show off its soft, domestic technologies, like the fabric-covered Google Home. The company’s debut installation wasn’t radical, but it foregrounded Google’s recent focus on industrial design–and it hinted at how Google has positioned itself as a design leader over the past few years.
This year at Salone, which opens on April 9th, Google will make its second appearance at the exhibition. But instead of looking where the company has been, Ivy Ross, VP of Hardware design, wants to tease where Google is going next–namely, your psyche. “We’re at a place in our trajectory of society which says step into your individuality, know who you are, what you want, and what works for you,” says Ross. “We have to be able to, as makers in the world, support that.”
The installation is called A Space for Being: Exploring Design’s Impact On Our Biology, and it digs into the topic of neuroaesthetics–basically, the study of how beauty affects your brain. It’s three rooms that will be set up in Spazio Maiocchi, built in conjunction with architect Suchi Reddy. They’re not exactly identical, but each room decorated with the same furniture line from Muuto, a Scandinavian company with an aesthetic that almost certainly helped inspire Google’s own brand of industrial design.
The actual Muuto furniture pieces are different in every room, as is everything else–color, scent, sound, and lighting. One room will have cool light, vibrant colors, and a percussive rhythms, while another will feature warm light, natural colors, succulents, and a scent described as “uplifting and familiar.”
Visitors to the installation will don a wearable band, which is packed with sensors to measure biometric data like heart rate, skin temperature, skin conductivity, and motion. They’ll be invited to spend five minutes inside each of these uniquely tailored rooms, during which the wearable will measure their biometric response to the subtle variations in design. “There are very different vibes, so to speak, amplified for differences. It’s all very subtle,” says Ross. “Of course people are going to walk into a room and say, ‘I really like this.’ But I hope the band might show their psychology was more comfortable in a different room.”
At the end of the experience, using an algorithm that was developed in conjunction with the Arts + Mind Lab at Johns Hopkins, visitors will receive a visual explanation of how their body reacted to the rooms–along with the insight as to which room made them the calmest.
Ross’s intention isn’t to be conducting hard science at Milan, for Google or anyone else; after all, the rooms have multitudes of variables that aren’t being strictly controlled. “Then we show them that we’re erasing the data,” Ross mentions. “This has nothing to do with us wanting people’s data. We want to give people the gift of reflection.” As a result, the experience sounds like an intimate data portrait rather than some wellness extension of the surveillance economy. Google’s team has spent the last few months testing these three rooms on its own campus, tweaking their designs by spending time in them to ensure that they elicit different physiological reactions from different people.
Ultimately, that’s the goal. Ross–who began her career as a celebrated jewelry maker–believes that we’ve grown “flatlined” as a society, surrounded by mass-produced minimalism. She imagines that a rise of rich, personalized aesthetics in our places and products could positively affect our lives. What exactly that means for Google’s design strategy is complicated to speculate upon right now: Will Google become more invested in designing built environments, like Airbnb or We Company? Or might Google eventually leverage the biometric data from AndroidWear users into its other products, customizing notifications or interfaces for the benefit of our mood? Will the inevitable Pixel 4 smartphone just come in more colors? It’s hard to know.
“Some people ask me, ‘What’s the winning formula?'” And there is no winning formula that works for everyone,” says Ross of the Milan rooms. “And that’s the point. It is a very personal response.”