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Tech is crashing the world’s biggest design fair

Google, Sony, LG, and other giants are showing up to show off gadgets at Salone del Mobile–evidence of the subtle way they’re reframing themselves as design-led companies.

Tech is crashing the world’s biggest design fair

Every April, thousands descend upon Milan for the design industry’s most important event of the year. Centered around Salone del Mobile–the Milan Furniture Fair–it’s a week filled with design events, installations, and announcements of new collections that will shape the industry for the next year, and it’s been that way for most of its nearly 60-year existence.

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But lately, it hasn’t just been design companies turning up for Milan Design Week: Tech companies, from Apple to Google, have been coming too. This year, the biggest players in home tech–including Sony, LG, and Bang & Olufsen, as well as Google–are out in force, showing off new TVs and installations that hint at their future ambitions. Their presence points to the increasing presence of technology in how we think about our homes–while also illustrating how tech companies are eager to portray their products as design-driven.

[Photo: Bang & Olafsen]

The TVs of Salone

This year’s Salone features multiple TV makers, all aiming to solve the main issue with the genre: Televisions are ugly black wastes of space when they’re not in use, which is most of the time.

Bang & Olufsen is launching a new, shape-shifting television-speaker hybrid called the Beovision Harmony that changes its form based on how you want to use it. When you’re not watching TV, the 77-inch OLED screen sits behind two panels made of oak and aluminum that house a powerful speaker system. When it’s time for Game of Thrones on Sunday night, you hit a button and the two panels magically open up as the screen rises behind them. It’s a lovely system, even if it’s completely inaccessible for most people: The television will retail in the company’s stores this fall for 18,500 euros (the U.S. price has yet to be determined).

[Photo: LG]

The Beovision Harmony isn’t the only television being presented as interior design this week. LG’s rollable OLED television, which was first announced at the consumer electronics trade show CES in January 2019, also makes an appearance in an experiential installation that mainly serves to show off the intense colors the TV is capable of displaying. Designed in collaboration with the British architecture studio Foster + Partners, the television unfurls when there’s bright light in the room and then slowly rolls away when it becomes dark.

[Photo: Panasonic]

Similarly, Panasonic partnered with Vitra to debut a cabinet with a glass panel that transforms into a screen when you turn it on.

[Image: Google Design Studio]

Google Returns To Milan

After making its debut last year by displaying its textile-covered hardware devices, Google is back at Salone this year with a forward-looking installation oriented around “neuroaesthetics,” or the science of how beauty makes you feel. Visitors don wristbands that track biometric data as they move through the installation’s three rooms, each with different furniture, lighting, and overall vibe. The goal is to give people a glimpse of how their environment influences how they feel by showing them their data after (Google says all the data is then deleted). The installation points to Google’s interest in interior spaces, though it’s hard to know how this will play into the company’s strategy in the future.

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Autonomous Interior Design

Like Google, Sony has created an installation for Salone, but this one is centered on robots–Sony’s cute puppy robot Aibo in particular. Called Affinity in Autonomy, the installation has several parts, which all react to a visitor’s presence to give them the sense of an intelligent being in the room with them. How does smart technology, whether in the form of a robot dog or something much more subtle, change the way that people perceive and interact with interior spaces? Visitors can play with Aibo and answer questions about what they think about the future of autonomous robots.

Consumer tech companies are showing up at the world’s biggest furniture fair for a reason: Technology has become an integral part of the interior design of most of our homes. The companies making that technology are now part of home life, whether they choose to engage with the interior design industry or not. But the companies that come to Salone are also using the fair to broadcast their design cred. Many of the biggest tech companies today, including Google and Apple, now talk about themselves as design-led, framing their products as human-centered solutions to people’s problems.

Even outside of Salone, it’s easy to find evidence of the increasing overlap between the world’s tech and design companies. This week, Sonos released a new product series in collaboration with Ikea that turns speakers into furniture, including a lamp that has a speaker for a base and a bookshelf that doubles as a speaker. Technology is going through furniturization as components get smaller and more connected. And what interior designer would complain about not having to make space for black screens, bundles of wires, and extraneous buttons in a home?

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable

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