Consumertopia: Personalizing Consumption in a Capitalist Economy

It is hard to define Industrial Design.  While a majority of people agree to understand that Industrial Design is ‘design for mass production of products and services,’ it is still an incredibly vague assumption of an entire working field – one that realistically effects our socioeconomic, cultural, and aesthetic landscape.  As Victor Papanek aptly points out in his essay Design for the Real World, “Design has become the most powerful tool with which man shapes and tools his environment.”  By extension, design is also responsible for shaping society and man himself [3].  If we consider Industrial Design to be so broad a field as to include any designed product or service for mass manufacturing, why should we not go as far to consider that everyone has dabbled in the degree just by shaping their personal environment as a consumer of these goods?  

Industrial Design would be nothing without an audience.  There would be no needs or service for designers to fix and no products to perfect if it were not for the fault of human consumption.  The consumer and consumption relation in Industrial Design is backed by the understanding that no product or idea has value if an audience does not see its worth.  In our capitalist economy, the value of goods are entirely dependent on what the market will bear.  Quality, concept, and production are all factors in negotiating price, but the real test is what consumers are willing to spend.  Aside from considering that all designers are consumers themselves, I believe we are moving towards a more intimate relationship between designers and their audience in an effort to better shape the physical future.  

The experience of consumption itself has changed since the dawn of Industrial Design as we know it today.  People want to feel like they are special.  People want to feel that their place in society is valued by their freedom to choose the goods and services that have built our present world.   Advancements in technology have undoubtedly changed the experience of capitalist consumerism towards virtual platforms.  In the present, our consumerist dream-state is that we can use services like Amazon Prime to effectively purchase any goods, both the extremely necessary and the extraordinarily not, from the comfort of our homes.  We have engineered a system of transporting goods in which our packages arrive with an almost inconceivable speed of two days or less.  This all seems great.  We browse the Internet, we see something we want, we click a button, and it arrives at our door.  But, like any constructed system, this model cannot last forever.  It must adapt to the undeniable change towards personalization in economic transactions.  Even with digital payment services like Venmo there are options for adding comments or emojis, and even “liking” a friend’s transaction that makes the app a more personal platform.  We reflect our longing for the physical transactions of our consumerist past in these digital narrations of our spending history.  I predict the popularity of these customizable economic transactions is a shift, or at least a divergence, from the selfishly individualized economy of the Internet.  

In Europe and in some urban hubs in America we are seeing the rise of pop-up shops, studio stores, and mobile vendors.  These platforms allow small markets to reach their audience intimately, tell a story about their products, and create a memorable buying experience.  One such example is the Bikini Berlin in Germany.  The complex boasts a “unique combination of shopping, working, cinema, recreation, urban oasis and hotel.”  Under one roof, mainstream, established labels are presented alongside small studios selling their own craft.  It is not a mix of highbrow and lowbrow goods, brand names labels and no-name labels, but rather a winning combination of mass-produced and selectively-produced products.  Local designers are selling their own goods in temporary stores called Bikini Berlin Boxes on the ground floor of the mall, offering an ever-evolving shopping experience by default.  In addition to personal shopping, dining options, and weekly events, the Bikinihaus mall also houses office space on the upper floors as an exclusive, all-inclusive workplace [2].  The architecture of Bikini Berlin reflects this dynamism in the mix of wood and metal materials used in the construction of the space.  A number of plants, large windows, and natural light also add life to the industrial look of the complex.  

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Bikini Berlin Boxes inside the Bikinihaus mall

Concept complexes like Bikini Berlin are not new, but they do reflect our new attitudes towards the shopping experience.  In America we have historically seen architecture that attempts this all-inclusive model with variable success.  Rockefeller Center is one example, being Raymond Hood’s vision of Utopia for a public plaza, shopping, private apartments, executive offices, and the pathways between them.  While Rockefeller Center still stands today as a touristic destination of New York City, the complex lacks any feeling of personal inclusion.  The offices look like any other city offices, and the same stores housed at 30 Rock can be found within several blocks of the building, still on the island of Manhattan.  By extension, even ice skating on the plaza feels commercial and scripted.  (As a note, these ironies are all aptly reflected in Tina Fey’s sitcom of the same name.) This is not to say that we cannot find satisfaction in commercial products and executively managed experiences.  Let us look at the IKEA model to understand this disparity.  


Tina Fey’s character on 30 Rock, and her thoughts on NYC.

IKEA: The world-dominating superstore of Scandinavian home goods that offers the best of price, production, and function for millennial consumers.  While shopping at one of the distant and inconveniently located IKEA warehouses is just that, an inconvenience, the event of shopping at an IKEA also seems special in the rarity of its occasion.  Wandering through the expensive-looking showrooms only to find everything is delightfully inexpensive is the rush every shopper craves; millennial, bargain-hunter, or otherwise. “What a STEAL,” they say.

IKEA’s prices are so low because they have established a very low overhead for producing and distributing their products.  They have smartly streamlined their manufacturing process to several methods and materials that can be applied to a variety of products.  This means they can release new products frequently, always offering new new new.  In the streamlined process of design and production it helps that the Scandinavian aesthetic is streamlined itself.  The simple variance of colors and forms across product lines means they can be integrated into virtually any interior style, giving the consumer a world of options to personalize their mainstream purchase.  In this case, mixing the high (handmade, one-offs) and the low (IKEA, mass-produced), affords any consumer the ability to elevate their home environment to the unique standards we have set in the design community.  With IKEA’s established sense of style and low prices, they have capitalized on elevating the everyday.

Ikea products displayed as elevated, everyday design in a gallery. Berlin, Germany.

The notion of elevating the everyday is the millennial utopia.  We value experiences over commodities, shared interactions in contrast to the self-involved screen domination, and custom design in conjunction with accessibility.  That said, we will continue to buy consumer goods, rely on digital technology as a function of our society, and buy cheaply made products because it is affordable and easy.  However, the physical landscape of our world is changing quickly, and design needs to adapt to change with it.  We are appalled to consider what our once utopic vision of Consumertopia has done to our environment.  With negative attitudes towards the global climate status and speed of industrialization, we long for a time when good design meant pure, lasting quality.  The triumph of Industrial Design was valuing goods and industry for the benefits of a symbiotic relationship in form and function.  In Tara Andrew’s exposé Where ID Went Wrong, she identifies Le Corbusier’s demand for authenticity in design [1].  Following Louis Sullivan’s “inside out” approach of taking formal cues from nature, Le Corbusier translated organic perfection to furniture and architecture in an exemplary way.  His buildings still stand and his furniture is still sold because his understanding of the principles of good design were sound.  Le Corbusier’s designs were based on quality and function to achieve manufacturable perfection, meaning his original designs have gone unchanged in decades.  37.jpg

Le Corbusier’s LC4 Chaise Lounge chair.

The romance surrounding Industrial Design in the past was rooted in the optimism that we have the power to shape our visions of a Utopia for the future.  At the time, perfection in design was evident of the future we wanted to see through streamlined forms and metallic surfacing.  Skyscrapers were built high because it was our way of attempting new spatial frontiers.  World’s Fair’s were funded and promoted as a way to prove conceptual models probable.  Industrial Design was born from a need to visualize the future and entice people to literally buy into it.  In an age where seemingly anyone can be a designer armed with an idea and a 3D printer, we have come to devalue the rarity of good design.  Design used to evolve in tandem with sculptural ideas of what was physically possible.  Our designed future was shaped with an understanding that people needed to live and interact in these man-made spaces.  We have since forgotten about personalization in mass-production and commercial environments.  I am optimistic of the present scope of Industrial Design to consider us, the people, in our individual visions of Utopia.


Works Cited

  1. Andrews, Tara. “Design and Consume to Utopia: Where Industrial Design Went Wrong.” Design Philosophy Papers 7.2 (2009): 71-85. Web. 19 Mar. 2016.
  2. “HOME.” Bikini Berlin / Home. Bayerischen Hausbau CmbH & Co. KG, n.d. Web. 19 Mar. 2016.
  3. Papanek, Victor J. Design for the Real World; Human Ecology and Social Change. New York: Pantheon, 1972. Print.

One thought on “Consumertopia: Personalizing Consumption in a Capitalist Economy

  1. Consumers’ expectations and priorities change naturally over time as our technology and manufacturing techniques advance. The different types of consumer experiences you mentioned throughout your post illustrate the variety of platforms in which Industrial Designers place their products today. Your Amazon Prime example introduces a good example of this new standard for online shopping. The Prime shopping experience has raised the bar for what consumers expect when it comes to ease and speed. The new “perfect” that designers are aiming for can mean many different things, but more commonly it is being shaped by our want for instant fulfillment and increasingly low prices. The Amazon Dash Button instantly places an order for standard household items with the push of a button and eliminates the consumer’s need to even open up their computer to online shop. Technology advancements remove the barriers between consumers and goods.

    Your example of IKEA connects to this idea of changing priorities, and many of the themes throughout Andrews’ paper. Shopping at IKEA provides people with the opportunity to buy pieces for their homes which all fit into a matching contemporary aesthetic. People can trust IKEA to sell things which will all look good together in your living room. This shopping convenience comes at the cost of low quality furniture which will be “used-up” very quickly. While this priority is different from the value and care once placed into each piece in our homes, the efficiency of this user experience does allow us to spend our time on things which may be more valuable than shopping.


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