Modernism’s Last Nightstand

History suggests IKEA could eat the technology industry’s smart-home lunch. Here’s hoping.

The modernist ethos taught us to pare everything to its essence, but it didn’t prepare us for a world that was eaten by software.

When Tom Wolfe died recently, the cycle did what the cycle does. Obituaries were written and skimmed with perfunctory efficiency. Tales were told of the clothes he wore, the stories he wove, and the movies that were made from his work. In a certain way, Wolfe himself had the right stuff, we all agreed.

Wolfe called Van Der Rohe, Gropius, and Le Corbusier “White Gods”, which is a cargo-cult reference that really would not fly these days. It was 1981. They didn’t have trigger warnings yet.

But for me, Wolfe would always occupy the place in my mind as the first person I ever saw plant a flag against modernism’s hallowed place in the field of design. His polemic From Bauhaus to Our House took a baseball bat to art and architecture’s (and by extension design’s) most sacred cows. The core thesis is that the most single influential aesthetic movement of the 20th century fails us all because it fetishises the built object without regard to the people who have to dwell within it. When I read it in my 20’s, I thought Wolfe was way off-beam.


When I look at everything from our buildings to our phones today, I can see that he had a point.

O, White Gods!

It was not long after Wolfe’s death that I first saw Apple’s HomePod in the flesh, as it were. I played with one in-store, and was indeed very impressed by the sound it can produce from such a small and benign package. Siri was of course just as feeble as it is on every other platform. Taken as a whole, I was impressed by it as a piece of technology but I realised that this unloveable robot canteloupe belongs to a category of design that has taken over the world while we weren’t looking.

The HomePod is an un-thing. Unless it is connected to electricity and performing a task, it delivers no visual cues as to what the hell it is, or it does. Is it a vase? Does it purify the air somehow? Is it realigning my chakras through the power of hope? It’s impossible to ascertain without instruction because there are no visual or tactile affordances in its design. Unless you already know what it is, it isn’t anything.
What’s the black stuff leaking out of that empty vase?

The rise of the un-things.

I feel that it’s important to let you the reader know before we go any farther that I am in no way a luddite. Despite my misgivings about the privacy implications that come with everything in our homes having a chip and an IP address, I’ve made baby steps toward automating my home. I wear an Apple Watch, weigh myself on a Fitbit scale, and rely on Apple’s Home app turn the lights off automagically when nobody is in the house. I’m neck deep in beep-boop stuff and there is no turning back.

So too is much of the rest of the world. If you’re reading this somewhere apart from the original stone tablet into which I am carving this article while I hide in a cabin in the woods, you probably know someone who has one of the many flavours of smart speaker in their home. I recently noticed that it is practically impossible today in 2018 to buy a television that does not have similar technology such as Google Assistant grafted to its innards. The tactile and visual affordances (fancy design-speak that means “things that tell you you can do something here”) that were once required as a functional design feature have all been assimilated into software. The television —like the phone before it —has become a piece of flat glass, and all hint of how to operate it is abstracted into a software layer.

The TV too, has become an un-thing.

apple tv remote
Where we’re going, we won’t need buttons: Apple’s Siri Remote, which can summon pretty much any piece of music or film known to humanity as long as it understands your accent.
Bang some bunny ears and feet on a security camera and POW! it’s a baby monitor. The design team can all ride their fixies to drinks early on Friday, confident of a job well done while knowing they made pervasive surveillance FUN.

I’ve very purposefully used Apple as an example here, because I’m a long-term user of their products and I am pretty much locked into their world by the ‘virtue’ of sunk costs. I even had an iPod HiFi back in the day.But the others aren’t doing all that much better, to be quite frank. Tasked with the mighty challenge of designing things that we will bring into our very homes and use for personal purposes we have barely begun to grapple with, the response from designers around the world has been “fuck it, make it a featureless cylinder”, or (worse) to mildly adapt designs originally built for business and industry needs.

Sometimes, as a sop to the human desire for objects that are nice to look at and pleasing to touch, they wrap some fabric around the cylinder. But only if they have to.

When Wolfe referred to the White Gods, he was referring to the group personified by in America by van der Rohe, Gropius, Le Corbusier, and to a lesser extent the later waves that brought us to the excrescence of post-modernity in which we all now swim.

You have to hand it to Sonos. That squircle really stands out in the crowded marketplace of cylindrical un-things.

In the field of industrial design for domestic technology today there is but one White God —Jony Ive. His work has been inspired greatly by Dieter Rams, but Rams had something Ive will never again face — technological and physical constraints. Sit down for a talk with any designer and eventually they’ll tell you that great design breaks out of the constraints and compromises under which strictures it was created. The Concorde was beautiful both because of and in spite of what it had to do to meet its goals. So too is the Hagia Sophia. And so too were the original iMac and iPhone. All of these things were built within limits bound by the realities of the physical world.

On the left, a Braun T3 radio, designed by Rams. On the right, the iPod during its inevitable path to un-ness.

But in 2018 for Ive and the people who must follow him, the only practical limits are the physical size of a lithium-ion battery and to a lesser extent how small and tinny-sounding a speaker people will tolerate in their phone. The logical result is the iPhone X — the ultimate un-thing. It is a technological marvel. It looks like this:

Screenshot 2018-06-12 19.11.03

But inside it has the capability to replace almost every device in your home that doesn’t cook food or come into contact with any part of your body that isn’t your fingers. Dial back five decades and here’s what that kind of technology looked like:

It’s a revolutionary one-way communications device. It’s a music player. It shows free live-streamed video. And there appears to be an encyclopedia in it! Graft on a telex machine and put it in my pocket immediately.
Not upgrading my phone again until they put a bar in it.

A few years back, visual designers all around the world looked up how to spell a word just so they could blog about how terrible it was. The word, skeuomorphism, describes the design of things (particularly in interface design) that in essence look like what they do.


mac desktop
Pour one out for Trashy.

The canonical visual skeuomorph is the trash can on the original Mac. Those who have had iPhones for a long time might remember the “leather stitching” some apps had for bewilderingly no reason apart from to look like a desk blotter. We can likely all agree that a lot of this stuff was flat-out bonkers and we were right to throw it in the, uh, trash can. But there has been an overcorrection which has caused a lot more problems than any faux Corinthian Leather interface ever could.


There is a Faustian bargain inherent in the design and creation of un-things. We are all paying its price.

The iPhone X is by any measure a technological marvel. It is also a thing of beauty to behold. It has a screen with rich and vivid colours that go all the way to its edges, audio quality that belies its physical volume, and the quality of its camera is arguably better than most dedicated cameras on the market today. Its physical form has been pared back to an incredible degree, leaving only three physical buttons and one switch as vestigial reminders of its tactile interface. It is remarkable to behold, and engrossing to use.

When it is on.

When it has an internet connection.

When it has you.

Left: Lame. Right: OOOH!

A sleeping iPhone X is the un-object against which all others must be currently judged. It can do almost anything you can imagine. It can book a flight, pay for your train ticket, show yesterday’s Colbert, shoot and edit 4K video of your child’s first steps, and record your debut hit record.

But you wouldn’t know it just by looking at it. An iPhone X that isn’t physically in someone’s hand is just a weirdly-shaped drink coaster (yeah, it’s waterproof) and this means that by design it wants to be in your hand. In order to be of use, and for you as a human to attach any value emotional or otherwiseto this hunk of glass, well, you’re going to need to be distracted by it as often as possible. It will flash, it will throb, it will coax you with its siren song. If you so much as tilt it, it will burst into life when it sees your face. Schopenauer and Nietzsche talked of living things as having Will to Life, and Will to Power. The iPhone X, and by extension all other un-things, has a Will to Use and a Will to Distraction.

People use them to pass time while they’re on the toilet.

Your stuff isn’t anything without your attention, and so your stuff is built to demand that attention from you. Otherwise, you might remember that there are other things you could be doing with your time or on which you could be spending your money. Like carving this blog post into a stone tablet, just as an example.

Where the hell does IKEA play into this? I’m just here for the stuff about IKEA.

I’m glad you asked, dear reader. I am so glad you asked. It seems like millions of years ago, but Apple gained its first real wave of success by making a computer for “the rest of us”. Implicit in that idea was that for the vast majority of people “technology” wasn’t its own point. Nobody (except saw-nerds) wants a saw — people want to cut some wood so it will fit into their fireplace. Nobody (except computer nerds) wanted a computer either. What they did want was to be able to write, to make music, to play games, to design games, to create.

The internet of things is passing through that inflection point right now. Nobody wants to install a Zigby Wireless Network in their home, but they do want the lights to go off when nobody is home. Nobody wants to put Qi charging pads all over the house so they can charge their Android or Apple phone. But damn it would be nice to keep your phone charged all day without plugging it in.

Technology companies are responding like technology companies historically have, by creating wireless charging pads and docks that look like something from either space or from Cyberdyne Systems. IKEA is taking a different approach.

Here’s your options: Technological hellscape, lamp that goes on your night-stand or desk, or technological hellscape (with rounded edges).

Boom! The lamp has a Qi charger built right into the base! So does heaps of their stuff now. The smart folks at IKEA have bet that all of their beep-boop stuff needs to fit into our lives, rather than us making space in our lives for technology. They’re doing it in all kinds of categories that technology companies think are rightly their domain. Smart lighting. Chargers. Cables. Batteries. And now, thankfully, audio.

For a fraction of the price of a Sonos setup, you can pick up one, or a pair of Eneby bluetooth speakers, and plug them in, pair them to your phone, and away you go. You can change them to your decor, and of course they fit nicely into IKEA’s shelving units. Did I mention they have a battery in them so you can take them outside? Because that’s a thing they have.

But as important as their ease of use, price, and simplicity of design are, there is something else about them. They are familiar. They look like what they are, and they are beautiful (in my opinion) comprehensible things that don’t need your attention to provide you with pleasure.

The Eneby: It’s not a smart speaker yet, but stayed tuned because IKEA and Sonos have inked a technology partnership.

Some people (me, for example) would argue that the Eneby speaker is a lot closer to Dieter Ram’s vision of what a modern home loudspeaker would look like than is the HomePod produced by Ives’ team. There’s more than a little of Rams’ L2 in the Eneby when it’s perched on its cute little stand.

It’s powered by a dinosaur bird inside that from time to time breaks the fourth wall and says “It’s a living.”

It’s a step in the right direction, but as yet IKEA doesn’t sell any smart speakers (though their recent deal with Sonos is likely to change all of that). They also don’t sell anything as aching beautiful as the 1983 Sony PS-F5 “Flamingo”record player.


But soon! Meet Frekvens.

IKEA recently announced the first fruits of their collaboration with acclaimed design firm Teenage Engineering — the Frekvens. Frekvens is a music and lighting system designed to be inexpensive, easy to use, and hard to forget. This is a music system that invites us to listen to music and to admire the way that it looks. Sometimes both at the same time.

It’s a needle-scratch moment in home audio design, one that brings back objects onto which we can attach emotions and upon which we can build memories. How it must infuriate the White Gods to see their dogma spurned and how the technology companies will laugh at its “plug it in and turn it on, leave the beep-boop stuff to us” philosophy.

But this will bring as much happiness into the world switched on as it does when it is switched off. It will never become a source of anxiety because it asks us to do one thing when we wish to do another. It is a reminder that our objects are there for us to interact with on our own terms.

This feels like you tricked me into learning. Are we done here?

Almost, imaginary rhetorical device. Almost.

As the 19th century faded into the 20th, industrialists looked to turn electricity to ever greater domestic use. The main labour-saving technology involved in this transition from industry to the home was also its largest and most expensive — the electric motor. One of the competing models for the electrification of large appliances such as washing machines seems odd to us now — homes would be fitted with one electric motor around which appliances like washing machines and butter churns (seriously) would be arranged. Each would take its turn being attached by belt drive to the one motor — people would have to change the patterns in which they lived in order to adapt to technology.

Screenshot 2018-06-12 22.18.22
You thought I was making this up, didn’t you?

History shows us that people didn’t much care for that. Technology tends to adapt and change a lot more quickly than does culture. Electricity may have disrupted some of our patterns (and shifted even more work to women) but it wasn’t going to change the built fabric of our homes. Instead of one electric motor in each home attached by turns to our refrigerator, our washing machine, and our butter churn, we now have countless electric motors of myriad size and strength throughout our homes. There’s one that makes your air conditioning work, another one in your fridge, one that opens your garage door, and a tiny little baby one that makes your iPhone X buzz in your pocket. We didn’t care enough about the electric motor to change the way we lived so electric motors had to change to suit us.

When Sony released the CDP-01 in 1982, it wasn’t obvious that the new laser-audio disc format (you’ll remember it as the CD) would eventually all but destroy the Long-Playing Vinyl Record as a format. Stereophile magazine reviewed the unit in its Jan 23, 1983 edition and praised the CDP-01’s deep frequency response but complained of its flat-button controls and said “there isn’t even a knob to diddle”.

Screenshot 2018-06-12 22.47.44
A Sony PS-F9 “Flamingo” yesterday, stealing my heart.

The underlying technology and ease of use eventually won the world over when it became obvious that CD players and discs were cheaper, more portable, and demonstrably better for most use cases than vinyl records and turntables. Even the Sony PS-F9 couldn’t save the vinyl record. The MP3 and subsequent technologies such as streaming even began to put nails in the jewel-case of the CD and physical music sales in general.

And yet here we are in 2018 and the vinyl record is actually growing in popularity. One in ten sales of music on a physical format is vinyl, and that number is actually on the increase. There exists in the world a large (and growing) group of people who enjoy listening to music on vinyl because of the very reasons that the compact disc is a more convenient way to listen to music.

The vinyl LP is a beautiful physical object that we have throughout the past century imbued with meaning, treated with reverence, and just plain tinkered with to get it to sound perfect. The turntable is something we decide to engage with, finding pleasure in its rituals, its differences, and its faults.

These qualities could also be used to describe our relationships with our friends. When we choose to commune with music on this temperamental machine with its moving parts and unwieldy physical format, we are engaged listeners and not passive consumers. We’re human.

The power of music and the strength of truly great design share this in common: the activation of our humanity and the enrichment of the soul. Designers like to say that design isn’t ‘what it looks like’, design is ‘what it does’. There’s a missing element in this — design is also how it makes you feel. Technology in and of itself doesn’t make us feel anything — except alienated.

The great hubris of Wolfe’s so-called White Gods was to ignore the alienation that was the inevitable and foreseeable result of being asked to build homes and instead delivering ‘machines for living’ that ignored human scale, human needs and human values. The technology giants, as they shovel processors and speakers into perforated tubes, are showing every sign of making similar mistakes. How ironic that a company built upon the mass-production of furniture purpose-designed to fill Le Corbusier’s ‘machines for living’ might point us to a better path.

This article could have been 5000 words longer, and maybe it should be, but if you’re interested in what’s been lost in the translation between visual and written thought in this piece, you could check out (seriously) the Pinterest board I made while I was working through this over the past months.

Originally posted on Medium.


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