SBHD: Domestic appliance trade shows can be messy and fragmented affairs, but this year’s Domotechnica offered cohesion and vision. Andy Davey reports
IT takes a lot to get a thrill out of domestic appliances, but a few stirrings of excitement were perceptible at Domotechnica this year. For those who’ve never heard of it, Domotechnica is the premier biennial domestic appliance trade fair – where the Goliaths of kitchen appliances rub shoulder pads with the Davids of the developing markets.
Collected together you have the mighty German manufacturers such as AEG, Bosch, Siemens and so on (for whom floor space seemed a larger issue than installing anything interesting on their stands); the major pan-European brands Electrolux, Zanussi and Philips – who all seem to own each other and are generally regarded as more visually progressive; the big-selling Japanese multinationals Panasonic, Sanyo and Sharp; smaller European companies; emerging contenders including Goldstar and Samsung from Korea and Taiwan; and some small-fry locals from places like er… the UK.
The 1995 version of this “techfest” did much to sum up the general condition of the European domestic appliance industry. The haves and have nots situation – in terms of cash for R&D, of design conviction and of presentational imagination – was evident immediately, with the customary hierarchical assignment of stand space and position reflecting the financial muscle and market confidence of the companies concerned. The vast plains that were Bosch, AEG, Miele and Krups were examples of a triumph of Germanic austerity over style. I spent many a minute on these stands studying the seemingly unlimited logicistacy (just made that up) of the German companies, wondering why they felt so bleak.
Far more entertaining in a French kind of way (you know, an ace stand with some products attached) was Moulinex, which tried hard to be singularly wacky by dressing its (female) demonstrators in 2ft flame-red acrylic wigs – sort of Marie-Antoinette meets Mr Whippy.
Zanussi had the stand of the show, a labyrinthine womb of confidence which oozed enigmatic energy. The authoritative voice of “a fuzzy logic microprocessor” (up there with the information super-highway in tired techno-schpiel) accompanied a laser display which sucked you on to the stand and into an inner sanctum installation containing the product of the show. A fridge. Not any old fridge mind, but OZ, a sensual amorphic blob from which any old cheese would look digestible. You won’t find OZ at your local Comet though, this is strictly one of those voluptuous teases, a prototype designed to whet the appetite, provoke discussion and generally show-off in the manner of car manufacturers. But at least Zanussi has applied this more radical styling approach to things you can actually buy too. The sexy glass-fronted system ovens were studies in restraint and desirability.
Electrolux had a lot of crashing waves and “a message”. While the stand was a boat show-style moated island awash with natural Scandinavian materials and dramatic photography, the credibility of its environmental message – “every drop counts” – was underlined by a well-produced and intelligent consumer-style brochure, or “magazine for the home appliance industry”. This covered everything from the power of lT and the 55+ consumer market (Zanussi’s “Empty Nesters”), to “smart products” and how caring for the environment can increase sales. There’s the rub. Sure, it’s easy to be cynical about major manufacturers’ credentials when it comes to issues such as waste and the environment, but if the consumer can be convinced then manufacturers will have to become more responsive. For the first time I saw evidence of this in the market place.
Back to the show, and Philips’ mega-presence was amplified (literally) by what seemed to be a Eurovision Song Contest rehearsal but was in fact a singing paean of praise extolling the virtues of a Ladyshave. The Alessi/Philips collaboration, which has resulted in a range of ever-so-slightly retro, candy-coloured appliances, was well explained to the lay visitor with a “how we did it” slide show. Like Electrolux, Philips also produced a magazine-style brochure, heavily featuring “heads-thrown-back-in domestic-ecstasy” shots in Webberesque grainy black and white – you know the sort of thing.
On a linguistic note, it is interesting to see how pan-European product features are rendered into simple consumer slogans. Most manufacturers are obsessed with producing a snappy two or three part name for any new development. I loved Whirlpool’s Fuzzy Crisp, for instance. Electrolux call their soft styling New Alpha and there’s also Crisp ‘n’ Fresh, Jet Wave and even Twist ‘n’ Serve (like we did last summer…). All of which reminded me of Fifties marketing speak which belied a desire to give new technology an approachable image.
Overall, the impression generated by the larger companies was one of product friendliness – environmental, emotional and physical, and there was a strong direction towards reflecting this in the styling and presentation.
Domotechnica is one of those events at which 95 per cent of the stuff looks like it is already in your high street, neither new nor interesting. But that other 5 per cent is always the bit which has the potential to fill you with something approaching joy through product design. It’s rare to see manufacturers take visual risks, and at trade shows they tend to huddle round a similar idea – resembling a bad football match where all the action is at one end of the pitch. This time, the message has diversified and matured, and the strips have changed. m
Andy Davey is director of London-based product design consultant TKO.