Luxury and Social Design: A New Convergence
In our ever-evolving world, the concept of social design is steadily gaining traction. It now serves as the common thread uniting a fresh generation of designers and underpins numerous conceptual ideologies. Luxury draws inspiration from it, like the Hublot brand.
By Cristina D’Agostino16 novembre 2023
Social design, which focuses on the human element rather than the aesthetics of a product alone, has undergone significant development over the past decade. Its influence on society is continually expanding, with roots tracing back to the early 20th-century industrial design movement. Pioneers like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier aimed to enhance people's quality of life by crafting functional and aesthetically pleasing products. The Bauhaus school, along with subsequent social movements throughout the century, further cultivated this innovative design approach.
The designer's mission is not only to design objects or spaces, but to challenge existing biases and transform social norms, behaviors and values
Gabriel Fontana, winner of the Pierre Keller Prize 2023
Victor Papanek, recognized as one of the trailblazers of social design, expounded on its fundamental principles in his 1971 book, "Design for the Real World." Three of these principles underscore the potential links and mutual interests between luxury and social design: human-centered design, creating sustainable and responsible products and experiences, and an ethical approach that seeks to address societal issues more effectively. Luxury's core objective is not merely to fulfill needs but to enhance well-being and existence through beauty and pleasure. Thus, luxury is no longer solely a means of distinguishing oneself; it also signifies alignment with a particular worldview. Consequently, luxury can engage with social design to champion societal causes, offer perspectives, and actively contribute to global discourse.
Values such as sustainability, inclusivity, equality, ecological responsibility, and ethics are paramount in luxury messaging. These are the very values that social design endeavors to embrace. Improving user quality of life, minimizing environmental impact through sustainable production processes, fostering co-creation, adopting the circular economy, and encouraging deconsumerism: these principles are at the root of creations that have radically changed the lives of communities.
In recent years, the topics that concern students have been increasingly influenced by social, ethical, and environmental causes
Nicolas Le Moigne, designer and director of the Master in Luxury at ECAL
Through the principles of social design, everyday items, from water purifiers to solar ovens, have transformed the lives of entire communities, promoting user well-being while minimizing environmental impact through sustainable production processes. With its commitment to heritage preservation and cutting-edge innovation, the luxury industry is well-positioned to seize this opportunity.
Luxury Brands Nurturing Emerging Talent and Committed Artists
This dynamic came to the fore in Zurich last October during the announcement of the winners of the 8th edition of the Hublot Design Prize 2023. A panel of distinguished judges, including Marva Griffin, the founder of Milan's Salone Satellite, Hans Ulrich Obrist, the curator and artistic director of London's Serpentine Gallery, Alice Rawsthorn, a prominent design critic, and Tawanda Chiweshe, creative director and industrial designer at Studio Alaska Alaska, evaluated the six finalists' presentations.
All six incorporated the critical dimension of social design, exemplified by individuals such as Germane Barnes, an architect and designer based in Chicago, who delves into narratives of identity, colonization, and African cultural influences through architecture. Similarly, Aqui Thami, an Indian artist and activist, winner of this award, earned the prize for her work that empowers India's underprivileged minorities. Herself from a marginalized community, her activities take place in Dharavi, one of Bombay's most densely populated areas; she creates inclusive spaces, including a pioneering feminist library—the first of its kind in Asia. Thami explains, "This privileged space serves as an arena for experimental creation, storytelling, documentation, and education, offering a unique perspective on unseen realities."
Gabriel Fontana, the recipient of the Pierre Keller Prize, has garnered attention for his thought-provoking work in redefining social roles and norms through sport. Based in Paris, Fontana is committed to reshaping group dynamics and challenging existing biases. He states, "My work centers on reimagining sport, not only from an athletic or aesthetic standpoint but also from a social one. It involves how sport can be made more inclusive, reflective, and transformative. Sport encompasses numerous issues like identity, the body, group dynamics, and gender norms. My aim is to redefine society through new games. Because of its popularity, sport has a powerful impact - perhaps the most influential discipline. Social design uses different methodologies to tackle complex issues. It enables the evolution of not only interactions but also of the environment and people. The designer's mission is not only to design objects or spaces but to challenge existing biases and transform social norms, behaviors, and values." Notably, Fontana has collaborated with Nike to explore the future of sports and inspire the upcoming generations.
the emergence of a new generation of hybrid designers with a heightened awareness of social and environmental issues, moving away from a sole focus on products
Hans Ulrich Obrist, curator and artistic director of London's Serpentine Gallery
While the Hublot Design Prize finalists may not share direct ties to the Hublot brand, their recognition on an international scale underscores the brand's commitment to showcasing young design talent. "We are proud to be able to showcase talented young designers on an international scale," declared Hublot CEO Ricardo Guadalupe at the awards ceremony. A valuable platform for their career, the 2023 edition was also an interesting signal about the contemporary design evolution. "This year marked an exceptional diversity and quality of projects, highlighting the emergence of a new generation of hybrid designers with a heightened awareness of social and environmental issues, moving away from a sole focus on products," concludes Hans Ulrich Obrist, who is also president of the Hublot Design Prize jury.
Other fashion houses, including Dior, not conventionally associated with social design, have begun incorporating certain codes. Under the artistic direction of Maria Grazia Chiuri, Dior has contributed to raising awareness of societal issues in the world of luxury fashion. Collections with potent feminist messages, exemplified by the iconic "We Should All Be Feminists" T-shirts, have ignited conversations about gender equality and women's rights. Collaborations with artist Judy Chicago for the Spring/Summer 2020 collection aimed to celebrate femininity and art. This collaboration regains relevance with the major retrospective of Chicago's work at the New Museum in New York, on display until January 14, 2024. The museum is hosting 'Herstory,' a collection of works by Judy Chicago, including those unveiled for the first time during the Dior haute couture fashion show in 2020, resulting from a passionate dialogue with Maria Grazia Chiuri.
The Younger Generation Is Also Embracing Social Design
Luxury is designed for a certain elite or community attracted by rarity and distinction
Félicitas Morhart, marketing professor at HEC Lausanne
This shift in social design is observed at art schools, including ECAL in Lausanne. "In recent years, the topics that concern students have been increasingly influenced by social, ethical, and environmental causes," explains Nicolas Le Moigne, designer and director of the Master in Luxury at ECAL." The design of objects is now viewed through these lenses, not solely through aesthetics. However, we don't impose any specific direction, and we always keep the door wide open for freedom of expression."
But beyond a mere gesture of goodwill, do luxury and social design truly have a shared future? Given the ever-present threat of greenwashing in such matters, what genuine intentions can we ascribe to the luxury sector? "Luxury is defined by differentiation and social status," notes Professor of Marketing at HEC Lausanne, Félicitas Morhart. "Therefore, speaking of a desire to reach and appeal to the masses in democratizing luxury is challenging. Luxury is designed for a certain elite or community attracted by rarity and distinction. Social considerations are not a primary criterion. While customers appreciate sustainability, luxury (which can certainly evolve over time) will always be conceived for a selected few."
Nevertheless, design within the luxury sector is evolving because society is evolving. Engagement is now a concern across all sectors. Social pressure intensifies under the weight of economic and climate issues. New luxury houses demonstrate this by creating products that were previously seen as incongruent with sustainable well-being. It's a fact that the concept of consuming better but less is gaining traction within luxury brands.
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