They’re Coming For Our Air Conditioning Units

D1 A Perspective Header Aug AC Units
  • Text Izzi Sneider
  • Design Jena Salvatore

If you spend time scrolling through socials, you’ve likely seen hyperspecific interior design trends, like the squiggly mirror or the infamous green squeeze bottle olive oil. The most recent “must have” homeware object, however, isn’t a cool selfie mirror or an accent piece. It’s The Mop, a semi-translucent, pink and purple acetate rendition of the classic Clorox Swiffer made by Brooklyn-based homeware brand, Staff, in collaboration with Clorox. The Mop retails for $48 when purchased directly from Staff’s website, but good luck getting your hands on this colorful little top-hat wearing Swiffer. The Mop sold out almost instantly—despite it functioning exactly like its less-colorful predecessor, which is available at essentially every store that sells cleaning products (for a fraction of the price).

Staff specializes in what they call “reimagined household essentials.” Their products feature bold colors, unique materials, and characters that are “eager to please,” and are just one of many brands specializing in high-end versions of everyday objects. Brands like the Windmill, who make beautified air conditioners, have been winning over Gen Zers over the past few years with their eccentric, Scandi-inspired design and glowing influencer endorsements. From $70 sculptural juicers to $8,000 sofas, zoomers are seemingly obsessed with expensive, beautiful homegoods.

Why are young people online (both full-time influencer and part-time photo-dumper) willing to shell out top dollar for household objects? Welcome to the world of elevated homeware, the final frontier of aestheticized objects by Venture Capital-backed direct-to-consumer brands—or what the internet’s favorite Creative Director, Oren John, calls the “Object Renaissance”.

@orenmeetsworld The transition of everyday items into designed, beautiful “objects” #designtok #interiordesigntiktok #creativedirector ♬ original sound - Oren John

The so-called “Object Renaissance” refers to the influx of design focused, aesthetically pleasing versions of everyday items. In his TikTok explaining the phenomenon, John says, “Everything we have in the house from hangers to mops or artisan nails is becoming more of an art piece.” For almost any everyday item, there is now an option to buy something well-designed and interesting, an entire cottage industry of companies making more beautiful versions of everyday things has quickly created an “object industry,” John says. What’s interesting about this space is the sheer size of the market given its newness. As more people get introduced to different designs and aesthetics via social media and are told that these items are superior, more will start shopping with these intentions in mind.

Gen Z consumers who are moving out of their family homes and becoming first-time renters and homeowners are targeted aggressively by this market. Intentional design, colorful and unique materials, and aesthetically pleasing branding come at a premium, and young people are more likely to splurge on the beautified item than their elders, despite the fact that Gen Z has less disposable income and savings than previous generations, according to McKinsey’s “True Gen” report, which studies Gen Z’s spending habits and its implication for companies.

The fact that Gen Z is obsessed with sustainably and ethically minded small businesses isn’t surprising, considering that Gen Z consumers are more likely to shop their aesthetic and social values as well as shop secondhand. Many of the comments on John’s TikTok agree that young people view the object-as-art movement as a push towards slow and intentional shopping, embodying the adage, “Buy nice or buy twice". Perhaps to Zoomers who are mindful of their carbon-footprint, this is an attempt to buy better, or protest with the purchases they are able to make. They can put their money behind their intentions and make their kitchen look Instagram-worthy when they spend more on the fancy airfryer made by the cool DTC brand as opposed to the ugly, mass produced airfryer.

Cause-based purchasing habits don't tell the entire story, however. As more and more of the youth’s social interactions move online where there is a growing pressure to curate a persona, “aesthetic culture” has become a worldwide phenomenon. Aesthetic culture refers to the practice of labeling different subgroups that happen obsessively on social media. Since the pandemic, the proliferation of aesthetic culture has exploded.

What’s more, when a young person devotes themselves to an aesthetic, they often involve themselves with similar hobbies, interests and shopping habits to those who identify with the same aesthetic as a way of fitting in. The goal: every facet of their life, from their clothing and homes to even their language, must align with their chosen niche so they can correlate perfectly in photos and videos they post online.

According to a study conducted by Penn Medicine, social media breeds perfectionism—creating a compounding pressure to be the most stylized person within a sublabel. It also has the potential to encourage overconsumption, reckless spending and create stress. The obsession with this culture is so over-the-top that every “aesthetic” created [online] is cataloged in The Aesthetics Wiki, which acts as a hybrid of an encyclopedia and a family tree. It ranges from mainstream trends like Y2K to more niche movements like “goblincore” and “grunge fairy.” In an interview with Inkwell, social media influencer Olivia Hickly says that “people are easily influenced by social media, feeling the need to have the ‘best, latest trends to fit in. Gen Z has gotten rather lost in aesthetic culture and individuality is fading away for a large group of individuals. While having a specific style you truly adore can be wonderful, a lot of people throw around these aesthetic labels hazardously.” In a social media landscape overrun with trends, pretty homeware objects become status symbols that indicate your coolness.

One early, but poignant example of the impact of aesthetically pleasing, Instagramable spaces comes from Igor Schwarzmann, who noticed a strange phenomenon while traveling the world: all the cafés he visited across countries had the same ‘faux-artisanal aesthetic,’ thanks to social media-based algorithms that favor this specific design style. This ‘AirSpace,’ as Schwarzmann dubbed it, is characterized by minimalist furniture, exposed brick, craft beer, industrial lighting, and other symbols of comfort and quality. There’s no doubt you’ve walked into a popular restaurant or bar in your city, whether it’s Berlin, Beijing, New York, or Odessa, that boasts the same raw wood, exposed brick, and hanging edison bulb interior design.

Gen Z is aware that they can be connected to, or judged by, like minded people all over the world, and in an aesthetically homogenizing world, they go all-out in order to effectively embody a particular aesthetic. As a result, elevated home goods brands and small businesses have the opportunity to sell products globally and reach international audiences. What does this tell us? Gen Z is a generation with knowledge and appreciation for good, thoughtful design. How an object looks in their homes sometimes trumps its functionality. Young people are willing to spend more on products that look good on display and are disproportionately influenced by social media and influencer marketing—therefore more likely to order trendy “must-have” items from viral DTC brands, rather than scour aisles of department stores.

The DTC brands that were popularized by Millennials like Our Place, Great Jones, Parachute, Buffy and Burrow have been able to stay relevant in the shifting zeitgeist only by reacting quickly to changing trends and adopting the bright primary colors, retro inspired, playful styles that are popular amongst Gen Z creators who are pushing against the beige, minimalistic aesthetic that big box stores seem to still be offering.

@reevcon how are feeling about vintage ikea furniture? #design ♬ original sound - Reeves Connelly

Staple homegoods brands, like Tupperware and Pyrex, could capitalize on their prominence and authority within the space by rereleasing the colorful, playful designs from their mid-century past that align with the bright primary colors and maximalism that seamlessly mesh with a plethora of popular “aesthetics.” IKEA, for example, has begun to capitalize on the popularity of retro inspired aesthetics by re-releasing limited edition versions of their ’60s and ’70s designs. Legacy brands could also take a page out of Clorox and Staff’s playbook and collaborate with newer, independent designers to create a line of elevated designs that are as functional as their permanent line. Or, imagine a brand that could provide unique, ethical, well-designed home products at a more attainable price point than their small-business competitors.

Young people want beauty in the form of quality materials that feel luxurious and sturdy. The companies that manufacture less aesthetically pleasing products may be able to stay relevant by leaning into the quality and long-term functionality of their products with clever marketing and a sleek, playful rebrand. So as the saying goes: watch this space.

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