Predicting Future Design and Production Trends: The Cabinet of Curiosities as an Indicator of What Comes Next

Mark Twain is famously (and perhaps erroneously) quoted as saying something to effect of: “History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” MMID is in the business of predicting the future. Our clients hire us to build out their product lines, create new products, or iterate on their tried-and-true methodologies. When doing so, we often look backwards before looking designing forward. The depth of this retrospective analysis varies but the fuzzier the question (e.g. what shape will be popular in five years?) the farther back we must look to understand what will be. Very occasionally, we have the opportunity to analyze the past through the lens of one object or idea. While rare, these types of analysis are often the most valuable as they help control for variability in the experiment: by looking at one object or idea, we can see each instance of how that single thing has changed over a given period of time. Of course, the danger of employing such a technique is that it is almost the definitive case of painting with a broad brush; such predictions and retrospectives must be taken with the saltiest of grains. Nevertheless, we proceed.

Time Machines Exist

Maybe you’re familiar with cabinet of curiosities. Early instances of the cabinet were actually rooms that contained curios or objects of peculiar origin. Academics love studying cabinets of curiosities as they, much like the occasional retrospective object MMID uses, provide a stable insight into the cultural influences of the given moment in time:

1500: The Cabinet as a Collection of Things

The German translation for cabinet of curiosities is Wunderkammer which is infinitely much more evocative of the cabinet’s true purpose. These rooms were filled by those of means with their own micro museums– often actual cabinets or sometimes entire rooms- with oddities that the collector found particularly compelling: carapaces of flora and fauna from faraway lands, shrunken heads, mechanical miniatures with complications that rivaled the finest clocks of the era, etc. A particularly popular item in cabinets throughout Europe was the tusk of a narwhal as it was commonly believed to be a unicorn horn. Invariably, establishing a fine collection required significant time and financial commitments and so the cabinets served as a means through which social order was established; the finer the collection, the more prestigious the owner.

1800: The Cabinet as an Experience

In 1783, Marie Antoinette famously purchased/built Le Hameau de la Reine (The Queen’s Hamlet) and filled it with the things and people she found particularly compelling: agricultural workers, French pastoral architecture, and all manners of heritage breed farm animal imported from Switzerland. While collecting as a practice is still prevalent today, Le Hameau represents what could be considered the pinnacle of the cabinet of curiosities: a living and breathing collection based, designed, and produced to suit the specific whims and desires of one individual. The trend expanded on the sails of colonial imperialism to America in the mid-to-late 1800’s where it took root in the form of traveling circuses and carnivals offering glimpses into the arcane and especially the anthropologically odd. As a product in-and-of-itself, PT Barnum’s Barnum & Bailey Circus drew hundreds of thousands of visitors per year to witness the spectacle of exotic animals, so-called “freak shows” staffed by sword swallowers and conjoined twins, and the carnival itself. Barnum, the consummate showman and marketeer, designed the experiences at his circus to exacting specifications though explicitly with the purpose of satisfying the assumed whims of the curious public. In a very real sense, PT Barnum’s designed fantasy is the (mildly) rabid manifestation of Marie Antoinette’s curated agricultural Disneyland. Barnum simply found a way to bring Le Hameau’s core principles to the masses by caravanning the phantasmagoria from one town to the next using elephant-drawn carriages.

1950: The Efficient Home becomes the Cabinet

As capitalism and mass manufacturing took hold of the world during the death throes of the Second World War, the cabinet of curiosities became democratized in the United States. Instead of a room dedicated to the display of the curious, mass development of the American countryside and the coincident rise of and flight to the suburb allowed a growing middle class to live in a castle of their own design. The post-war years were also characterized by a dramatic increase in per capita GDP; the ten years following 1944 saw an average of 0.77% GDP growth. This doesn’t seem like a huge amount but that ten year average discounts the fact that in six of those ten years, GDP actually declined. Nineteen forty-six alone saw a GDP decrease of almost 10%:

Wartime innovations and inventions were leveraged and repackaged by consumer goods companies and their legion of advertisers via the wonders of television; processed foods, vacuum cleaners, and microwaves sold by the hundreds of thousands to citizens who, now free of the space constraints of the city, became willing participants in consumerism on a national scale:

Capitalism claimed the technical innovations of wartime and transformed them into labor-saving convenience products. The aerosol spray can was a by-product of the war’s South Pacific “bug bomb.” Adding a spray top transformed the “bug bomb” into a dispenser for everything from processed cheese, whipped cream, shaving cream, hairspray and deodorant to furniture polish… Nylon, initially developed for parachutes, replaced expensive silk in stockings. Plastics and Styrofoam found new applications in everything from furniture to insulation.Throughout the decade, advertising expenditures increased to unprecedented levels. J. Walter Thompson Co., for example, saw its billings increase from $78 million in 1945 to $172 million in 1955 and $250 million by 1960. Overall, the decade saw gross annual ad industry billings grow from $1.3 billion in 1950 to $6 billion in 1960…

In 1945, one thousand three hundred and seventy six new residential properties were built in the United States. A mere five years later, 22,975 new homes were built. This astronomical increase is only magnified by the fact that home construction remained at or greater than these levels for decades afterwards as well. Lo and behold, people wanted things to fill their new homes:

[The housing boom] fueled a need for appliances and other necessities to fill those new homes, and marketers rushed to introduce a vast array of products while manufacturers churned out new appliances, automobiles and consumer electronics. Many advertised products promoted labor-saving automation for increased productivity and leisure time. Heating and cooling products, kitchen and laundry appliances, furniture and decorating accessories, and frozen and prepared foods all promoted time-saving benefits.

Today: The Digital Cabinet

In the present day, life is dominated by the intrusion of the digital. While the numbers vary wildly depending on the study and the data collection methods, the British telecommunications regulator Ofcom claims that people are spending an average of two hours and twenty-eight minutes on their smartphone every day. That usage figure goes up to three hours and fourteen minutes for the 18-24 year olds. Meanwhile, global app revenue is increasing dramatically. In 2017, the average smartphone user used 9 apps per day and 30 apps per month; by any logical estimation that figure has only increased since the time when the study was first conducted. All this is to say that the cabinet of curiosities is now, at least in part, a digital collection. Instagram and the host of similar apps that claim to curate and collect our digital life- Tumblr, Reddit, VSCO, etc.- are byte-based examples of the cabinet. Producers of physical things are now responding in kind with sensor-laden objects (Internet of Things or IoT) that connect our physical and digital lives. According to McKinsey Consulting, the IoT market will grow to $581 billion by 2020 with a compound annual growth rate of somewhere around 10%. Of course, the laws of physics apply to consumer purchasing behavior as well as every action yields an equal and opposite reaction. Companies engaged with industries or products that are typically considered “heritage” or “authentic”  are now prominent in the psyche of the American consumer. The Field Company sells their signature cast iron skillets made to emulate vintage cast iron cookware. Filson– an outdoor retailer of bags and other durable apparel- claims that the quality of their raw-material-aesthetic and construction is derived from their history as a outdoor outfitter during the gold and logging rushes in the early 1900’s. Best Made Co.- a retailer of lower-volume, “craft-made objects”- quite literally spent the entire 2016 holiday season selling long handled logging axes with stitched leather covers to Brooklyn hipsters and urbanites. Interestingly, each of these companies has a unified digital outreach and marketing strategy which hinges on highlighting their non-digital bonafides: The Field Company launched on Kickstarter while the extensive Instagram presences of all three highlight the decidedly analog (and now uncommon) experiences of hiking and camping while using their products.

Production During Each Phase of History

In almost every case, the cabinet as outlined in this article speaks to the nature of production and design in the era:

  1. The 1500s: Production and design are a byproduct of individual talents even in cases where a production studio (a collection of individual artisans) manufactured an object. At this point, a lot of the natural world was still a great mystery so the spectacle and illusion of the unknown was important. As production was isolated to relatively low volume, craft (non-scalable) processes were important to production. In the truest sense, the math was very simple: one artisan makes one thing in one specific amount of time.
  2. The 1800s: The roots of industrial design as a practice, although under a different name, began to form during this time. Artisans like William Morris opened the precursors to industrial factories and began producing at moderate scale using mid-volume production methods with some degree of repeatability. Morris is best known for his industrialized manufacturing of textiles. The distribution of labor began to also take effect: one artisan producing one part of the textile worked with another artisan to yield a collection of objects. More specifically, one plus one could begin to amount to three or more.
  3. 1950: Manufacturing, while still done by human hand and manual labor, became increasingly mechanized. At the same time, the middle class grew as available disposable income similarly increased.  Concurrently, mass media advertising became a driver of innovation/production. This combination led to an increase in the number of goods that people owned. While planned obsolescence as a concept in manufacturing existed for decades prior to the turn of the century, it is around this time that it became prevalent enough that companies like Volkswagen publicly decried it.
  4. Now: While manual labor in manufacturing still exists, even low margin mass manufacturing is becoming more and more automated. While estimates vary as the numbers are private, Amazon lists somewhere between 600-650 million unique items on its platform at any given moment. Individual consumers are now empowered via massive choice; consequently human consumption and consumerism is now more curated than at any time in history however this curation is limited, largely, to the choices that individual consumers make within a range of pre-defined product or service choices. Increasingly, there is no more “one” in the production equation as people are becoming less and less a part of the process. Even then, machines augment and divide labor so effectively that a single person now is able to have a massively out-sized effect on production output.

The Next Phase: Adapting Mass Manufacturing for Total Customization

As manufacturing has become more and more capable, production costs have fallen and stabilized. Established brands are faced with increasingly stiff competition from upstart companies that go direct to consumer or are wholly owned by the same manufacturing organizations that the established brands use to make their own products. This means that is now more and more difficult for companies to undercut the competition and win on price without significantly cutting into their own margin.

Consequently, established companies are now striving to find a way to differentiate themselves at scale. In popular culture, this is sometimes thought of as the spark that will light the revolution of 3D printing as such technologies offer dramatic opportunities for personalization of product. It’s a sound theory but it isn’t happening in practice. Manufacturing will become customized but not by 3D printing. In the near term, examples of this trend are already popping up. Nike ID, the platform upon which the average consumer can heavily customize their Nike products directly from the factory, uses traditional manufacturing processes coupled with highly intelligent logistics and product development to offer a personalized experience. Smaller companies (e.g. Ultimate Ears), absent the competitive advantages in scale and reach from which Nike benefits, are also employing similar techniques to drive sales of their products.

Ten Years Out: Custom Everything, Hyper-Logistics, Distribution of Production, and Novel Production Processes

Exponential increases in the processing power of computers will enable widespread distribution of logistics networks that enable massive data collection for purposes of mass production. This should come as no great surprise. ZOZO, one of the largest companies in Japan, recently launched an app and companion photo reflective black body suit that measures body size for purposes of bespoke clothing manufacturing. The clothing is priced comparably to that which one might buy at a mid-tier outfitter in the United States like Old Navy or Gap. It makes sense that clothing would be the first category to benefit from this type of innovation. The processes used to manufacture the things we wear are largely the same as they were 75 years ago except now they are significantly more efficient. In short, this industry is ripe for disruption. Despite this innovation, ZOZO’s model is emblematic of only two of the four components of the future company.

In a way, this future company is a return to the age of William Morris: his artisans sat down and made one thing at a time in a bespoke fashion likely for a semi-local patron and they did so using production methods which were novel for the time. So how does this future manufacturing organization function? Take the red pill:

Let’s call this hypothetical company X. It makes widgets called @! that are most effective at widget-ing whenever they are custom fit to their given need or user. X uses a seamless measuring device, likely an extension of the technology everyone already carries with them all the time like a smartphone, to measure the parameters of the given need. This measurement requires no additional augmentation from something like a ZOZO Suit or a yardstick- it just works. After collecting this data to a centralized server, X stores it for future use and ease of purchasing before sending it out to one of its local or regional automated production facilities. With very little manual interaction, the data is then read by the machine which grows every single @! to specification at a speed comparable to modern mass-manufacturing. Because each production cell is located very close to the end consumer, the complex logistics infrastructure that will deliver each @! after snatching it off the growth machine is able to use an automated short-range, high-speed drone to get the @! directly to the consumer.

It sounds fanciful but it’s not. Drones are already making deliveries, distributed manufacturing is already making an impact on manufacturing and consumption economies, advanced forms of production are being invented and explored as you read this article, and meanwhile Amazon has Prime Now offers one hour delivery in large part because of its hyper-efficient logistics network. Importantly, the capital expenditures required to build this kind of business are falling. It’s a matter of time.

So What Next?

Adaptation to this type of business model is necessary but will likely require partnership with other companies who are masters of one corner of the square. Aside from the largest institutions in the world (Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Alibaba, etc.) the financial and human capital required to launch such an endeavor will remain immense for the foreseeable future. The first companies who execute this model successfully will likely be those with simple, lightweight products made of one material that also have predictable use cycles.

Fast fashion will likely adopt this model early before other industries follow. Would it be that surprising if ZOZO got there first?