"There's no fun, no risk and no imagination
in luxury design"


Sam Jacob on luxury design_photo by Shutterstock

Opinion: instead of serving up "mundane and predictable" cliches, the world of luxury design should be tempting us with things we never knew we wanted, argues Sam Jacob in his latest column.

For some, the relentless tyranny of luxury rolls on from business class lounge to hotel lobby via restaurant interior and beachside condo. A continuous experience of glistening surfaces, with the spaces in between plugged with walnut-dashed limos.

These are the weird scenes inside the goldmine of a world that never stops lustering, glistening and shimmering. A world made up of a continuous interior space polished entirely smooth. Each hermetic bubble annexed to another equally high spec bubble. Exterior-less, with no threshold to the un-luxe world the rest of us live in.

This is the world described in the Robb Report, the self proclaimed "global luxury resource", which has just released what it calls its 2013 Luxury Portfolio. To the copywriters of Robb, it's probably supposed to summon up sheaves of investment certificates slotted into a leather-bound folder with gold embossed lettering, lying on the smooth surface of an executive desk somewhere with a W1 postcode – but to those of us who went to art school it sounds more like a plush way to carry your A1 sheets.

If we are to believe that a Robb Report world actually exists, it might like to read an edit of American Psycho containing extended descriptions of embossed Silian Rail on business cards. Or Fifty Shades of Grey minus the sex, with page after page in which Anastasia goes wild over the technical specifications of Christian's latest gift...

Your Christophe Claret Soprano watch chimes its divine four cathedral gong sound, cutting across the vivid, natural sound that remains remarkably stable throughout any listening space emanating from your Steinway Lyngdorf Model LS Concert speakers. You tap your Santoni footwear to the beat, the distinctive features of the shoe unchanged by the passage of time, still emanating the same luxury, design, and perfection as before.

The topnote of Chanel 1932 wafts into the room, and, as you recall that it is the latest addition to the Chanel Les Exclusifs family, you remember too the Louis Vuitton Paris Vendôme store, which truly represents the essence of luxury and sophistication with its mesmerising and innovatively designed interiors exuding opulence. Your Vertu Ti rings and as you pick it up you can't help but note its high-end features and urbane look and feel. "Hello?" It's the Amanzoe, a 38-suite resort whose peaceful and luxurious surroundings offer avid travellers like you an ideal environment to explore natural beauty, coastal pleasure and the ancient heritage of the Peloponnese region. Blah, blah, blah...

The Robb Report is, of course, not really a world at all. It's a lump of inert media made out of mechanically recovered press releases perfectly designed for media sales. Nevertheless, it does corral a world of global luxury between its covers. A world over whose surface a particular idea of design is poured like a lacquer.

International luxury is a language spoken by high-end brands as a kind of design patois. But for all its apparent sophistication and refinement, it's a language of primitive grunts that can only parrot back cliches of exclusivity. Though it tries to speak to us as though it were looking each one of us deep in the eye, it can only bark at us all in generalities. It's a language of design spoken by corporate monoliths totally devoid of humanity that can only conceive of the most base and generic of value systems.

Surely the whole point of luxury brands, sitting as they do at the apogee of capitalist consumerism, is the creation of value? Instead, they rely on things – often on substances themselves, as well as signs and symbols – that already have value. There's no fun, no risk and no imagination in that. Surely the role of luxury design is to make us want what we never imagined we wanted, not what we always knew we wanted? If this is the place where our wildest dreams are supposed to take material form, it seems depressing that these dreams are so mundane and predictable.

The real role of luxury brands is not moral – luxury will always deal in excess and over-abundance – but philosophical. After all, isn't philosophy itself a form of luxury? Luxury design is the space in which we should explore the very question of what constitutes contemporary luxury. It's the place we might imagine the possibilities of 21st century luxuriousness, to invent new ways of being, feeling and making deluxe.

Sam Jacob is a director of architecture practice FAT, professor of architecture at University of Illinois Chicago and director of Night School at the Architectural Association School of Architecture, as well as editing www.strangeharvest.com.

Top image is from Shutterstock.

  • Raf

    Isn’t the world of luxury constantly “tempting us with things we never knew we wanted”?

    Maybe an “interior space polished entirely smooth”, after surviving a day in an world over-saturated with stuff, is just that temptation.

  • Wait a minute – you READ Fifty Shades of Grey?

  • All jokes aside, I think Sci-Fi films do a better job showing us the future of luxury than these elitist brands. Perhaps this predictability Sam writes about is due to an unnerving pace in some aspects of our technology. Space hotels and chalets on the Moon remain perennially on our cultural horizon.

  • dtf design

    The article reads from the point of view of a disgruntled artist, unhappy with the world and its injustices, rather than from the point of view of someone who has worked in the specific topic area.

    I often hear people speak of those with more means than themselves as though the latter group should act as a higher part of society than the rest of us. I simply don’t believe this is true. Your social or economic status should not rule your moral judgement

    The issue with luxury design is that the people who are working in that sphere (and it most definitely does exist) are quite happy with their client satisfaction levels, and those that are not working in the area wish they were.

    • ber

      Please read the text again – that's not what Jacob wrote about. He argues that the language of luxury design is too predictable.

      • H&M

        But luxury is predictable. What is wrong with predictable? We are all predictable. Jacob is predictable because this type of thinking is nothing new and always come out from people who don't understand luxury. They want to change that because they want a piece of it as well. Artists and designers have the same fear, that is, being labeled as predictable. Just because something is new does not mean it is good. Luxury is not just about the product itself. Luxury involves heavily on customer service. It's about how to make your buyer feel special.

  • George

    There was a point in the early ’80s when “luxury” went to a new kind of modernism! “Functional art” is what it was called. It was all new then.

  • arle

    Look at the Nomad Objects collection from Louis Vuitton!

  • burnside

    Luxury design is always an appeal to the senses. It’s delicious, silken, aromatic. Its purpose is to delight. Jacob might think about shedding some freight to make room for insight.

  • 1234

    Whilst I agree that much luxury design is predictable and dull, a high level of refinement is rarely achieved in the first iteration of an item. Few people would argue that the first Apple Macintosh computers were as refined or luxurious as those that are produced today (although I do realise this example probably doesn’t fall under “luxury design” as described in the article).

    Also, where the line is drawn in the definition of luxury is certainly not clear. I consider many of the objects featured here on Dezeen to be luxury items, and many of them have price tags to support this opinion. The fact that something may come from a small scale manufacturer and not a global fashion house does not mean that it does not qualify as “luxury design”. Excluding something from the definition, purely because it is not included in a magazine seems daft.

  • Bob

    Bespoke furniture is the true luxury furniture. That is where design can be truly innovative and execution can be beyond reproach. Any choice of material, finish and configuration to an individual’s exact needs is available. In other realms as well, the true luxury goods are not brands, but are created by the best designers and craftsmen.

  • nonarchitect

    I love that hammock from the Louis Vuitton nomad objects collection. Luxury design has never meant to be avant garde, if anything they should seem as “old money” as possible. Innovation is more sorely needed for the other 99 percent anyway, so I won’t necessarily bemoan the lack of it in the luxury business.