Smaller Living Spaces Reshaping Housewares Design: Part 2

HomeWorld’s annual Generational Marketing Report in the August 6 issue examines how the downsizing of American homes across generations is reshaping housewares design, development and marketing.

Among the indicators of this small space living and design convergence is escalating demand for and creation of space-conserving, multi-functional and convertible housewares— from countertop cooking appliances to task furniture to tableware.

This year’s report looks at overall housing trends influencing the market; and how small space living is impacting design trends in home goods.

NEW YORK— Small space living is a phenomenon arising from the return to urban living popular among Millennials who have embraced interest in lifestyles based on community interaction, sustainable living and getting more out of less, which has effects on the development of housewares and home furnishings.

Still, the small space trend isn’t as simple as sometimes portrayed. Indeed, although associated with Millennials, small space living was a reality for Baby Boomers and Generation X who began gentrifying city neighborhoods in the 1980s.

The experience of small space living has made its way to the suburbs over the years, most recently as Millennials decamped city neighborhoods for the suburbs and child-rearing rooms. Yet, against frequently voiced expectations, many Millennials are purchasing homes rather than occupying the apartments and townhouses developers have built for them. At the same time many Baby Boomers, widely expected to sell suburban homes and downsize into more urban environments, are remodeling their houses for retirement.

Another critical home trend to consider is the consumer passion for open floor plans, which, in both multi-unit and individual homes create specific conditions that prompt consumers to define spaces by the placement of home furnishings and housewares.

Consumers have become more creative and adaptive when putting together households, something Ikea has experienced since 1985, when the company opened its first store in the U.S., with small space living being a driving factor in the retailer’s development.

“We know that people are looking for a more flexible, fluid home that can adapt to different use,” said Ikea spokesperson Janice Simonsen. “For example, a table might serve as a work-from-home desk during the day, a desk for homework for children in the afternoon and expanded for use as the family dinner table in the evening.”

Design Directions

As they consider designs today, product developers recognize that consumers require more of the items they purchase. Small space living has inspired consumers, even those moving to bigger dwellings, to think about the principles of flexibility, efficiency and lifestyle compatibility that underlie consideration of fitting out compact homes. In consequence, product designers have to consider those principles, too.

For instance, Stuart Harvey Lee, founder and creative director, Prime Studio, said small space living encourages product developers to consider multifunction or multipurpose items, but they should do so with restraint. Millennials especially like products that do a specific thing very well, hence their affection for craft and artisanal goods, and they don’t like products that do many things in a mediocre manner. A knife that does two or three things well may win more sales than one that does more to a lesser effect.

“It is very much a less is more model,” he said.

Consumers who deal with small space issues often respond to everyday items that effectively complete a task while also providing benefits that make use easier. Lee said he helped design cast iron cookware that retained its thermal properties at a lower-then-typical weight for the class of product. The small space living benefit: Purchasers who had an affinity for cast iron cookware could use the lighter version more comfortably everyday versus the heavy traditional version, negating the need to purchase and store additional pots and pans.

Lee added that broadly, consumers demonstrate a greater willingness to try out new materials these days if they contribute efficient space use. Products such as collapsible colanders save kitchen cabinet space. Conversely, products aesthetically appealing enough to store on a countertop have an attraction, he said, noting that Nespresso and SodaStream both have done a good job creating products that people don’t mind leaving out in the open.

Steve Cozzolino of Cozzolino Studio, also cautioned against “feature creep” and the temptation in product development to layer on additional functions.

For many consumers, having a multi-cup and single-serve coffee options built into one appliance satisfies their lifestyle needs. The temptation to layer on features in the design phase may satisfy a marketing ambition to promote lots of product uses for the price, but it also can result in performance that generates poor repurchase and, critically today, negative reviews.

Cozzolino made the point that the advent of more casual lifestyles has influenced small space living and has been influenced by it. In tableware, for example, casual lifestyles and attractive everyday products caused consumers to move away from China and other formal wares. The tendency ultimately saves cupboard space as consumers use just one set of dishes. Similar principles apply to furniture, Cozzolino said, where consumers are scaling down and mixing up pieces based on what makes them comfortable in every day and satisfies their entertaining preferences.

Millennial Mindset

Consumers now favor products that fit their lifestyles in terms literal and figurative, rather than traditional expectations. People moving to larger homes today, which includes a lot of Generation X, have decorating perspectives formed in small space circumstances. They often prefer furnishings efficiency and flexibility, particularly for open floor plan homes, where furniture and even housewares define the space for use everyday and, with the repositioning of this piece or that, in entertaining.

Jason Belaire, IDSA and executive director of Denver Design Week, said, consumers across generations may have some affinity for products that are more space effective, but he pointed out that Millennials are unique in that they’ve grown up focused on sustainability and social issues that concern the environment. As such, products that use space, power and materials in lesser proportions are likely to attract them, as are recycled or recyclable items. Product developers have to keep in mind, he said, that some consumers look for products that adhere to small space living dimensions on principle.

“The Millennial mindset is that products have to have some connection to consequences,” he said.

Social concerns around sustainability and related environmental issues that weigh upon small space living will continue to make Millennials leaders in driving the trend and related product development. However, Belaire cautioned that pricing plays a role. Most Millennials will only pay a proportionately small premium for a product that is more environmentally friendly, he said.

Max Burton, global leader of connected products at Fjord and founder of design firm Matter, said not to forget that, despite moves to the suburbs by an older contingent, many Millennials continue moving into and living in urban environments. So, a large proportion of younger consumers—consumers who will be buying lots of household goods in the years ahead—still grapple with claustrophobic living conditions. Not only that but many consumers deal with conditions that will lead them to appreciate how efficiency, flexibility and lifestyle compatibility make household items more satisfying in use.

Burton noted that something as simple as a combination toilet brush and plunger can make tight quarters easier to navigate. Designers of products designed to accommodate small space must confront the dilemma of storage space scarcity and the reality that functional products may need to remain in plain sight.

“A lot of people can’t install beautiful storage to hide things. That should make designers think more about aesthetics,” he said.