Patrizio Cionfoli, director of design and interaction at Studio Volpi, shares his perspective on how the climate change debate is influencing the way household appliances are designed.

How did the designer’s job change over the past few years, in the light of the public’s growing sensitivity towards environmental issues?

There have been changes in technology, but also cultural and lifestyle changes. Instead of an ever increasing level of globalisation, we have been witnessing the return to a more local outlook in terms of design. We now have different approaches when it comes to designing products for the different regions.  We have changed the way we design products compared to twenty years ago, when globalisation was a must. Also, nowadays, green issues drive the development of new products. It all depends on what we can achieve with the help of technology. For starters it can help us design more energy-efficient appliances, but it can also guide consumers in using them more effectively and, in the case of refrigerators, minimise food waste by prolonging the “window of opportunity” for food to be used before it spoils.

Appliance-technology has also learned to adapt to different types of user profiles, be they beginners, intermediate of proficient. This advanced personalisation further helps consumers in using their appliances in the best possible way. A lot of attention is also paid to the types of materials used in the manufacturing of any new product. In the past these aspects tended to be overlooked, and some of the materials used at the time wouldn’t be considered acceptable today in the light of our current environmental policies. We must not generalise, though, and must not think that, say, all plastic should be banned. Single-use, disposable items like the plastic bottles that get thrown away just about anywhere are the real villains here. We have to consider the entire lifecycle of appliances, and make sure we can recycle as much of their components as we can, including the high-quality plastic they contain, which can greatly contribute to this virtuous circle. This changed the way we design appliances, since we now plan for their recycling right from the drawing board.

Can the designer really make a difference?

The role of the designer will increasingly become that of an agent of cultural change within an organisation. By definition, designers work with their minds set onto the future, and what they’re working on today will actually be on the market in a few years. Design goes well beyond the technical aspects of a product. Design-thinking is more of a cultural approach, and starts with identifying needs and challenges, and transforming them into opportunities. Eventually, these opportunities become real products, commonplace objects used by consumers around the world. The ultimate objective being, of course, making our lives better.

So was the change more a matter of technology-push, or was it demand-pulled?

Definitely demand-pulled. It’s always the markets that give off signals that we need to interpret in order to identify consumers’ needs. Consumers themselves often don’t really precisely know what the actual solutions might be, as they generally express an undefined aspiration or simply raise an issue, so it’s up to us to come up with an answer. Technology, far from creating or pushing a need, is an enabler. It helps us define the most appropriate response to the latent needs. When it comes to environmental issues, if a few years ago a company could get away with greenwash, i.e. talking green but doing very little about it, nowadays social media have made it virtually impossible, as any inappropriate behaviour, or simply the non-respect of sustainability promises, will inevitably and quite rapidly be exposed. Any claim about a company’s sustainability or green practices can be almost instantly checked. If on one hand this greatly discouraged greenwash, on the other hand it encouraged companies to be more open and do more about sustainability in terms of processes and products.

“Consumers are still confused about what food items should be kept in the fridge, and which ones should stay out.”

What about refrigerators? Have they changed over the past years? They seem to have taken on an important social role in consumers’ lives. How does that reflect in the way they are designed?

In the 1980’s consumers would tend to buy food supplies that would last, on average, for several weeks. Refrigerators and freezers were bulk storage devices. Since then, consumption patterns have progressively and steadily evolved towards more frequent shopping trips, with more and more fresh produce. Today, refrigerators reflect this generalised trend. What we’re still missing is the knowledge, on the part of consumers, of how to properly store food, what food items should be kept in the fridge and which ones are better be left out of it. So much so there is talk of designing smart refrigerator shelves that would help consumers stock up in the right way, with every product in its place.

One of the effects of lockdown was that people started using online shopping and delivery services like never before, since they could not physically travel long distances to go shopping at their usual center stores. As a result, shopping frequency increased, but so have trips to proximity, smaller food stores, to the extent that many people have now taken to shopping on a daily basis from local mom and pop style grocery stores.

In the light of these emerging shopping habits, one would expect the size of refrigerators to shrink, since there is no longer a need for all that storage space. On the contrary, demand for large fridge-freezers is on the upside. An apparent paradox, since the size of houses also tends to be on a downward trend. In fact, it is the new cultural and social role the refrigerator has taken on as a status symbol that explains the high demand for extra large appliances. Cooking is now a central part of our social life and the fridge is the centrepiece of every kitchen, hence the importance of size, and also of aesthetics and detailing.

In the future, awareness about correct food preservation practices might bring about a new type of appliance, something halfway between a wine cellar and a larder, where we would keep fresh produce needing a cool and dry storage place away from direct sunlight. In the meanwhile, we might as well start re-thinking the way we stock our fridge, as we may have done it wrong our whole life!