Touching the void

Where luxury used to mean obvious extravagance, today it’s all about subtle statements. Jonathan Bell looks at how high-tech goods from smart phones to sports cars are taking a tactile approach to entice the super rich

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One dictionary definition of luxury is of “a material object, service, etc conducive to sumptuous living, usually a delicacy, elegance, or refinement of living rather than a necessity”. With its roots in the Latin word luxus, or extravagance, and dating back to the Middle Ages, the term has evolved to become synonymous with wealth, status and display.

After the industrial revolution helped transform scarce and expensive objects into common commodities, luxury’s emphasis shifted towards rarity, driven by high levels of craftsmanship and expensive materials. Luxury goods became ostentatious, elaborate, complex and ultimately overwrought, their expense physically displayed for all to perceive, regardless of whether or not one could actually afford it.

Today, luxury is all these things and more. Although status and display still play a role, other commodities have become more valued. Arguably, our most precious commodity is time. Although technology has made great inroads into simplifying and streamlining our day-to-day lives, it brings an increasingly crushing demand on our time as we monitor, tend and append all our various devices. This is not luxury. But one of way of enhancing and improving this experience is to change the way in which we engage with technology, taking a leaf out of the tangible, physical qualities that have defined luxury since the industrial revolution.

Take mobile phones. While the first examples were luxurious only by dint of their stratospheric price, the rampant, exponential evolution of first cell phones and then smartphones meant that a rich person’s plaything quickly became an everyday item. Nevertheless, the idea of a luxury cell phone emerged quite early on, with Nokia’s Vertu division eventually splitting off into the (now-defunct) provider of customised, five-figure handsets. Yet although Vertu’s ultimate raison d’etre was status, the company’s definition of luxury harked back to the early days of industrial luxury, all gold and jewels, embossing and bling.

There are those who claim that technology doesn’t play well with baroque expressions of ostentation. Certain objects will never escape their innate association with wealth and privilege — a yacht or supercar, for example — but for a new breed of high-net-worth individuals, the idea that wealth need not be equated with display led to the emergence of a new, more subtle and stealthy approach to luxury design. In many respects, technology is ideally suited to subtle statements; components and circuitry, along with software and services, can all be tailored to accommodate every price point without making many significant changes to the physical object itself.

Apple, typically, led the charge. The arrival of Apple Watch in 2015 pitched the Californian company against an industry with over a century’s worth of experience of how to transform a single product across a vast array of styles and price points. Apple Watch is an especially subtle piece of contemporary design, high tech but also classic.

The first iteration was joined by Apple Watch Edition, complete with 18-carat yellow gold case and buckle and a bold red leather strap. The stage was set; only the aficionado would necessarily know this object was around 45 times more expensive than the entry level model. For the buyer, the slowly patinating gold and ever-softening leather transformed a piece of fast-depreciating tech into something more akin to a family heirloom. Although now discontinued, Apple Watch Edition models continue to command high prices among collectors.

The company followed it up with an even more direct appeal to the tactile expectations of the super-rich. Apple Watch Hermès is the brand’s flagship object, a collaboration with the French fashion house, marrying two centuries of experience in high-end craftsmanship with Apple’s five-year-old smart watch, now in its fourth series. Leatherworking might move at a glacial pace in comparison to touch-screen technology and processor design, but the synergy between the two brands is a powerful one.

Apple translated Hermès’ graphic aesthetic into a unique watch face and paired it with the wraparound “Double Tour” leather band, effectively slowing down fastmoving technology to a more respectful pace. This allows for the details — the grain and stitching of the leather, the typography of the “face” — to be savoured and enjoyed.

In short, it is contemporary luxury in a nutshell, but its functionality takes it way beyond a conventional timepiece. Apple’s chief design officer Jony Ive recently told the Financial Times that the device is much more than a watch, it’s “a very powerful computer, with a range of very sophisticated sensors, that is strapped to my wrist… the effort, expertise and collaboration to make this watch is daunting”. As Ive and his team ably demonstrate, hardware and software have to work effortlessly in synch to create the desire to touch and interact.

Without us really realising it, perception through touch — known as haptics — has become the dominant mode of modern times. However, contemporary technology doesn’t always offer Apple’s level of haptic-led approach. The touch screen is democratic but bland, a featureless surface that lends every single device a rectangular, mirrored ubiquity. By surrounding this blank void with meticulous detail, microscopically applied texture and a genuine heft and solidity, a strong sense of quality can be conveyed.

The precise geometry of an iPhone bezel, the gentle curves of a Samsung Galaxy, or the pleasing solidity of metal or glass; the flagship modern phone is designed to be touched even when it’s switched off.

In the same vein, the switchgear on the dashboard of a luxury car must move in a way that conveys craft, precision, durability and quality. Touch is a truly refined sense and one that has become a key signifier in the ongoing evolution of luxury. The sense of touch is greatly heightened by the application of craft. Witness the lengths that luxury car firms go to treat, shape, dye and style the leather in their high-end interiors, frequently paired with a multitude of other interior surface options, from different species of wood through to lacquer, carbon fibre, metal or even the carefully formulated, less-than-a-millimetre-thin reconstituted stone, recently debuted by Bentley.

Look and feel are vitally important in a car interior and each company has a custom division to serve the upper tier of customers: Q by Aston Martin, Rolls-Royce’s Bespoke team, McLaren’s Special Operations, Bentley’s Mulliner department. These divisions all pride themselves on taking the “anything goes” ethos of the super-wealthy and sieving it through a fine mesh of expertise, experience and good taste. The end result is the apotheosis of techno-craftsmanship.

According to Aston Martin’s Senior Manager, Q & VIP Henry Cozon: “The beauty of Q is that it allows you to express your personality through taking inspiration from almost anything,” be that a particular tree, a battered old suitcase or a favourite pair of shoes.

It’s this focus on the personal that technology needs to follow. “Texture can change our focus — even very small amounts,” says Dr Cathrine Jansson-Boyd, a Reader in Psychology at Anglia Ruskin University. Jansson-Boyd’s research focus is consumer psychology, with a special emphasis on how haptic feedback changes our perception of an object. “You can play around with texture,” she explains. “We all have a built-in haptic system based on our previous experience.” In short, touch confirms what we see, based on our preconceptions and expectations. “There’s also a link between emotion and touch, which explains why design can have such an immediate emotive response,” Jansson-Boyd says. “We know, for example, when people touch things, they take psychological ownership of them. You don’t want to let go.”

As far as the haptic experience of “luxury” is concerned, Jansson-Boyd is unequivocal. “There is a real relationship between touch and quality,” she says. “Weight is a good example — when something feels heavier it usually means it’s more expensive. This gives you a signal as to whether something is well made. A phone is heavier, whereas perfume packaging tends to be smooth so you have a pre-association with something you’re about to put on your skin.”

Although so-called luxury haptics are predicated on our preconceptions, other factors are at play. “Expectations have changed a bit,” Jansson-Boyd continues. “It’s counter-intuitive, but research shows that consumers increasingly want imperfection. The perfect fruit isn’t necessarily the healthiest fruit. So now we’re looking for imperfections in everything from food to handbags.”

Patina is a fast-changing component of high-end design. Consumers have always vacillated between a desire for unblemished newness and a ragged edge of utility. John Ruskin alluded to the “fatal newness” of the 19th century’s elaborate middle-class tastes; 150 years later, we see new bathrooms and kitchens ripped out of high-end properties as new owners stamp their own taste unsullied by others.

Yet perversely, everything from ready rusted Cor-Ten steel and concrete to pre-distressed jeans have been a staple of high couture and contemporary architecture for decades.

The trend goes further: Fender offers carefully patinated “Road Worn” guitars – an “authentically aged vibe” for “those who prize older instruments with the battered look of years on the road and the scars of countless gigs”, while companies such as Los Angeles-based auto firm Icon has a “Derelicts” series, classic cars restored and refurbished with the rough texture of rust and dents carefully preserved on the surface.

The challenge is to make everything congruent — patina must not usurp quality and vice versa. Touch and feel have always been integral to our perception of quality. As tastes change and technology evolves, haptics will play an increasingly important role in conveying heritage, quality and innovation.