February 1, 2008
His & Hers
Gender-bending trends in product design
The principles of universal design tell us that products should be functional for the broadest possible spectrum of users. But designers and manufacturers have long targeted two distinct niche markets: men and women. (Just think of razors: women’s versions look like plastic flowers, men’s like props from The Terminator.) Lately, however, we’ve noticed a handful of products and projects that toy with traditional gender roles.
Some of this is no doubt the result of the so-called “womenomics”: surveys suggest that women now make up to 80 percent of major consumer-purchasing decisions in America. (Hence the world may soon have the Empower drill, a lightweight purple power tool with a cloth tote bag.) And yet onetime bastions of femininity like the kitchen are increasingly the province of both sexes. “The car has ceased to be man’s one and only toy,” Porsche’s Roland Heiler says. “Today men covet mixers, toasters, and KitchenAids just as much as navigation systems, mobile phones, and audio components.” Heiler is the managing director of Porsche’s design studio, which recently collaborated with German luxury-kitchen manufacturer Poggenpohl on the übermasculine P’7340, targeted specifically at men. Features include a docking station for electronic devices, a built-in TV, and electronic controls for cabinets, drawers, and even the drain stopper.
Meanwhile, the mostly masculine world of architecture is striving to incorporate femininity in its forms. Take the new Neiman Marcus store in Natick, Massachusetts: when Elkus Manfredi Architects learned that more than 80 percent of the store’s customers were women, it decided to create a flowing, drapey exterior. “The inspiration for the curving skin of the facade was the beautiful patterning of a silk dress I designed with my wife in the seventies,” principal Howard Elkus says.
But perhaps the most promising trend is embodied by the Sguig Syncro, a task chair from Vienna design firm EOOS and Toronto manufacturer Keilhauer that takes men’s and women’s different seating habits into account. Men, it turns out, tend to slump; women perch. The Sguig is comfortable for them both. This then is universal design at its best: incorporating gender differences into a product that works well for everyone.