Mark Elmore | The Fisher & Paykel SeriesAuckland, New Zealand
As architecture and industrial design grow-ever closer, with the kitchen becoming the social, functional and aesthetic heart of the contemporary home, it is fortuitous that Mark Elmore, General Manager Design at Fisher & Paykel, originally wanted to become an architect.
Growing up in New Zealand, industrial design was a small, highly specialised field that focused on industrial products – architecture, being much more prevalent, seemed a more obvious choice. Choosing to study industrial design at the last minute, he never looked back, discovering a field in which he could explore his keen curiosity about people and how design impacts on our lives.
‘The fascinating things about industrial design’, says Mark, ‘is that you get to walk in the customer’s shoes’. While technology has advanced at startling speed since Mark began working with Fisher & Paykel 30 years ago, it is his focus on people, and how they live and use their products, that is at the heart of Mark’s design process. He is clear that ‘Innovation and technology are customer led – not the other way around’. However, the majority of people do not keep up with the cutting edge of technological advancement as it occurs at the level of research and industry. The job of the insightful industrial designer is to recognise how new technologies can be applied to problems that people may not even be aware they have.
Mark and his team, therefore, spend a lot of time in real people’s kitchens, observing how they use the space, and talking to them about why they do the things they do. ‘Often people don’t articulate the problem as they are so used to things being a certain way. They just have little workarounds they may not even be aware of’, says Mark. Fisher & Paykel’s Case Study Program operates worldwide, giving unparalleled insights into how people use their kitchens and appliances and creating a constant feedback loop that informs each design decision.
It is not only a case of observing problems and creating solutions. Often, the opposite can be true and Mark has seen people using products in unexpected ways. He gives the example of a tiny inner-Sydney apartment, where the designers and clients wanted to maximise light and space by floating the kitchen cabinetry up off the floor. A regular dishwasher would ruin this effect, so the only solution was the DishDrawer™. Originally designed based on the understanding that people now live out of drawers, this project gave Mark and his team a new insight into how their design could be used.
This example also speaks to the fact it is not just the practical problems that industrial design must look to solve – the aesthetic look and feel of our appliances is equally important. As the role of the kitchen has evolved, Mark notes the change toward ‘the kitchen as furniture’. Here, Mark’s original interest in architecture shines, as he spends time consulting with architects and interior designers. ‘Our products are a subset of the kitchen, they mustn’t fight with the overall design’, he says. This belief leads to either a high level of integration or to products that are so beautifully designed they work in harmony with the rest of the kitchen. For Mark ‘the aesthetics and materiality need to show understanding and respect for what designers are looking for’.
The changes in the kitchen are not simply an isolated matter of the functional or aesthetic – if anything these changes are reflective of a deeper change in our way of life. Mark reflects on the dramatic shift in the nature of the space on weekdays compared to weekends. On weekdays, our kitchens are practical places where we prepare quick sustenance and they need to be all about efficiency. On weekends, they become social spaces as we create food for friends and family and the kitchen fosters sharing, connection, collaboration and becomes a place to linger. ‘Understanding the materiality of the form and finish of a beautiful kitchen is important’, he says, ‘but it’s also about understanding the way people live, and how that changes’.
In the last decade, this has also encompassed the drive to find sustainable solutions to the problem of home energy use and consumer waste. Fisher & Paykel are committed to reducing the environmental impact of both the manufacturing stage and the final product. Mark believes that industrial design can help us to live more sustainably by creating products that have a long life and use less energy and water in the long term. ‘A kitchen has a long life, and we expect the appliances to last for the life of the kitchen. We’re clear about using enduring materials in our products’, he explains. ‘Materials like glass and steel are also readily recyclable, and aesthetically enduring as well’.
Creating products that are sustainable and responsive to the complex and changing use of space and product means that an industrial designer must constantly be shifting between big-picture thinking and consideration of the finest details. When asked about the pressure to constantly pursue innovation, Mark refers back to this all-encompassing nature of industrial design. ‘It is a mature field – kitchens have been in our homes forever’, he concedes, ‘but they are constantly being tested by the way we live. We work a lot in the detail with a lot of innovation happening in the details. But then at the next moment, we’re out and working at the big picture level, where you get large-scale innovation like integrated appliances or drawer appliances.’
In this sense, while the idea of ‘innovation’ can call to mind radical leaps forward, especially in a field like industrial design, the reality is far more nuanced. The shift in the role and use of the kitchen may have been a radical one, but the greatest product innovations have been based on considered iterations, refinements and observations about the way people live. This approach has seen Fisher & Paykel grow into a global brand and one that Mark sees leading the way in the future. Working at Fisher & Paykel for over 30 years, it is extremely exciting to see New Zealand design making its way internationally. ‘We are standing on the other side of the world and taking our story global – as a designer, the opportunity to do that from New Zealand doesn’t happen every day’, he says.
The curiosity that drew Mark to both architecture and industrial design years ago intuitively recognised that our kitchens would change as life changes. Now, this curiosity is at the centre of the work done by the team Mark leads. Accomplishing the feat of balancing functionality, aesthetics, sustainability, and technology, as well as working closely with architecture and interior design, this customer-led approach results in design that is neither didactic nor self-serving. Recognising that each product begins and ends with the people who use it every day in their kitchen leads to innovative design, with a spirit of creative inquiry and interest in daily life at its heart.