Google Exhibition at Milan’s Salone del Mobile — You’re on Display!

LDLICF / April 17, 2019

Google Exhibition at Milan’s Salone del Mobile — You’re on Display!

Imagine being invited to an exclusive party, waiting patiently at the mansion’s gate, and following a doorman to an empty grand saloon with a single table and chair in the center. The doorman looks at you in silence, blocking the entrance.

I felt this way at Google’s A Space for Being exhibit at Salone Internazionale del Mobile. A Space for Being is a multi-room, sensory experience featuring three spaces with furnishings, lighting, scents, music, artwork, materials, and proportions. There’s also a Google wristband to measure your personal sensory reactions to the spaces.

Like the creepy doorman staring at you at the mansion party, at the Google exhibition in Milan, you are the display! This out-of-touch experience began with a 90-minute wait among an international group of visitors. Unlike typical furniture fair attendees, they were mostly students or friends of young tourists. Curious, I started asking questions. None of them knew the furniture brand behind the exhibit (Muuto), the designers involved in the project, or even what the exhibit was about. They were there because of Google. It was the only attraction.

Once inside, a well-orchestrated corporate approach where the hostess anticipates your every question and movement began. It is called control. The hostess was joined by a group of young kids in their twenties wearing long-sleeved, white t-shirts and tight no-brand pants, the epitome of anti-fashion. A guy in his forties dressed much like the younger guys but wearing expensive, trendy glasses and well-combed salt and pepper hair explained the rules: No pictures because they have taken them for you and will provide a download link when you exit and no talking because distractions could affect the test results.

The older guy explained Google wristband, which would monitor skin temperature, pulse, and other body reactions while you walk through the three different rooms. Again, no questions allowed. All will be explained at the end they told us. At this point, I started to feel used and upset. As if they already knew, they said, “We will erase your data so we won’t know what you like and dislike. That’s not what this is about.” Really?

The social experiment began with a group of 8 to 10 of us, wearing our wristbands and walking in silence through a small, dark foyer covered with sound-absorbing foam. We entered a staged room, which felt more like a movie set than an exhibit. The furniture looked like it was from a Scandinavian college dormitory and not a real home — very impersonal. It felt creepy, and to freak you out, one of the young kids blocked the entrance door, staying in the shadows of the foyer, staring at you in silence for five minutes. Finally, he broke the silence, ”Now it is time to move to the next room.” This continued for all three rooms.

The energy and the excitement of being in one of the sexiest cities in the world during this vital week of il Salone — the most important furniture fair on the planet — quickly deflated upon realizing that they are watching you; they are studying you for reasons you don’t know. You aren’t there to see anything; they are actually looking at you. You are the exhibit.

If this isn’t out of touch, I don’t know what it is.

The experience ended with this really scary part: a polling station in all white where you’re isolated from the group (who presumably went to their own polling stations). An iPad on a desk revealed that a hostess would arrive shortly, its graphics reminding me of the movie Arrival where aliens used symbols similar to the one used by Google.

All of that to have a wristband tell you what you supposedly like. Why not simply ask people, “What room did you like the most?”

Understanding the architectural details is an interesting part of both design and experience. The design should actually be explained, and the visitor should try to understand why the room, walls, wall coverings, and lighting were made with certain angles, tones, and materials.

Shouldn’t design and art stimulate people to explore their own interests and emotions through design to sharpen their own sensitivities and evolve as individuals? If so, how damaging would it be to have a tech device tell you what you like or dislike? You don’t need to think or feel, we will do it for you!

Even if the intention of this exhibit was to detect how design impacts the body, the way we deliver ideas and communicate with people has an impact. We are already talking less and less. We need more communication and to gently interact with people, but instead, we’re being offered more silence and tools that read your body — and someone’s always watching from the shadows.



Leave a Reply