Despite the power that sound has to evoke memories and emotions, it’s surprisingly rare to find objects in our homes that play to our auditory appetite. We listen to music and little else. But that may be about to change thanks to a cohort of young designers who are experimenting with technological developments to create a range of objects, from plants that hum and chairs that sing to wall hangings that are the visual representations of our favourite songs.
“Sound is a very powerful tool and designers are starting to alter our perception of what sound is and how we interact with it by exploring its physicality,” says Irini Papadimitriou, digital programmes manager at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
Papadimitriou points to French designer Bruno Zamborlin’s Mogee project, which transforms any object into a musical instrument. Mogee uses simple iPhone-based software combined with microphones to turn furniture into interactive boards: when you touch the object it plays a melody, a sigh or sound bite from nature.
“We used Mogee on a Thomas Heatherwick chair in the museum, some benches in the garden and some everyday objects like plates and cups,” says Papadimitriou, referring to a recent exhibition. “Each of them played a variety of sounds when they were picked up or touched and people began to engage with the objects in very different ways.”
Zamborlin is just one of several designers exploring the way in which objects can give sound a physicality that it otherwise lacks. Nadia-Anne Ricketts, a London-based textile designer, discovered that a dissected sound wave was strikingly similar to the patterns that weavers used to map out their designs. She explored the connections between sound and the Jacquard loom and, three years later, created BeatWoven, software that translates sound into a direct visual pattern.
“Musical composition is a layering of sounds and weaving is a layering of threads. I think of beats of music as lines; a shape in time and space,” says Ricketts.
Using the same software, Ricketts also creates digitally printed wallpaper that represents a visual record of a piece of music (£300 a roll at www.nadia-anne.com). For a recent commission in New York, she created wallpaper that illustrated a song by R&B singer Frank Ocean. She also plans to launch a range of cushions and throws with a global musical theme: tango, tribal and opera versions are in the pipeline along with a track by the Rolling Stones.
Meanwhile, Berlin-based Shapes in Play has created several sound-based products, including its Soundplotter vases (€500). The vase is initially a standard tulip shape, which changes as sound waves come into contact with it. The vase is 3D-printed, with each piece becoming a physical representation of a particular noise or mix of noises.
London-based Japanese designer Yuri Suzuki is also interested in exploring the relationship between sound and design. “Mondrian tried drawing sound as a picture and I’m trying to achieve that too,” says Suzuki. “I want to create objects and products that provoke people’s interest in sound.”
One of his products, Sound of the Earth (£5,000), is a globe that also functions as a record player, rotating to sounds gathered from around the world. “I travel a lot but I never take photos. I always record the sounds of a place instead. Sounds are an important element of memory but just listening to them on a computer doesn’t grab the heart. So I thought of the globe format as the way to present them.”
In Porto, Portugal, company 1000 Tastes recently created Soundwich, a lunchbox that plays music designed to help you digest. Soundwich is a series of snacks and sandwiches, each conceived by a different chef, who chooses a piece of music to accompany the dish. The food is served in music-playing boxes and when the buyer opens the box they are treated to a tune that suits the snack within.
This trend towards melodic design is driven by several key factors but technological developments such as 3D printing and the growth of mobile technology play an important part.
“Accessibility to technology and to cheaper devices is one of the biggest factors driving this trend,” says Papadimitriou. “Designers can innovate more easily and cheaply.”
Analysts believe the digitalisation of music is also a key factor. “The growth of MP3 players has seen us all become curators of our musical experience. We have playlists for different times of the day and different events,” says trend analyst Philip Fimmano from Edelkoort. “Sound is also no longer just about music. Computer generated sounds or the sounds of nature are just as valid.”
French duo Scenocosme’s work illustrates how the emotive power of sound can be used to build a greater connection between people and products. Their Akousmaflore project, for example, is a garden of plants that react to human contact by creating a variety of sounds from a slightly unnerving scream to a melody or acoustical vibration. “It’s a sensory experience that encourages us to think about our relationship with other living things,” say the designers.
Creating an emotional connection is becoming vital to designers as consumers look to engage more with their products. “People are bored of buying more stuff that just sits on the shelf, says Henry Mason, global head of research at Trendwatching.com. “They are looking for more interactivity from the products they own.”
Fimmano agrees. “In the future, we’ll be looking to relate to objects in more intuitive ways,” he says. “Products will need to seduce us – by moving, perhaps, or by simulating breathing or by the sounds they make.”