Hybrid Homes and the Power of Broken Boundaries How the emergent home offers opportunities for brands
The idea of ‘home’ was historically defined in a number of ways. Its origins lie in the functional need for shelter for survival (the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). But even as far back as Roman times, early bourgeois values of the home as a space for social ritual gained ascendancy. Over time, the ‘home’ became a repository of sociological and psychological aspirations for selfhood, safety and memory. As we moved from the late Victorian period into and throughout the 20th century, ‘home’ became increasingly coded as the key site of artistic self-expression – both with DIY as well as professionals (interior designers & decorators).
But, the dream sold to us by Grand Designs, is shifting, and for Millennials and Gen Z’s the traditional home as a precious place of creativity, retreat and warmth has become unaffordable and now connotes debt, burden, expenditure and anxiety. Against this cultural backdrop, and the radical shifts that the pandemic enforced and the digital landscape enables, the role of homecare and homeware brands will change.
To help understand the implications of this change it’s worth briefly considering what the home emergently looks like; what’s being done in the home; who’s doing it and how; and what kinds of things are they doing?
The home is subject to the demands of sustainable practices and at the same time (given cost pressures), the size of dwellings is decreasing, both demanding imaginative re-purposing of available space and the renewal and upcycling of materials within it. Boundaries within the home space itself & furniture within it which were once sacrosanct – bedroom to sleep and dress, dining table to eat at vs desk to work at, living room to entertain – are becoming more fluid and represent an ideal of transformative potential; the kitchen is for cooking and the workplace, the living room is the office, cinema & gym. In this new home even the old words for the rooms don’t belong or work; we need a new vocabulary.
Just as the functions of our homes are changing, so too are the ways in which we decorate inner space. Home décor has traditionally involved ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, mimicking a societally acceptable set of prefab ‘must-have’ design features. However, future-facing décor brands make interior design a significantly more self-expressive undertaking, or at least feel like one. We see this in language emphasising individual agency (‘your perfect colour’) lo-fi shots of work-in-progress DIY, and an embrace of imperfection (see cluttercore) whereby personal quirks, upcycled furniture and unmade beds, rather than conformity, are the signs of a good home. In tandem, we see an emergent trend of making our homes simulate outdoor spaces, whether this is galaxy projectors, DIY botanical wallpaper or city bar-style lighting. In exercising more agency over what our homes look like and bringing the outside in, we are perhaps making our homes an extension of the outside world we have come to appreciate more. Brands can respond to these shifts by offering products that recognise our growing desire to feel more in control of our home environments.
With home working now prevalent across numerous industries, the communal aspects of the home are changing as it becomes more of a shared space than ever. Many flatmates and families no longer only cross paths in the evening. Instead, there are new ‘micro-interactions’ as people work separately (yet physically together) at a shared sofa or kitchen table. With this has come inevitable changes in the politics of domestic space – noise, cleanliness, communication and comfort are suddenly amplified into new faux pas to be avoided and shared needs to be met. For brands, this offers areas to exploit across the likes of tech, homeware and self-care products, be it a humidifier to increase the comfort of shared spaces, hyper-specific products such as ‘I’m working’ doorhandle signs or noise-cancelling headphones to serve as a sonic partition wall. A Cosmopolitan article published this year lists 71 ‘essentials’ for remote workers. While many such items have existed for a long time, by presenting products as designed for home working, brands can be seen to be remedying the manifold needs of our changing homes.
While in-home coffee already had strong e-commerce sales pre-pandemic and in fact increased during the pandemic, emergent brands are addressing a nostalgic longing for the cultural ritual of enjoying coffee OOH as the iconic ‘work drink’. Crosstown’s Working From Home Box and café-grade coffee subscription services recognise that, beyond its energising qualities, coffee also carries cultural weight as a symbol of respite and sociability away from the home. This pleasure of consuming something in-home which signifies being out and about in the world, is something brands across FMCG and beyond can therefore similarly exploit. Just as cultural elements of the café, cinema, nightclub and gym have been remodelled for the modern home, there is fertile ground for other food & beverage products to creatively find their way into the new domestic microcosms of the outside world, through the rise of direct-to-consumer (DTC) distribution channels.
Another way in which the hard boundaries of domestic and public space are becoming blurred is through the rise of hybrid products, particularly emerging in the fashion industry. Brands like Lee & Spoke, for example, have responded to the increasing interconnection between home and work by designing trousers that combine the comfort of tracksuit bottoms with the outward appearance of officewear (e.g. ‘house trousers’). While the home has traditionally served as a personal ‘enclave’ with different societal expectations of clothes worn inside vs outside, hybrid fashion is bringing the two worlds closer together, so that ‘home’ is also what you wear wherever you are.
The demands of sustainability and cost of living increases are leading to the transformation of the home: whether through functional shifts, decorative adaptations, how we share the space with others, how we bring rituals associated with outdoor activities into our homes, to what we wear to be relevant to the range of different moments the home now hosts. Pre-pandemic, the home was coded as a temporary docking station amidst busy outside lives. Staying home for longer than ever before shifts the role of the home back towards enabling prolonged comfort – the home as a constant core holding all of our lives together. Homecare and homeware brands and retailers that can respond to and facilitate that new cultural reality will win in this changed world.
But if we are staying at home so much it will begin to feel like a place of introversion, isolation and solitary confinement. For the more extrovert among us then the office will be a space of attraction and excitement, a retreat from the boundary-less home, the emergent temporary docking-station visited for the relief and comfort that home used to represent. How ironic would that be?
3 key takeouts for brands
- Brands helping us to live in homes where boundaries have broken down will win. It is the hour for bringing more of the green outdoors inside, or wearing the clothing of both.
- With more time spent at home throughout the day and week, brands can help us navigate the shared space…whether that is by enabling the discrete separation we crave even in the same space (private tech) or by bringing us together for positive moments to overcome being alone together (food, entertainment).
- Support the increasing experimentation with bringing what’s most associated with out of home experiences into the home – from coffee shop spirit, to cinematic moments (missing the trailers anyone?), to the energy of the gym.
Eoghain Ellis, Semiotician, & Alex Gordon, CEO