You’d be forgiven for mistaking the Airsign vacuum for an Away suitcase. Like Away’s fashionable luggage, the device has a rectangular body with softened corners and a monochrome plastic exterior with a slight satin sheen. Wheels add rolling mobility while an inset handle allows the machine to be transported without interfering with its monolithic design. If not for the pipe emanating from the center, you could toss the thing in your trunk and head to JFK. The vacuum cleaner is the flagship product of Airsign, an online “home tools” brand that launched this month. Clearing crumbs behind your couch has never looked so good. Joseph Guerra, the 31-year-old founder and lead designer of Airsign, described his vision as Hoover through a Zen retreat. “It’s a meditation on dust and how to clean up,” he says.
During the 1920s, a new genre of products emerged, catering to the lifestyle of millennials who had recently embarked on efforts to ‘adult’. Twenty or so could sleep on a Casper mattress made of Parachute sheets, dress in minimalist Allbird sneakers and Everlane clothes, and host rustic-chic dinner parties using Great Jones Dutch ovens. These companies had in common a new marketing strategy: rather than going through traditional points of sale, they would find customers on social networks, thanks to targeted advertisements on Instagram and Facebook. These were direct-to-consumer brands, or DTCs, and they ushered in a serene new world of pastel colors, clean shapes, and sans serif typefaces. For a few years, the look seemed like the height of taste. As Molly Fischer wrote in a 2020 article for new York magazine titled “Will the Millennial Aesthetic Ever End?”, “The simplicity of the design makes it seem like all the mistakes and gimmicks are gone.”
Guerra’s Airsign vacuum cleaner is brand new, but its design work has been central to popularizing the millennial aesthetic almost since its inception. Along with his former business partner, Sina Sohrab, Guerra has developed products and design elements for DTC brands including Away, Allbirds, Everlane, sportswear brand Outdoor Voices and underwear maker Thinx. The Barbican Trolley, a monochromatic drinks cart he designed for furniture maker Dims, in 2018, has become a stash of startup desks and Instagram interior photos. Having been in this scene for the better part of a decade, Guerra has witnessed the inflated promises of some DTC brands – including things that look good but perform badly – and he believes Airsign can do better. The founders of these brands “weren’t really product specialists,” he told me. Many of them outsourced design and engineering, which “disconnected them from what they were selling to people.” With his vacuum cleaner, he wants to prove that sleek and high-end design HEPA Air filtration need not be mutually exclusive.
Guerra works, with two full-time employees, in a studio on the Lower East Side whose windows overlook the New Museum’s wire-lattice facade. Vitsoe’s floor-to-ceiling shelves hold paper models of products alongside their final fabricated versions: light fixtures, vases, and vaporizers, all molded in curvilinear shapes and pale colors. A fresh-faced Los Angeles native, Guerra attended the Rhode Island School of Design, where he fell into furniture making and interned for industrial designer Leon Ransmeier. “I hadn’t yet understood that a chair was a product,” he says. He discovered a line of designers whose designs blended functionalism with an appreciation for fine workmanship: Dieter Rams, the creator of Vitsoe’s universal shelving system, and Jasper Morrison, who created user-friendly versions of Samsung’s high-end camera phones. Olivetti technology and printers.
After graduating, in 2012 Guerra interned at studios including Industrial Facility, London, where he generated concepts for Muji, such as a Christmas card that, when planted, would become a Christmas tree. . (“Straight out of design school, it made so much sense,” Guerra joked.) He and Sohrab, a classmate of RISD, began operations as Visibility in New York in 2013. Its name represented their ambition: “You can make something so simple that it’s vanilla and boring and you could almost forget about it,” said Guerra. Good design, he added, is “not just a waste of space”. The studio produced an austere set of office furniture for the headquarters of Artsy, a well-funded website for indexing contemporary art. But commissions came in sporadically, so Guerra also took a day job at Quirky, a startup that raised about one hundred and eighty-five million dollars to come up with product ideas and then manufacture them. Guerra has been working on a collection of beach toys that can be assembled into a robot, among other projects. But Quirky failed to reach consumers, got overwhelmed and collapsed into bankruptcy in 2015, becoming a cautionary tale about technology. “I left before things got really bad there,” Guerra said.
In New York at the time, a slew of new brands were looking to shake up traditional retail, and the runaway success of some of them, including millennial cosmetics brand Away and Glossier, fueled a rush. to startup gold. Investors “weren’t tough,” Mayur Bhatnagar, co-founder of luggage brand Arlo Skye, which launched in 2016, told me. “Build a goddamn faucet, build a showerhead and we’ll fund it.” A number of startup founders were part of Guerra’s circle of friends and former classmates. Suddenly, they needed designers for branding, for marketing, and for building retail outposts, and they had plenty of money to pay for it. Guerra and Sohrab’s studio designed cork yoga blocks for Outdoor Voices; changing rooms and modular shelving for Everlane; and an elaborate store interior for Away. On one side, the store had a Japanese theme, with blond wood stalls holding packets of incense. The other side was Swedish themed, with white tiled risers and fish roe tubes. “We had what we needed to do something really substantial,” Guerra said. “We spared no expense.”
Many commentators have characterized the millennial aesthetic as soothing or comfortable, a conscious search for comfort for a generation yearning for bourgeois stability. Still, the look could just as easily be explained by the investment requirements of the DTC business model itself. Selling through social media required visuals that were spectacular enough to make users stop scrolling and click buy. “When you’re a brand online, people don’t touch or smell the products,” Jordan Nathan, the founder of a kitchenware company called Caraway, told me. “You have to find a way to get people to invest in something that has no opinion, no influence, no brand name. Design is a great way to do that. For his publicity photos Instagram, Caraway’s colorful pots and pans are stacked in precarious geometric sculptures, to create a bold graphic image.No actual food is featured, Nathan explained – it would only get in the way.
The stories of many DTC brands begin with an epiphanic moment. As in the black-and-white beginnings of an infomercial, the founder encounters a consumer inconvenience that must be resolved. Guerra told me that Airsign was inspired, in part, by the vacuum cleaners he noticed in the piles of trash on the sidewalks of New York and Los Angeles. He and Sohrab had worked on products like pre-portioned rice cookers and instant frozen yogurt makers, but those devices seemed relatively frivolous. Vacuum cleaners were a device that customers used week after week. They came up with the idea in 2019, over glasses of wine in Milan, during the city’s design week.
Existing vacuum cleaners tended to have garish designs. Think of a Dyson, with its neon plastic and protruding air intake. “We joke that they look like Super Soakers. People call it masculine industrial design, to make men feel comfortable,” Guerra said. With Airsign, which secured funding from the company investment firm Lakehouse Ventures, he wanted to “start at the other end. The smooth shape and symmetrical features of their vacuum cleaner give it a “stone or pebble feel,” Guerra said. of storage, you could leave your Airsign sitting elegantly in the corner of the living room, like a Noguchi sculpture with suction power.