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What relevance does product design have in a world gripped by viral disease? A great deal, as it turns out. During a year in which many of us were forced to shelter in place, the ways in which we accoutre said places — the stuff that we surround ourselves with, the things that protect us and help us adapt to change — became top of mind and even more important. Suddenly, that poorly laid out kitchen, rickety work desk and uncomfortable armchair weren’t just inconveniences, but real hindrances to joy and productivity. And in a marketplace flooded with masks and shields (many of them poorly designed), the live-saving retooling of existing gadgetry (snorkel gear!) stands out as a stroke of genius.

Here, then, is our Top 10 list of 2020’s best designed products, from an AI-powered home fitness system and the puffiest lounge chair around to handsome workplace privacy booths for when we do return to the office.

Taba Collection by Alfredo Häberli for Moroso

Though intended for everyday use, there is nothing remotely pedestrian about Moroso’s Taba collection. Which is no surprise considering the pieces are the work of Zurich-based Argentinian designer Alfredo Häberli, long known for his marvellous merging of poetry and precision. Promoting the “existential multi-functionality” of life, the Taba family of upholstered pieces — one sofa, two armchairs, one bench and four pouffes — is defined by sinuous contours that harmonize the individual elements.

The organic shapes sprung from Häberli’s memories of a childhood game that involved the tossing of a cow bone, with the resulting asymmetrical lines creating an opportunity for various seating possibilities. A practical embellishment in the form of a flat shelf-like surfaces runs along the backs of the sofas and armchairs, creating a functional surface. On their own, the pieces have a sculptural presence; in a grouping, they nest closely together in a way that is meant to encourage interaction between people. After a year of social distancing, the idea of furniture as a place to “live, sit, talk [and] work” together is a refreshing — and welcome — proposition.

Dandy Plus by Fabio Novembre for Scavolini

If Dandy Plus exudes a retro-chic vibe, that’s because it draws direct inspiration from Scavolini’s best-selling Dandy system from the 1980s. In terms of high-tech function, however, it was made for 2020. Among its visual highlights are rounded corners, decorative textures and bright accent colours; the wall and base units, tables and consoles, meanwhile, are framed in a pleasing light grey.

Belying the friendly yesteryear aesthetic is the integration of the latest technology. An Alexa-compatible smart speaker affixed to a wall-mounted aluminum profile called the Task Bar, for instance, allows voice activation of the hood and lights as well as access to music playlists and recipe instructions; the Task Bar also contains USB ports and power outlets limned in those vibrant accents, elevating what are often eyesores, while the worktop features a built-in wireless charger. If technology sometimes feels overwhelming, this kitchen system wonderfully balances the comforts of the past with the constant connectivity of the now. All of its style and functionality also extend to the living room and bathroom furnishings that complete the Dandy Plus line.

Era Scrittorio by David Lopez Quincoces for Living Divani

Although it wasn’t conceived as such, Spanish designer David Lopez Quincoces’s Era Scrittorio for Italy’s Living Divani is just about the perfect desk for the WFH era. Clean-lined and elegant, with a three-compartment drawer on one side of its wood veneer top and a handy open shelf on the other, the 75-centimetre-tall-by-117-centimetre-wide unit offers a generous work surface, deep storage options and plenty of leg room underneath. Clear away your laptop and paperwork, however, and the desk becomes an (understated) statement piece, as quietly sublime as it is serviceable.

The charm is all in the details. That veneered top (available in trademarked Stone Oak or a lacquered walnut called Canaletto) sits on a tubular steel frame coated gunmetal grey, a discreet V form adorning the back. The coloured drawer front and desk sides can be had in a range of shades (including grey, cream, wine red and ocean blue, plus the two wood veneers), while the matte brass accents at the base of the legs add just a hint of lustre. Both subtle and complex, multifaceted yet cohesive, it’s a model of material and chromatic harmony — and as pretty a perch as any to labour away at.

Aura Light by Sabine Marcelis for Established & Sons

As anyone who endured a poorly illuminated Zoom meeting can attest, good lighting proved essential to effective (not to mention attractive) communication this year. Fortunately, Rotterdam-based designer Sabine Marcelis, whose creations are normally available through galleries, unveiled her Aura Light as part of Established & Sons‘ aptly named LIVE/WORK line in September. Harnessing Marcelis’s expertise in the use of cast translucent materials, Aura emits a soft ambient light that, says the brand, “is ideal for a home-working environment as well as relaxed living and office spaces.” The fixtures themselves are also easy on the eyes, encasing their replaceable LED tubes in suspended cylindrical bars shaded luscious citrus tones.

And there’s substance behind the style, too. Over a metre in length, the bars are made of a bio-epoxy resin, formulated using byproducts from the agricultural industry. The design, Marcelis explains, “is the first step towards making some [of her] lighting available to a wider audience, but in a conscious and sustainable manner.”

Forme Life by Yves Béhar and Trent Ward

Released at a time in which outside activity was and remains limited, this state-of-the-art at-home fitness system is more than timely, proving how well-designed exercise equipment (powered by AI) can keep us healthy and fit without eating up precious floor space. Designed by Yves Béhar, Forme Life is in fact a functional shape shifter: A full-length mirror when it isn’t in use, it comes alive when users speak to it, activating a digital instructor that guides them through a wide range of fitness classes and customized routines.

As we wrote when it first launched, the system adapts to individual strengths and weaknesses via cameras and sensors that capture movements and create a workout history, allowing users to preset sessions. The machine can also adjust weight levels in real time, using biometric data to decide whether to add or subtract one-pound increments to the pulley-controlled resistance arms. Just about the only thing it can’t do, in fact, is the actual lifting and pulling.

Puffy Lounge Chair by Faye Toogood for Hem

Cozy isn’t often the first word that comes to mind when describing classic modernist steel-framed furniture, but there really is no other way to characterize the Puffy Lounge chair. Created by Faye Toogood, the voluptuous piece marks the British designer’s first collaboration in a series with Swedish contract-furniture maker Hem intended to explore the softer side of tubular furniture. 

What sets Puffy apart is its plump duvet-inspired upholstery that envelops the minimal structured frame; stuffed with padding made from silicone ball fibre and foam, the detachable quilted cover feels as familiar as a reassuring embrace. Equal parts playful and functional, Puffy Lounge is available in three neutral colourways with its 30-millimetre steel-tube base in sandblasted stainless steel and powder-coated anthracite or chalk. In short, it’s comfortable, good-looking and distinctive — all the makings of a future icon.

Patkau Cocoon by Patkau Architects for Nienkämper

In 2011, B.C.-based Patkau Architects brought a series of sinuous plywood shelters to a frozen river delta in Winnipeg as part of the city’s Warming Huts architecture competition. Inspired by herds of buffalo with their backs to the wind, the design introduced a warm, lively and subtly poetic presence to the frigid landscape. Nearly a decade later, the mesmerizing shelters provided inspiration for Nienkämper’s Patkau Cocoon, a workplace privacy booth like no other.

The curved plywood and wood veneer cocoons bring an uncommonly delicate and refined presence to the office, with the humble materials elevated by a sophisticated design language and unfussy functionality. Offering just the right degree of visual and acoustic separation, the organic setting makes for a soothing workplace retreat — and a mesmerizing visual accent.

Fence-e Nature by Philippe Starck for Cassina

A standout among Cassina’s portfolio of recently released outdoor collections (which featured bold offerings from the Italian brand’s art director Patricia Urquiola and more), Philippe Starck’s Fence-e Nature is a trio of tailored furnishings including a sofa, an armchair and a coffee table in two heights. Although each of the pieces shares a refined die-cast aluminum base, it’s the solid teak details that are most striking. In the one-, two- and three-seater options, two planks-cum-armrests are connected by a linear dowel bisected by a slender pin.

These wooden elements — inspired by the traditional joinery used in Eastern architecture — are paired with a tall woven backrest to give the line’s industrial frame a graceful handcrafted quality; the upholstered polyester and memory foam cushions with graphic piping lend it yet more sophistication. The effect is what Starck succinctly describes as “relaxed elegance” or, in other words, exactly what life outdoors should be. 

Roll by MUT for Sancal

When Spanish studio MUT unveiled its design for the annual Das Haus conceptual residence at IMM Cologne last January, founders Alberto Sanchez and Eduardo Villalon could hardly have known that their al-fresco-oriented abode would be so prophetic. Among the 12 prototypes that populated the installation — which included everything from scalloped ceramic tiles to textured coloured-glass tables — was Roll, a charming and graphic seat for manufacturer Sancal.

To create Roll, the Valencia-based designers riffed on the geometries of gym equipment, adapting the plush portions of leg presses into two tubular upholstered elements that function as a seat and backrest respectively. Released as part of Sancal’s Museo collection (alongside works by Note Design Studio, Sylvian Willenz and more), Roll is offered in an array of fabrics and leathers (plus 16 lacquered frame options) and is simultaneously quotidian and futuristic (even stackable up to four chairs high). It’s an instant classic.

Decathlon Mask Ventilator by ISSINOVA

Even in the early stages of the pandemic, simple cloth face coverings quickly became available at just about every corner store, but critical shortages of respiratory ventilators persisted for months. Fortunately, design responded. While a wide range of innovative solutions helped fill the gap, Italian engineering start-up ISSINOVA’s inventive adaption of snorkelling equipment proved a practical, functional and aesthetic standout.

In collaboration with doctor Renato Favero, the Brescia-based firm designed an emergency ventilator that combines standard Decathlon International snorkelling equipment with its custom 3D-printed “Charlotte Valve” to provide reliable performance on a rapid and easily reproducible scale. After extensive testing at the hospital in the small city of Chiari, the patent for the valve was made freely available for use around the world, along with a step-by-step video installation guide. In hard-hit Lombardy and beyond, it proved a life-saver.

Best of 2020: The Year’s Top 10 Product Designs, from Puffy Chairs to PPE

It was the year of the face mask, plus furniture and lighting designed to ease life (and work) at home.

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