Intersection of technology and fashion
August 21, 2022 | 3:27 pm CDT

Two of the biggest drivers of change in the world are technology and fashion, and despite what you might think, they are not unrelated.

From our perspectives as an industry that largely manufactures practical goods, there is a tendency to downplay the importance of fashion. After all, products such as cabinets and furniture are meant to be used in practical ways to store goods, support our bodies in work and leisure, and to pragmatically solve some of the problems that life throws at us, like how to cook dinner. Isn’t fashion just fads and frivolousness? Not really.

The reality is that seemingly down-to-earth products such as chairs and tables have for centuries been as much about fashion as technology. While there has always been a baseline of minimum functional requirements for furniture even going back to the first rock that someone sat on as an ad hoc chair, there just as quickly followed trends to dress up that practicality with shaping and coloring. Let’s face it: As much as we give lip service to architect Louis Sullivan’s edict that "form follows function," we really like that form to be pleasing to the eye. And what pleases the eye changes over time. That’s fashion.

On the technology side, we constantly invent new materials, machines, and methods to expand the limits of what we can do. Today, additive manufacturing, often called 3D printing, has the potential to revolutionize industries like woodworking that have for centuries been dependent on subtractive processes. Synthetic new materials change both the structure and look of furniture and cabinets. Some do an amazing job of mimicking the look and feel of wood. And more furniture and cabinet designs mix wood, metal, and synthetics.

Fashion has long embraced a constant chase after the next new thing. That’s true in clothing, furniture and cabinets. Because technology drives what is possible, and fashion drives demand, it is often hard to tell which does the most to drive trends. Are soft-close drawers just a tech advance or a fashion trend? Do new finishing materials and techniques drive demand for different kinds of surfaces and sheens, or is it the other way around?

Current concerns about the environment spur both changes in customer demand and technological changes in how we make things to last and have less of a negative effect on the planet.

I confess I am more fascinated by the impact of technology. When I see press releases about designers choosing the "color of the year," I mostly chuckle. But I can’t deny that color trends affect our industry. Did somebody say gray?

Neither fashion nor technology can be ignored. Manufacturers need to keep abreast of both. Designers and architects need to pay more attention to technology as they launch the latest design fashion. We must recognize that the reality of Sullivan’s advice today is that form follows both function and fashion.

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About the author
William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editorial director of Woodworking Network and FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.