Technology and material breakthroughs tend to go hand-in-hand, according to Lars Erikson, Asia-Pacific design director for Stockholm, Sweden-based household products manufacturer Electrolux AB.
Electrolux made its name with household products that combine innovations in technology and materials - think of the first refrigerators and vacuum cleaners with wheels.
In keeping with Swedish design's reputation for simplicity, Erikson remains modest about the company's importance in the design of household goods.
``We are still basically bending steel and putting plastic over it,'' Erikson said in an interview in Shanghai.
Erikson represented Electrolux at the Conference on Creating a Springboard for Innovative Brands, held in Shanghai and sponsored by the Swedish Consulate. The event included a design exhibition with some of Electrolux's most pioneering kitchen products.
Some innovations: a networked refrigerator that can be controlled from a personal digital assistant and a minimalist's dream barbecue created by Jeppe Utzon, grandson of Jorn Utzon, designer of the Sydney Opera House.
In Western households, Electrolux's products - which include the Zanussi, Faure, Frigidaire and Eureka brands - are synonymous with quality and good design. But in Asia, the majority of consumers still choose white goods by price, not design.
China's white goods market is changing, however.
``I think China's consumers are starting to realize the importance of brand. Five or six years ago, they were more concerned about pricing compared to design,'' said Cathy Huang, founder of design consultancy China Bridge International of Shanghai.
Huang noted that Electrolux is seen as an upscale brand and representative of Scandinavian design in China.
Erikson added: ``You don't grow a brand overnight. It takes five to 10 years. It's all about putting the money in there.''
Electrolux also plans to rely on what Erikson calls the backbone of good design: thoughtfulness. Thoughtfulness made Electrolux's brand take off in China earlier this decade.
Huang said she remembers the product that put the Electrolux brand on the map with China's consumers - a refrigerator with changeable panels on the door. In China, homeowners, particularly in small cities, still consider refrigerators an important electrical product and place the machine in their living room. Electro- lux's refrigerator allowed consumers to change the look of the door to suit their interior decor.
Longer-term branding projects include a contest challenging students to design products for the future. This year, contestants are expected to design products for healthy eating in the year 2016.
Erikson said the company plans to launch a more traditional branding initiative in China this year - television commercials.
The branding efforts are part of Electrolux's bid to sell higher-end products in the Asia-Pacific region.
Huang thinks Electrolux's timing may be just right. She said companies that five years ago cultivated the brand image of being cheap now are paying with lower market share. Now, brands with a strong, reliable image, like Electrolux, Siemens and Samsung, are gaining market share in China.
For Erikson, ``understanding emotional needs and desires is the future of design in our industry.'' Few consumers could argue with his tenet that people want products that make them feel good rather than intimidated, confused or dehumanized.
Erikson believes the emotional trend in design will lead designers to use more natural or natural-looking materials. Rather than the minimalist designs currently in vogue, he sees designs for home appliances becoming warmer through use of texture, color and shapes more pleasing to users.
While there may be few technology or material innovations left in the household goods industry, Erikson said lots of opportunities remain.
``I think we'll see designers chucking in everything to differentiate themselves. It's going to be an enormous battle to keep the consumer interested in your brand. I think many brands will be struggling because they can't be innovative enough,'' he said.
Some of those innovations could include combining natural materials with plastic to give more of a feeling of warmth to products. Another could include more user-friendly interfaces such as a coffee pot or refrigerator with a recorded voice greeting.
For Erikson, Electrolux's most recent innovations include the Utzon barbecue, which uses DuPont Co.'s natural mineral and acrylic blend Corian, and the iOi - or intuitive oven interface.