Perched between digital and environmental anxieties, Generation Z becomes the new user of reference for habitat culture, expressing a need for specific meaning to which design has to respond

Designing the décor scenario means formulating the material narrative of everyday reality, the setting for the interaction of bodies and words, thoughts and objects. The semantic plot thus defined is like an X-ray of an era, the profile of full and empty portions that identifies a given historical moment. Today, in particular, Generation Z, composed of people born between 1995 and 2010, is pointing to new directions for the pursuit of meaning in the design of everyday life.

Having grown up in a world where smartphones are everywhere, these young people have been the first to absorb the impact of the digital, whose consequences are borne out by the growing number of studies and research that show how Generation Z has a psychological ‘grip’ that is weaker than the previous generations, due to a particular form of anxiety – digital anxiety – which is widespread not just among adolescents but also, in a worrying way, among children.

While it is true that digital devices have multiplied the possibilities of remote connection, it is also true that their pervasive presence has sucked all users, and especially the youngest, into a distorted social vortex that has hampered normal psychological development.

The environment created by the social media cannot truly be defined as social; it is instead the reproduction in expanded form of an individual dimension. This is because the contents filtered on the basis of data gathered on single users create a ‘bubble’ around the individual, whose ideas are never challenged (as they would be in the case of real social interactions).

Instead, those ideas are repeatedly reinforced and confirmed, leading to an involution or, even worse (above all when the exposure to these networks happens at a young age), to a lack of development of relational and critical thinking. Enclosed in their own finely customized comfort zones, these users are seldom exposed to different viewpoints, or to the ‘friction’ generated by the encounter with ‘others,’ from whom instead we try to keep our distance, preferring ‘remote’ relationships.

What happens is that the typical fragility of the passage from childhood to adulthood – a delicate junction in the evolution of the person, who has to abandon one identity to assume another – is no longer a transition but a stable state, preserved and nurtured by the bubble.

But there are also some positive aspects to this ‘augmented’ sociality. With their wide access to news, documentaries and online resources, Gen Z has developed great sensitivity to the theme of sustainability – also due to the fact that this is the sole shared horizon they can look to on a global plane, in which they have always been immersed.

Digital anxiety and environmental anxiety are thus the great ‘attractors’ that move the pursuit of meaning of the younger generations, and permit identification of the contents of value which design needs to incorporate in the formulation of material reality, aimed at them through solutions that are able to unite the choice of sustainable materials and processes with the expression of the transfiguring restlessness of the new world.

As in the case of the Savage throne in recycled material by Jay Sae Jung Oh, or – oppositely – of the Clouds sofa with an anti-anxiety image in recycled foam rubber, by IAMMI.

In spite of the differences, in fact, these two projects share a sense of rapprochement that does not aim to resolve but to ‘heal’ some of the many, infinite rifts that characterize the hybrid composition of contemporary reality. To attenuate the frenzy of the digital with the calmness of matter, in a homeopathic mending of the laceration between the world of things and the world of images.

This can be seen in the Unlimited Edition shelving cabinet by Andrés Reisinger for Tylko, or in the collection of ‘diverging design’ Primitives by OZRUH. Objects in which the visual substance seems to have absorbed the ethereal consistency of data clouds.

Or the Kipferl table by Bohinc Studio, and the objects created for Made in Situ by Noé Duchaufour-Lawrance: healthy, noble, solid presences that offer an emotional anchor to users pummeled by the invasive elusiveness of virtual worlds and compulsive marketing.

This soft design with its gentle skin forms a response to a need for lightness, in a generation overloaded with digital evanescence, that feels a resonance in ‘anxiety-absorbing’ and ‘anxiety-reducing’ objects, like the discreet Brut by Philippe Malouin for Origin Made, or on a larger scale the Dorothea seating system by Andrea Steidl for LaCividina.

Object-presences that instead of boosting the production of dopamine (as happens with intentionally excessive, maximalist and provocative design) seek to reduce it, in some cases also through figurative references like those of the Earth lamps by Marie Michielssen for Serax or the Sahara sound-absorbing panel by Gabriel Tan for Abstracta.

Because what defines the character of this new generation of objects is not the presence (or lack of) a graphic sign, not the linking to traditional archetypes or the pursuit of collision courses (all options widely explored by historical and contemporary design), but the poetic sweetening and tactful lightening of the aesthetic and sensorial pressure that weighs down on users.

Cover photo: The ethereal pink and variety of configuration of the shelving cabinet Unlimited Edition by Andrés Reisinger for Tylko adapts to the changing needs of users in both functional and artistic terms.