A new definition of luxury, and why it matters

Just recently, Ed had the opportunity of speaking at Design Shanghai, one of the most celebrated events for designers, especially in Asia, in March.

The organizer’s topic was “experiential luxury.” I thought, “who am I to define what luxury is?” After all, luxury is a very subjective and abstract topic. Everyone defines luxury any way they want.

So I sat down with my team to reflect on our past experience and define what we mean by that. Rather than showing hundreds of images of our work, we had to come up with a textual description. We came up with is what some have now called “a poetic ode to luxury.”

To my surprise, the result was well-received and even though I think the praise is not deserved, I decided that the speech is worth being recorded on my blog.

I have to thank my team for all their support, and in particular my partner Terence for his valuable input. After all, design is a global language, so anything I say has to appeal to a global audience. We want to excel at our craft without binding ourselves to a particular region or style. In that light, what, after all, is “experiential luxury”?

Showing examples of my company’s recent designs, I presented the following speech:

What is luxury?

Luxury used to be the domain of the rich. Luxury used to be about opulence. Luxury used to be about displaying wealth. Luxury used to be about collecting. Today, things are different.

Today, we can experience luxury. Each and every one of us. Therefore, we speak of “experiential” luxury. The availability of materials, the lower cost of travel, the accessibility of places, have led to an organic convergence of adventure and luxury.

We no longer travel just to get there: We travel to experience the journey. We no longer visit restaurants to eat there: We go there for the “dining experience”. We don’t go to the shopping mall to buy things: We must have a “shopping experience”.

Experiential luxury is the convergence of interests and passions that fuel our lives.

Whether it is the grandiose aesthetics of a Michelin restaurant or the distinctive flavors of Thai street food – we aim to enjoy the experience.

Luxury is no longer there to show off wealth and taste, it exists to be lived. Our generation has taken travel, hospitality, and luxury onto a different plane. Influencers, social media and technology in general have worked together to change our expectations and our preferences. Digital nomads are redefining the spaces where we work, demanding luxury and convenience in many different settings.

Today, we are demanding, without being obnoxious. We are cultured without being arrogant. We are sophisticated, without being vacuous. We know what we want when we see it. Seeing doesn’t mean we want to own it. The luxury we seek is not about limousines and butlers. It’s not about paintings and concierges. The luxury we seek is about personal discovery, personal expression, and personal growth.

We seek luxury not to own it. We seek luxury not to flaunt it. We seek luxury not to collect it. We seek luxury to live it. We don’t need chauffeur-driven cars and fancy brands. We enjoy taking the tuk-tuk to the boutique hotel. We don’t necessarily need to shop in Monte Napoleone. We are happy with the talented local designer and the street vendor.

Luxury mixes with everything else we do, with everything else with experience, with everything else we live. We can eat sandwiches for a week to afford that one special evening in that 5-star restaurant. We are willing to stay in hostels for most of the vacation, only to have one night in the hotel with the magic design. We do not want luxury because we can afford it.

We do not want luxury for luxury’s sake. Oh no! We crave luxury with substance. We crave luxury with meaning. We crave the luxury experience. We crave luxury for life. That is luxury for those who experience it.

But what about us the designers, the creators, the artists? What does it mean to “create” a luxury experience?

Here is my answer: Luxury is joy. Luxury is satisfaction. Luxury is pleasure. We design not to impress, but to delight. We design not to impose, but to engage. We design not to intimidate, but to inspire.

Luxury is not replicable. Luxury exists in the moment it is experienced. Luxury is a first-hand experience. Even Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” are pointless if not seen. Even the Palace of Versailles is useless, if its aisles cannot be walked. Even the Osteria Francescana is without merit, if no one eats there.

For luxury design to exist, it must be seen. For luxury design to be of use, it must be experienced. For luxury design to have value, it must be enjoyed.

Because true luxury design is invisible. True luxury architecture doesn’t stand out … it fits in. True luxury is about the feeling it provokes, not its physical presence. Luxury design is the essence of the mind, the distillate of creativity.

Luxury design is about color and lighting. Luxury design is about texture and patterns. Luxury design is about details, about the minutiae, about the spaces in between. Luxury design is about craftsmanship, about form. Luxury design gives a sense of place, a sense of being, and a sense of self. Luxury design is about simplicity.

About being yourself, here and now, happy, fulfilled, delighted.

Getty Images
Getty Images