The Aesthetic Imperative
People don't generally go to Selkirk, New York, to look for the future. Manhattan, yes. L.A., San Francisco, even Seattle. But not Selkirk.
There are a million people in a fifteen-mile radius, my host tells me, but you wouldn't know it as we drive past snow-covered fields. The place looks empty. We're a few miles outside Albany, in what might as well be rural New England. Western Massachusetts is less than half an hour away, Vermont not much farther.
The area is much more influential than the picturesque countryside suggests. Selkirk is smack in the middle of General Electric territory, snuggled between the research labs and power systems operations in Schenectady and the GE Plastics headquarters in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. That means Selkirk is more than just another out-of-the-way place, because GE is more than just another big corporation. GE has been, year after year, the most admired company in the business world, an enterprise known for its technological prowess, consistent growth, and hardheaded management.
We turn up a narrow drive and park in front of a small building, the sort of corrugated prefab structure that might house a small construction company or insurance office. This modest site is the American center of a multimillion-dollar bet on the future. GE Plastics believes we're entering an era in which the look and feel of products will determine their success. Sensory, even subliminal, effects will be essential competitive tools. GE wants to make those tools, and to help customers use them more effectively.
"Aesthetics, or styling, has become an accepted unique selling point - on a global basis," explains the head of the division's global aesthetics program. Functionality still matters, of course. But competition has pushed quality so high and prices so low that many manufacturers can no longer distinguish themselves with price and performance, as traditionally defined. In a crowded marketplace, aesthetics is often the only way to make a product stand out. Quality and price may be absolutes, but tastes still vary, and not every manufacturer has already learned how to make products that appeal to the senses.
The modest building in Selkirk houses a design center that customers can visit to brainstorm and develop new products, inspired by the materials available to make them. Instead of just telling engineers and purchasing managers how cheaply GE can sell them raw materials, plastics managers now listen to industrial designers and marketing people "talk about their dreams."
We enter through humdrum gray offices, walk through the plant floor where plastic samples are mixed with pigments and extruded, and open a bright blue door. On the other side lies an entirely different environment, designed for creativity and comfort rather than low-cost function. This end of the building proclaims the importance of aesthetics for places as well as plastics. Gone are the utilitarian grays of cubicles and indoor-outdoor carpet, replaced by contrasting blue and white walls, light wood floors, shelves of design books, and comfortable couches for conversation. Customers' hit products are displayed in museum-lit alcoves: Iomega's Zip drive in translucent dark blue plastic, the Handspring Visor in a paler shade.
The center's most striking room isn't "decorated" at all. It's lined with row upon row of GE Plastics' own products - about four thousand sample chips, each a little smaller than a computer diskette, in a rainbow of colors and an impressive range of apparent textures. Since 1995, the company has introduced twenty new visual effects. Its heavy-duty engineering thermoplastics can now emulate metal, stone, marble, or mother-of-pearl; they can diffuse light or change colors depending on which way you look; they can be embedded with tiny, sparkling glass fragments. The special-effects plastics command prices from 15 percent to more than 100 percent higher than ordinary Lexan or Cycolac. With that incentive, company researchers are busy coming up with new effects, having accelerated introductions in 2001 and 2002. "The sky's the limit," says a spokesman.
The Selkirk plant will mix up a batch of any color you can imagine, and the company prides itself on turning barely articulated desires into hard plastic: "You know how the sky looks just after a storm? When it's late afternoon? But right at the horizon, not above it? When the sun has just come out? That color." That's from a GE Plastics ad. In the real world, designers come to Selkirk to play around with color, paying the Company thousands of dollars for the privilege. That's how the trim on Kyocera's mobile phone went from bright silver to gunmetal gray. The project's lead engineer told technicians he wanted something more masculine. "I figured that they would look at me as if I were nuts. But they didn't," he says. "They came back a few minutes later with exactly what we wanted." Once you've got the perfect color, the Selkirk center will (for a fee) preserve a pristine sample in its two-thousand-square-foot freezer. More than a million color-sample chips are filed in the freezer's movable stacks, protected from the distorting effects of heat and light.
At the end of my visit, GE managers talk a bit about their own aesthetic dreams. Already, researchers have figured out how to make plastics feel heavy, for times when heft conveys a tacit sense of quality. Coming soon are joint ventures that will let customers put GE effects into materials the company doesn't make. Squishy "softtouch" plastics won't have to look like rubber. Cushy grips will be translucent and sparkle, to coordinate with diamond-effect GE plastics. And somewhere in the aesthetic future are plastics that smell. "I love the smell of suntan lotion," says a manager, laughing at his own enthusiasm, "but that's just me." He imagines sitting in his office in snowy New England with a computer that exudes the faint scent of summer at the beach ...