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Unscripted Upholstered Seat and Occasional Tables by David Rockwell, Knoll; Visu Lounge Chairs by Mika Tolvanen for Muuto, Lumens.

A deep believer in the magical healing powers of aesthetics, color, and sound (and something of a shaman), Ivy Ross is not your typical tech executive. But her spiritual approach is not some woo-woo fantasy either. From her office at Google’s Design Lab in Mountain View, California, the company’s cool-headed vice president of hardware design means business. 

There, she steers her team of 150 in making some of today’s most standout gadgets, from phones to smart speakers. Since first unveiling its line of hardware in the fall of 2016, Google has quickly gained a reputation for creating soft, simple, and remarkably attractive products that sensitively combine color (often pastel-y, some that pop), material (most notably textiles), and form (nature inspired) to surprisingly pleasurable effect. 

Slow Chairs and Ottomans by Ronan & Erwan Bouroullec for Vitra, Hive.

Forget shiny, hard black boxes. Ross and her colleagues make playful pieces intended to fit into their surroundings (or, in the case of the Pixel phone, our lives). We stopped by the 70,000-square-foot studio to find out how, in a relatively short period of time, they’ve crafted such a strong signature look.

In 2015, when Google was forming its in-house hardware unit, about 25 staffers—including Ross and Isabelle Olsson, now director of design for home, wearables, and color—decamped for an off-site brainstorming retreat. Their goal? To clearly and succinctly define the Google hardware aesthetic. 

LT05 North Pendant Light by Eva Marguerre and Marcel Besau, Northern Icon; Fiber Armchairs by Iskos-Berlin for Muuto, Lumens; Quattro Tables by Lievore Altherr Molina, Andreu World.

Ultimately, the team arrived at three words: human, optimistic, and bold. Ross, who began her career as a jewelry artist before working in marketing and development roles at companies including Calvin Klein, Mattel, and Gap, understood the essentialness of the exercise. “Before you attempt something like this,” she says, referring to creating a line of products for a global brand from scratch, “there has to be a shared vision and connectivity. Especially when you let people loose to work in a variety of categories. We tried to really give a way to embody what we were talking about.”

Kaleido Trays by Clara von Zweigbergk, Hay.

That logic is clear as soon as you step inside the team’s new HQ, a light and airy two-story sanctuary that they moved into in 2018. Organized into labs—including one for color and another for materials—the space encapsulates the Ross ethos: warm, welcoming, open. “People forget technology can be cozy,” says Philip Battin, head of special projects. “Our building doesn’t feel like a hospital, it feels like a home in some way.” 

What’s the trending shade of 2020?
“Blue is very appealing right now. Unconsciously, it’s a calming color when things are chaotic,” explains Ross, adding that may also be because there’s “a lot of talk around sustainability and oceans.” On the whole, Google’s palettes have been ahead of the curve. Take coral, which the company used in its first Home Mini (released in fall 2017) and was later named Pantone’s 2019 color of the year (this year’s Pantone pick is classic blue). Likewise, inspirations at the materials lab come from beyond the tech world. “What’s going on in furniture and shoes and things like that,” says Battin of their interdisciplinary approach. “It gets really exciting, because that can help push the aesthetics of what we do.”

The design steers clear of the cubicle culture found in many other Google offices and instead features soothing colors and birchwood accents, living room–like lounges decorated with Muuto and Knoll, tinted glass partitions that let in lots of natural light, open-plan desks, and a library filled with employees’ favorite books—the kind of personal touches uncommon in a large corporation. Marguerite Bergman, [the former] head of packing design, adds that the office sparks creativity: “Everything is visible—nothing is locked up. We’re very transparent in how we share our work.” (Because so many top-secret concepts are out in the open, the building is under extremely tight security.)

Leather Swatches, Spinneybeck.

While the innovative use of textiles in Google’s products no doubt serves an essential role in helping things stand out (the material lab is home to more than 1,000 swatches), the company’s subtle but idiosyncratic color choices have proven especially central. Olsson says that questions like “How do we harmonize?” have been key to their process. “But also: ‘How do we pop?’ We always want an expressive option.” 

Whether it’s a purplish Pixel 3A smartphone, a coral Google Nest Mini, or a wasabi-hued button on the Stadia controller, Google’s often-adventurous palette makes refreshingly out-of-the-norm statements. Going bold was also a way to capture attention—an important factor, according to Ross, because “we were late to the game in terms of electronics.” Max Yoshimoto, [the former] director of consumer hardware industrial design, elaborates: “When we started to look at color accents and pops, it clearly became a thing for us that was unique. Nobody else was really doing it.”

Still, that direction was a departure from the expected: In a twist, the hardware colorways—such as aqua, chalk, charcoal, sand, and sky—are in no way an extension of Google’s primary-hued logo. “A lot of people ask, ‘Why are the products not red, blue, green, and yellow?’” says Olsson. For Ross and Olsson, it was important to stay rooted in the brand’s DNA without being too literal and create a wholly distinctive palette. 

Oslo Lounge Chairs by Anderssen & Voll for Muuto, Lumens.

Their approach seems to be working. The company’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, was using the Pixel phone in public soon after it launched when someone came up to him, not knowing who Pichai was, and asked, “Is that the new Google phone?” They had recognized the device’s bright orange button on the back. Essentially, the team’s color development is “a reflection of what society is feeling at the time,” says Ross. “We really believe that we can convey optimism.” 

World Clock by YeongKyu YOO + Cloudandco; Bottle Grinder by Norm Architects for Menu, Burke Decor; Natural Deodorant, Myro.

With a background in fashion and psychology (she minored in the latter at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology), Ross is constantly looking for cultural cues about what’s new, next, and fresh: “I find it fascinating that if you track when certain colors come into popularity, it relates to what’s going on in the world and what people might be unconsciously craving.” This mindset continues to push Ross and her team to produce products that surprise and delight. Largely via color and tactility, Google’s devices encourage users to engage with them—much like the Design Lab spaces. “Our design principles and aesthetic, in part, enliven the senses,” shares Ross. “You could say it’s neuroaesthetic. It makes us all feel alive.”

This story was originally published in our Spring 2020 issue with the headline “Color Code.”