Airbnb has acquired the five-person Russian industrial design firm Lapka. It may seem like a strange pairing: the $24 billion room rental platform buying a tiny, foreign company known for cult-classic objects, like an environmental sensor that fits on your iPhone, or a breathalyzer shaped as a stark, black ceramic tube.
It’s less surprising when you realize that Lapka is one of the most quietly thoughtful industrial design studios in the world, and Airbnb wants to own the end-to-end experience of travel. Even as Lapka’s founder, Vadik Marmeladov, breaks the news to me over the phone while apologizing that he can’t say more, I can already imagine the possibilities: Airbnb-branded smart locks to eliminate the weird-key negotiation. Subtle check-in sensors to let a host know when a guest arrived. Really, any sort of elegant, useful object that Lapka could design for the 1.2 million Airbnb rentals worldwide–though an Airbnb spokesperson says there are no plans for Airbnb to develop devices at this time.
I met Lapka founder Marmeladov for the first time at our 2013 Innovation by Design Awards. He was dressed head-to-toe in tailored black garments. His only accessories were his perfectly circular glasses, a long steel neck chain, and scuffless white skater shoes.
It was hard not to see his wardrobe as a charmingly cognizant twist on the black mock turtleneck and jeans of Steve Jobs–especially as he confessed to me that one day, if his company ever got big, every employee would dress this way. “That’s the dream, anyway,” he said with a self-effacing laugh.
I think he laughed because Lapka, as a studio, was so obviously more rooted in exploratory design philosophy than pandering attempts at mass market scale. Their debut product was a modular environmental sensor that plugged into your iPhone to scan your food and air quality, along with nearby radiation. Its execution was exquisite–mixing plastics, wood, and woven cords to turn this scientific scanner into an accessible, even desirable device. The product was seemingly born from the passionate naiveté of a design student, but finished with a poise most large companies would envy. But what was the market?
Lapka’s follow-up was a breathalyzer–scratch that, it was the world’s most beautiful breathalyzer. It was how you’d imagine Jony Ive might check if he was okay to drive after a night out: a charcoal-black ceramic tube that you blew into and synced with your phone. Yet, as Marmeladov explained to me then, its industrial design wasn’t actually meant to be spotted from across the room like an iPhone or pair of white earbuds. In use, your hand naturally wrapped around the device–hiding the breathalyzer entirely–and in doing so, the product actually became your behavior of blowing into your hand.
“We want to be a post-Apple company. We want to do things they can’t do,” Marmeladov told me at the time. “They have to show a product because of the investors and the industry. We can afford not to show the product. So we were thinking we shouldn’t design anything at this point. We should design the behavior rather than the product.”
With that philosophy in mind, consider, again, Airbnb’s network of 1.2 million homes. They’re all connected by minimal digital friction to make the lingering experience of Airbnb, not their app or a website, but the feeling of visiting one of 190 countries through the eyes of a local. Airbnb isn’t just an apartment rental service. It’s the very act of adventure.
So whatever product Lapka is building for Airbnb most likely won’t be about the product at all. It will be, like that aluminum breathalyzer, a gesture. It won’t be a smart lock, no. It will just be a door that you open.