Luxury means different things to different people. For some it can mean comfort and ease but also extravagance, so everything from a Ferrari on down to freshly laundered sheets qualifies as a luxury.
Millennials are complicating the definition and criteria even more by divorcing the idea of luxury from consumer products. To them, luxury is rooted more in experience than in possessions, says Milton Pedraza, chief executive of the Luxury Institute, a New York research and consulting firm.
Affluent adults under the age of 30 spend their money on travel, entertainment and adventures, and though the storytelling and social media sharing arising from these experiences may be a form of flaunting, it’s different from acquiring material status symbols.
Millennials aren’t the only ones shying away from conspicuous conception and ostentation. Definitions of luxury and signifiers of wealth change according to the economy.
“When the economy gets tough, people look to save money. Even people who have money try to be a little less conspicuous with their spending,” says Robin Siegerman, principal designer at Sieguzi Kitchen & Home.
As the economy continues to recover, people are spending more freely. “But the previous luxury trends of elaborate moldings, decorative corbels and glazed finishes to signify a luxurious kitchen” are not reemerging, Siegerman says.
Those elements seem fussy and inelegant compared to simple functionality or “practical luxury.”
In fact, “A more obvious sign of luxury in today’s market is an abundance of empty space,” Siegerman says. “In the kitchen, this means large expanses of countertop that aren’t cluttered with stuff.”
Certain countertop appliances classify as luxury goods, but having a designated place to store them out of sight takes luxury to the next level, she explains.
“Practical luxury” includes all the extras that up the price of a kitchen design or remodel while adding to its functionality, including pullout shelves, toe-kick step ladders and specialized storage options.
Affluent homeowners of all ages “also want to invest in entertainment areas, for both their families and friends” including home theaters, game rooms and outdoor living spaces, says Maksim Soshkin, an analyst at the research firm IBISWorld, New York City. This trend gained traction when the economy tanked, as consumers justified the expenditure on home entertainment as a form of cost savings.
These days, millennials need no such justification. They want specialized, well-equipped entertainment areas not so they can entertain at home instead of going out, but to have the option of hosting a lavish after-party following a night on the town.
The latest and greatest technology is part of the picture, extending beyond entertainment areas to every room in the house. “Everyone wants ‘smart’ home systems they can control from their cell phones,” Pedraza says.
High-tech appliances that support an on-the-go lifestyle are in high demand, Soshkin says.
“There are refrigerators that can track inventory, provide weather updates, takes notes and so on, all over Wi-Fi.”
Despite the influx of technology, visible wires and cords are not welcome in the homes of the rich.
“All these really wealthy people, they don’t want to see a single cord ever,” says Reid Heidenry, a luxury real estate specialist at South Beach International Realty, Miami. They want wireless technology wherever possible, he adds, and hidden cords and outlets where it’s necessary to plug things in.
Perhaps above all it’s the things that aren’t visible that represent luxury and signify wealth by today’s standards. Besides empty space and an absence of cords, a lack of branding suggests wealth and exclusivity.
Luxury now extends beyond brand names. From furniture and light fixtures to cabinetry and wallpaper, experts say people want one-of-a-kind items that are customized, personalized or handcrafted instead of mass-produced.
Even eschewing color in favor of neutrals can lend to an atmosphere of privilege and ease.
“As the economy got worse, we saw more and more colors creeping into interiors because people needed an emotional lift,” Siegerman says.
“However, if money is no object and people feel good and positive, color brings on sensory overload.”