Microsoft Design
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Microsoft Design

Surface a la Art Nouveau

Collaborating with legendary textile brand, Liberty, to give the iconic Windows Bloom an Art Nouveau twist

By Ohemaa Dixon

An image of four blue engraved and printed laptops in different states
Image of special-edition print on Surface devices

They say fashion and clothes are an extension of yourself. A way to express to the world who you are, what you like, and how you think. Someone dressed head-to-toe in Rick Owens may signal a minimalist of the purest form, perhaps a more serious person, while someone wearing Issey Miyake feels a bit more laid back, with an equal love of minimalism and comfort.

Our devices similarly communicate facets of our identity, including how we like to work. They, too, share a physical space with us — even more so post Covid — and considering how much time we spend together, it was only natural for the team at Surface to ask how they could leverage fashion to further beautify people’s homes, studios, and offices by extending the canvas for self-expression.

In many ways, the blending of fashion and tech was inevitable, especially in a time when our technology has become so personal to us. From the latest Balenciaga x Bang and Olufsen collaboration, to the classic Google x Yves Saint Laurent backpack, there’s something powerful about using design to combine these two modes of self-expression, creating new meaning for familiar objects.

So, to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Surface, we teamed up with London based design house Liberty, to artfully craft a special-edition Liberty print laser-engraved on the new Sapphire Surface Pro 9 and custom printed on the Signature Keyboard. Whereas past Surface partnerships focused solely on hardware, this one is unique in that we created a click-in software experience as well.

Image of Microsoft Surface laptop with custom printed keyboard and wallpaper
Image of custom wallpaper on our device with printed keyboard

Why Liberty?

For those unfamiliar with Liberty, they are one of the leading textile makers in London, famed for their original curation, directional design, and celebration of craftsmanship. With an archive dating back 100+ years, their bold and beautiful fabrics often convey a sweet nostalgia, which is partly what makes collaborating with them so fun; there’s a compelling juxtaposition between the textile tradition of Liberty and the cutting-edge industrial design world of our Surface devices.

With any partnership, you don’t just pull two buzzy brands from thin air, there needs to be rhyme and reason. Like us, Liberty focuses on putting humans at the center of their designs–oftentimes allowing their fabrics to be solely used by customization, allowing their audiences to decide how to best integrate Liberty into their lives.

This beautifully mirrors our own design philosophy. For the Surface design team, a great device acts in the same manner as the most well-crafted of musical instruments — a beautifully designed object that’s a testament to the translation of materials into formed object. Liberty also believes in the marrying of form and function to empower self-expression, so when considering “why us” as collaborators, that resonated. We also both use phrases like humans at the center, democratizing beauty and design, and empowering innovators and creatives through inspiring design.

Beyond aligned values, however, we also had to ask how this collaboration (and collaboration as a whole) develops brand identity for you, our audience. What can you understand about Microsoft Surface from our choice to collaborate with Liberty? What do we value? What are we inspired by?

Aerial view of custom printed blue Microsoft Surface device
Liberty fabrics alongside our most recent collaboration

Diving into a rich creative process

The choice of print, and the process to make it a reality, was the foundation of our creative process. At their core, Liberty creatives are arts & crafts textile makers with a classic art nouveau point of view. Maintaining that was vital, so the question became how to take the Windows Bloom, our icon for the new generation of Windows, and reinterpret it using new mediums as the perfect tension point between our two brands. As Adam Herbert, Design Manager at Liberty, says, “Our challenge was how to draw the Bloom in a way that felt like it could be a Liberty flower — something you could have found in our archive from 100 years ago. Then, when we discussed laser engraving on this new material, it was so exciting because it almost felt like that made the device a piece of jewelry.”

Further adding nuance was the fact that Liberty traditionally draws their inspiration from nature for their hand-drawn prints. While our Bloom was partly inspired by nature, it’s entirely digitally made, making this the first time Liberty created a print with a digital origin point. Also new was the canvas itself; working on a surface made of metal, versus fabric, allowed them to try wholly new techniques that excited and inspired the creative team.

Image of various sheets of hand drawing and print iterations of a flower
Hand drawing process of the Liberty custom print

A love story: When hardware met software

For this collaboration to be successful, both of our brands needed to stay authentic and that meant staying true to both the textile craft and its digital translation. For our Surface team, this entailed not just putting a print on a device, but truly integrating it across both hardware and software. You see, if a device is like an instrument, its operating system are the strings creating the music that truly brings it to life — and this meant extending the collaboration to include the Windows design team. Blending the worlds of industrial and digital UX design, the team decided to create an exclusive Liberty theme for Windows.

Image of a quadrant of four different variations of a blue digital layered fabric.
The final four wallpapers in the Liberty theme pack of custom wallpapers

While examining the Liberty print meant to go on this collaboration, the team noticed something right before their eyes. While Bloom was partly inspired by nature, its digital form is actually a layering of various sheets of digital fabric. This created a perfect entryway for Windows designer and Houdini artist, Olivia Xu, to explore how to blend the physical fabric into our digital world by pulling from Windows’ DNA of movement, lighting, and materiality.

We’d been translating digital to analog up until this point but creating the custom wallpaper for this experience meant reversing the entire process. To meld the analog Liberty world, Xu worked with color, materiality, and shading to truly integrate the Liberty print. Multiple paths were explored, including trying techniques like embossing, but ultimately the result was a combination of techniques displayed in various ways among the four custom wallpapers.

From a user experience perspective, the team was aware that in deciding to purchase a special edition Liberty device or accessory, folks were deliberately choosing an object that was unique and beautiful. To cater to that while bringing added surprise and delight, the team leveraged the keyboard cover to create a click-in experience–something brand new for the Windows design team that they’re hoping to expand on. For this collaboration, when you attach the keyboard to a compatible Surface Pro device, you’re thoughtfully welcomed to the custom Windows theme pack through a guided experience.

An open laptop with a printed keyboard with a welcome message
The new click-in experience on the Liberty x Surface device

Infusing an art nouveau print into hardware

Part of the power of this partnership was not only knowing when to turn up the creative but also when to turn it down and let the device shine through. As Surface designer Elliott Hsu said after seeing the textiles, “Ok, this is beautiful, but we have to see the keyboard.” This is where Hsu’s industrial design perspective furthered the creative process by curating not just where but how the collaboration lived on our devices. After deciding on laser engraving to best combine the two worlds, there was the question of color and how to best integrate the design into our Pro line–eventually deciding to use our new Sapphire Blue as the hero color for this collaboration.

On the backside of the laser-engraved device, the anodized metal surface provided a unique opportunity for decoration. The reflective nature of anodized aluminum lets you see many different hues of a color depending what angle you are looking at the surface. We took advantage of that effect and applied a laser engraving that was subtle enough to not disrupt the overall color but give it another level of interest, intrigue, and premium beauty.

Image of someone using a Microsoft Surface blue laptop on a green table
Image of the laser-engraved Surface Pro 9

As a device known for usability, a key design goal for PCs is to get you into your flow as seamlessly as possible–and when it came to printing the Liberty color print on the actual keyboards, it was amazing from a visual standpoint but quite busy and the keyboard felt lost in initial prototypes. “You sort of lost the trackpad and we were just thinking, yes, we want to be fully immersed in Liberty and florals and Bloom — but we also need to consider that these things are for people to get into their flow,” said Hsu. To mediate, a duotone silhouette was chosen for the print on the cover’s internal keyboard side that allows for improved usability of the keyboard. The outside of the cover, however, is an array of the different blue hues that make up the sapphire color, pairing it well with the engraved art on the Surface Pro 9.

A device to pass down through generations

Part of what makes the collaboration between fashion and technology so exciting isn’t just the product we create but the mindshare that happens between the two worlds. We’ve come a long way from cold, hard slabs of metal and as our devices occupy more real estate in our everyday landscape, it’s natural we ask them, too, to be beautiful. As something that we physically carry with us, they’re a true accessory and this creates room to consider technology almost the same way we look at couture.

Through these collaborations, we’re internalizing what it means to make something that people cherish and covet, much the same way we may long for and then pass down a grandmother’s earrings. As Keena Grigsby, Microsoft Surface Global GM says, “It’s a unique experience to learn from the subject matter experts, and this is just the beginning as we mark the start of a new decade of Surface with this collaboration.”

Image of people passing a blue storefront featuring a Microsoft Surface device on a podium against a blue backdrop with flowers
Microsoft x Liberty window display at Liberty Flagship in London

This collection is available in limited quantities in Microsoft Stores (online + retail) in select markets (US, Canada, UK, and Japan).

To learn more about our creative process from the Windows team on this collaboration and more, check out our Adobe Max presentation here.

To stay in the know with Microsoft Design, follow us on Twitter and Instagram, or join our Windows or Office Insider program. And if you are interested in working with us at Microsoft, head over to aka.ms/DesignCareers.

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