The Great Air-Conditioner Glow Up

Last year, during the hottest summer ever recorded in the Northern Hemisphere, Dan Medley installed hundreds of new air-conditioners in apartments in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

These were not the unglamorous window units familiar to Mr. Medley, 35, a handyman in Manhattan. His wealthier clients seemed to be upgrading to ACs that looked as if they had gotten plastic surgery: their harsh edges softened, their faces sculpted and smoothed.

On Park Avenue, he installed an air-conditioner from July, a start-up that sells gracefully rounded window units with pastel covers. He scoured Home Depots for six curvy Midea ACs for a single client on the Upper West Side. Others went for Windmill, which bills its minimalist unit on Instagram as a “sleek and chic transformation moment.”

Several companies are trying to capitalize on increasingly unbearable summers with a fleet of photogenic window ACs, targeted toward flush and fashionable customers in buildings without central air-conditioning. Their products are more expensive than the average window unit — ranging from $340 to nearly $600 — and their marketing sometimes elides the nitty-gritty, emphasizing svelte exteriors over B.T.U.s.

“These types of things, you’re paying for the aesthetic,” Mr. Medley said.

Coverage of these products has been breathless, occasionally bordering on erotic. “Help! I’m Sexually Attracted to My New Smart Air Conditioner,” read a recent headline in Vice’s product recommendation vertical. The Wall Street Journal described a wave of refreshed ACs as “sexy.”

As air-conditioning becomes less of a luxury and more of a necessity, it follows that some customers will shell out for a unit that looks like an iPad or the robotic love interest in “Wall-E.” But there’s something unsettling about the air-conditioner growing so covetable thanks to the combined efforts of deft marketing and extreme heat. We’re used to it-bags and it-girls; is there any eerier sign of the climate crisis than the arrival of the it-air-conditioner?

Window air-conditioners are a quintessentially annoying part of living in New York. That is mostly a result of the city’s sought-after prewar buildings being expensive to retrofit with central air-conditioning, a more efficient system that cools two-thirds of homes in the United States, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

“There’s, like, at least three episodes of ‘Seinfeld’ that are about window air-conditioners,” said Rodrigo Teixeira, the head of product management for home comfort for the appliance company Midea America. “You see million-dollar homes, or two-million-dollar apartments these days with window units sticking to the window.” (The ultrarich, of course, are more likely to live in newer buildings with central air, and have no use for window units.)

Midea America says it has sold more than a million of the U-shaped air-conditioning units that it introduced in 2020, which allow a window to close into a channel in the center of the device. The same year, July joined the race with its air-conditioner with interchangeable front panels. Another company, Windmill, started selling a marshmallowy window unit in 2021.

Jess Brush, 31, a nail artist, ditched the two “horrible” hand-me-down window units in her farmhouse in the Hudson Valley last year. Hotter summers have made her willing to spend more on attractive ACs, which sit in her window for more and more months out of the year.

She ordered two Windmill units for $400 apiece after seeing them on social media. “They would be shown in beautiful homes that are homes that you would want,” she said. “They seemed like an aspirational item.”

The air-conditioners are all over social media, in part because the companies behind them sometimes provide free units to influencers who make home décor- and fashion-focused content. Anna B. Albury, 28, a rug designer in Brooklyn and a founder of the “” newsletter, contacted July last month and received two free air-conditioners in exchange for sharing an Instagram Reel with her 10,000 followers.

“It’s kind of clear who they’re targeting,” she said. “It’s a young person living in a city that doesn’t have central AC, but cares about the way their home looks.”

That customer can now choose from spruced-up versions of all kinds of workhorse home products: There are televisions framed to look like paintings, and fridges that are disguised as cabinetry. Air-conditioner companies seem newly eager to distance their products from such unfashionable company as microwaves and ceiling fans.

“We’re making home décor that just happens to be air appliances,” said Michael Mayer, a founder and the chief executive of Windmill.

The recent class of sleek ACs vary widely in quality, according to Allen St. John, a senior product editor who works on Consumer Reports’ air-conditioner rankings. Mr. St. John praised Midea’s U-shaped unit, which he said was energy-efficient and effective in testing.

But he was critical of the most affordable of Windmill’s premium WhisperTech units, which had struggled to cool a room down quickly. “This is the most important test that we do, and this performed about as badly as any air-conditioner we’d ever tested,” Mr. St. John said.

Mr. Mayer, the Windmill chief executive, noted that the product had been reviewed more positively elsewhere — including by Wirecutter, The New York Times’s product recommendation site — adding that the company had “tens of thousands of happy customers who love our WhisperTech models.”

July’s air-conditioner was not tested by Consumer Reports, but Albert Wong, 46, who lives in Orange County, Calif., said he had mixed feelings about the WiFi-enabled unit he bought last summer for $500. It does not work noticeably better than other air-conditioning units he has owned, he said, it just seems to be trendy.

A software developer, Mr. Wong has been unable to switch the unit’s remote-control app from Celsius to Fahrenheit.

In 2020, an article in The Wall Street Journal described a group of design-forward air-conditioners, including one from July, as “Summer’s Unlikeliest Status Symbol” — a phrase that the brand has since repurposed, in large type, in its marketing materials.

Buzzy, high-end products are frequently slapped with the “status” label. But to apply it to the air-conditioner is to acknowledge, however unwittingly, the reality that access to cool air is a matter of wealth and status, and a growing measure of inequality as the world heats up.

Muhammad Saigol, a founder and the chief executive of July, said that the descriptor was “nice and catchy” but that the company’s goal was to appeal to design-interested customers without snobbery. “We don’t think of it as a status symbol, we think of it more as reflective of your individual taste and personality,” he said.

The air-conditioners bear some resemblance to the stylized air purifiers that took off during the early days of Covid, said Ben Varquez, the managing director of YMC, a marketing agency oriented toward millennials and Gen Z. Those, too, offered customers with disposable income an extra layer of comfort amid an overwhelming crisis, in the format of an attractive accessory.

People don’t like to be freaked out by advertising, he said. “Using climate change as an underlying message, but putting a little bit of lipstick on the pig is probably going to be a lot more successful,” he said. “People want to feel good when they’re spending money.”

Air-conditioning is a climate change Catch-22; it’s both a remedy for and a contributor to rising global temperatures. The companies behind these air-conditioners tout their efficiency and eco-friendly refrigerants, and July and Windmill also purchase carbon offsets, a method of counteracting emissions that has been criticized by some scientists as ineffectual.

“Ultimately people are going to have to buy air-conditioners, and they’re going to have to buy air-conditioners more, and they’re going to have to use them more” as temperatures rise, Mr. Mayer, the Windmill chief executive, said. “We want people to buy an air-conditioner from a brand that cares about the environment versus some massive appliance company.”

But in many cases, the most environmentally friendly air-conditioner is the one you already have, said Sandra Goldmark, a designer and a senior assistant dean at the Columbia Climate School. “Even if the new unit is more energy-efficient, it will take you a long time to essentially pay off the embedded carbon” that was used to create your new unit, she said.

Professor Goldmark said she understood why customers would be interested in having a more beautiful air-conditioner in their homes (even if they do remind her of Apple devices, which are notoriously hard to open up and fix). She still feels uneasy about the gussied-up window ACs, which she thinks offer a similar appeal to trash cans that are hidden beneath marble countertops.

“It erases our impact, in a way; it makes it all very palatable and beautiful,” she said. “It’s creating a kind of comfortable illusion that everything’s OK.”

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