The company’s design guru speaks
Buy any Bang & Olufsen product these days, from home cinema to a portable music device, and you can be pretty sure it will deliver on several fronts. For almost a century, the Danish company has carved a reputation built on sound quality and design in equal measure, with a consistency that other brands simply struggle to match.
On the design front, the man at the top – the company’s vice-president of design – is Gavin Ivester, who joined Bang & Olufsen in 2018, and has held similar positions at other notable organisations, including Apple. One of his latest creations is the Beovision Harmony – a TV with a distinctive Art-Deco-furniture-style aesthetic. Here he reveals more about working for the brand:
As a designer, how does it feel to be working for Bang & Olufsen? Is this a lifelong dream?
It truly is a dream job. Back in the 1980s, when I first went to design school in California, Bang & Olufsen was seen as the ultimate in clean, European design, with a higher level of refinement than just about anything we’d seen. It’s what we all aspired to, and it feels incredible to be here.
But you worked at Apple too. Another company celebrated for its design…
I started at Apple during my university years. The belief there was that computers should be beautiful, so design was taken very seriously. But I also learned about design leadership and lifestyle by heading up the sneaker design at Nike and Puma, and then I’ve spent time as a musician. Bang & Olufsen brings it all together, and challenges me on both the technical and emotional sides of design.
What makes Bang & Olufsen products different?
It’s that promise of an outstanding experience. Our choices for form and materials are about delivering that performance, so the design always begins with the sound for us. We value longevity too, which means a timeless design of simple geometry, and materials and construction with substance and authenticity, such as aluminium or wood.
Design is so inherent to Bang & Olufsen’s DNA. Is there pressure to maintain that?
Yes and no. I’ve had the privilege of exploring the archives – from the company museum to the secret warehouse full of past prototypes, learning not only what we’ve made but how we’ve always thought as a company. Bang & Olufsen has never been a nostalgia brand, but it has always innovated to create those great experiences. So our design principles are to be long-lasting and to inspire progress. There’s no conflict between beauty and performance, but our products must be more than pleasing to look at – they must also solve problems and excel in the real world.
Do you have a big design department?
That depends on how you look at the team. Internally, we have almost two dozen industrial designers, user experience and graphic designers, and researchers. Bang & Olufsen has a tradition of consulting with external designers, and that continues today, so we have another dozen designers in four countries working on our products at any time. Outside collaborators often bring a fresh perspective.
The Beovision Harmony is something different. What prompted that idea?
It’s the fusion of three main ideas: to create the best-sounding TV ever, so you feel like you’re in the scene; to create an object that is beautiful in its own right, and not just a blank void on the wall when the screen is turned off; and to have its own special touch, a unique hidden feature or movement, that gives the extra wow factor. With the Beovision Harmony, the screen sits partly-obscured behind two wooden panels when not in use, but then rises slightly when the power is turned on, with the panels rotating at 90-degree angles to form the soundbar at the base. You can choose a 65in or 77in screen.
What were the biggest challenges in seeing the design come to life?
The mechanism that creates the movement is remarkable – as the speakers move, the top two corners are always the same distance apart. And we have a design principle that says we can never have an ugly side to our products – even at the back, which hardly anyone will see. So to get the movement and have it nicely finished on the rear was tough.
Looking at the rotating panels, that’s some intricate craftsmanship…
Every detail matters, and that’s why the company has even invested in its own aluminium factory in Denmark, which is a powerful design enabler, as it gives you more freedom. Those panels, the aluminium and wood speaker grilles, are very intricate, with narrow lines running all the way through that must be perfectly consistent, and over such a long distance on each grille isn’t easy to make. But the aluminium we create ourselves, and all the woodwork is by Bjerrum-Nielsen, which made our TV cabinets during the 1950s. Those grilles are crafted through 28 separate steps, which is extensive.
Can you tell us what you’re working on next?
No [laughs]. But I will say I’m very proud of our team, and the hugely-talented outside designers with whom we collaborate constantly. I can’t wait for the world to see what we’re doing right now.