Bang and Olufsen: Design which lasts the distance

Pocket-lint had been arranging to interview Bang & Olufsen’s most prolific of industrial designers over the decades, David Lewis, as part of Style Week. Sadly, Mr Lewis passed away on 8 November 2011 after a short illness in his adopted homeland of Denmark. Although Bang & Olufsen primarily works with freelance designers in order to keep their products fresh, it was Lewis who best represented the brand for over 35 years and helped make it the household name to aspire to for audio and home cinema technology. Today Pocket-lint looks back at some of Lewis’s work and his ideas and inspirations as a designer.

UK born, Lewis was quick to move to Denmark after graduating from the Central School of Art and Design in London in 1960, and it wasn’t long until his first brush with B&O. In 1965 he worked under Jacob Jensen who himself had created for the company before. There Lewis helped design his first Bang & Olufsen product, the Beolab 5000 system which consisted of an amplifier of the same name, the Beomaster 5000 radio tuner, BeoVox 5000 speakers and Beolab 2500 Cube high frequency speakers.

A professional standard system it was the classic teak, rosewood or oak and silver design with a slide rule motif that allowed the user the ergonomic pleasure of gliding the selectors across the face of the unit for volume, bass, balance and treble. It was Jacob Jensen’s first design for Bang & Olufsen as well and it won him the iF Design award in 1967. It was a fabulous piece of kit in both look and feel as well as performance, but it wasn’t an area of the market that B&O worked with again choosing to go more user-friendly from then onwards.

In 1968, Lewis moved on to work for, and with, Henning Moldenhawer, another designer that worked with B&O, and stayed there until 1980. Their first product for the company was the Beovision 600 television manufactured between 1970-72. It was a 17-inch set designed as the first TV meant for moving between rooms as the consumer chose. As such it had a wheeled stand as well as a handle on the side of the set for easy gripping. At the same time though, that handle could be stowed neatly to the body so that the set could look like a permanent fixture of a room rather than have the casual appearance of a transient object. It won B&O yet another iF Design award and became a Lewis-inspired icon.

Through the 1970s the familiar metal and wood image of Bang & Olufsen began to change but it was really from the 1980s, when Lewis began designing the majority of the company’s products, that the new, more future look B&O emerged. Among tens of creations are the MX Series of televisions which were the first anywhere to incorporate loudspeakers directly beneath the screen; the Beocentre Overture - a flat aluminium mini-system with glass doors that opened as the the user approached, and the slender BeoLab 8000 speakers that have been copied ad infinitum ever since and that Lewis had initially dreamed up while chancing upon an organ pipe at a flea market.

"A TV without a picture is definitely not a plus when it comes to interior design," spoke Lewis once in an interview.

"As he sees it," wrote Lewis’ right hand at his studio in Copenhagen, Torsten Valeur, "when it's off, a TV is a cross between an aquarium and an eye peering into people's living rooms. Once the set is turned off, the design becomes paramount. When the TV is on, what people look at is the quality of the programme being broadcast. Designing and creating a TV which also has a ‘life’ when turned off is the closest you can get today to giving consumers a good alternative to the empty aquarium."

Speakers were another bugbear for Lewis and the cause of some frustration according to his words in previous interviews.

"Our BeoLab range of loudspeakers is a revolt against indifference and heavy wooden boxes humming away in the corners of our homes, dictating the furnishings and the way we live.

"Who says a loudspeaker should be hidden away in the dark, if it sounds better the closer it is to you?

"BeoLab speakers have been shaped to stand out from your furniture and to blend in with it. That's why we use polished aluminium which takes its colour from its surroundings instead of dictating to them."

These ideas are epitomised most of all by the BeoLab 5 speakers as brought into production by Bang & Olufsen in September 2003 and still the top end of the loudspeaker range today. Standing a metre tall, cone-shaped and either available in black or white, they’re as striking a work of art as they are a feat of engineering.

The acoustic lens technology combined with the 2500W of digital amplification means that you can place them almost anywhere in your living space and still receive superb stereo sound unlike most standard speakers which require positioning to create specific sweet spots. What’s more, the speakers themselves will also tailor their output to match the acoustics of the room by listening back to the sound. Small wonder that you’d be looking at around £10,000 for a pair.

Despite such advanced inclusions though, it wasn’t technology that Lewis craved. He believed in a company mantra that people should control the technology and not the other way around; that it should serve the user rather than be learned to be understood.

"People have been led to believe that high quality is synonymous with gadgetry and complexity. I believe that the less you complicate things, the more interesting people will find them.

"The problem with new technology is that it opens up so many opportunities. Instead of making life easier, it often makes it more complicated because people have more options than they need."

His ideas on the matter are embodied by products like the hugely successful BeoSound 9000 CD player featuring the automatic glass doors and six disc housing. The purpose was not to stuff your entire collection inside and rely on a complicated interface to try to find the track that you’re after. Instead, it was intended as a family machine with the reality that there are only ever a small number of albums played on one hi-fi at anyone time. Each person loads their own and there they sit for the rest to see who is listening to what.

"So many manufactures are keen to use all the latest features of modern technology and make everything bigger and faster without necessarily making it better. I feel that many producers of home electronics and other new technology are too quick to update their products. They improve the product by 1 per cent and re-launch it immediately - in many cases it would make more sense to wait until they had discovered some new features which consumers really need."

Perhaps his persistence with the redesign of the traditional land line telephone in the form of the BeoCom 2 was as much a statement against unnecessary technological demands as any other with the belief that there’s still the need of a house phone rather than a home of lost mobiles under sofa cushions or at the other end of the residence. He certainly went to town on the device with the fine print even stretching as far as the ring tone of the device itself inspired by the sound that the machined aluminium casing of the BeoCom 2 made when it was dropped on a hard floor.

Latterly, outside of his work for Bang & Olufsen, you could see one of Lewis’s creations on the Pocket-lint pages when he teamed up with Acer to design a luxury laptop for the Taiwanese computing giant. The Acer NX90 was hardly a portable creature with a huge screen broadened by banks of speakers and a resulting mass of 5kg. Nonetheless, our review team judged it a work of art and an incredibly impressive piece of multimedia kit all the same.

Still, Lewis himself wasn’t hugely fond of computers finding them "too inhibiting, too complicated to work with" and instead preferred, as many designers do, to rely on the pencil and paper. He would even resort to cutting pieces of cardboard to use as 3D models rather than spend time with an unwieldy graphics package.

"What makes Bang & Olufsen something special," he once said, "is that here the concepts must last at least 10 years. They wouldn’t be able to do that without content, function and design which lasts the distance."

Three of Lewis’ designs sit on display in the New York Museum of Modern Art - an honour, in part, brought about by his belief after every creation that "we have to surpass ourselves again and again".

Writing after his passing on behalf of the David Lewis Designers Studio, Torsten Valeur said:

"After a short period of illness, David Lewis died peacefully on November 8, surrounded by his family. His mind was so fresh and full of zest for everything he was doing, therefore it is impossible for us to comprehend and accept that he has suddenly passed away."

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