The world of electronics is shaped by mass manufacture. But now an elite band of ‘electro craftsmen’ are exploring how design can bring out the human side of high-tech
Tord Boontje’s east London studio is lined in shimmery metallic curtains. There’s a continuous hum, interrupted by occasional clicks and whirrs – the quiet cacophony of over 30 objects, prototypes and kinetic sculptures. These include a model ‘train to nowhere’ that travels in a circular loop; a trio of wagging animal tails that extends from one wall; and a mechanical hand wafting a breeze. The reason for the transformation is Electro Craft, the product designer’s exhibition for London Design Festival 2016.
The idea of Electro Craft is to highlight designers working with electronics in interesting ways, and challenge our expectations of how electronic objects should look and behave. Along with the abstract and nonsensical, there are prototypes and commercial products with unusual tactile or material qualities. The exhibits are by emerging and established international designers, many of whom Boontje knows from his time as head of design products at the Royal College of Art. ‘These projects don’t start with big investments or market research,’ he says. ‘They start with creativity, and that’s a completely different place.’ These practitioners of ‘electro craft’ introduce whimsy, tactility and materiality to a typology usually devoid of such qualities.
Hairy Creature Speakers by Tord Boontje for Yamaha
More seriously, it also pinpoints our unrest with the current domination of the market by huge companies such as Apple and Samsung, and the limited product choice to which this has led. To shop around for a smartphone, set of speakers, television or microwave today is essentially to compare variations on a theme, usually within a safe palette of silver, black or white. In the introductory essay to Electro Craft, curator Gareth Williams explains the landscape of modern electronics as being shaped by ease of mass manufacture, leading to a machine-led (often masculine) and repetitive aesthetic. Take the need for mass manufacture out of the equation, he argues, and a craft-based approach can lead to a far richer, more individual and human relationship with our home devices.
One example is Boontje’s Hairy Creature Speakers, a research project for Yamaha. ‘[Yamaha makes] a pretty industrial speaker. Beautiful but very hard, metallic and industrial-looking,’ he says. ‘They asked how I would interpret it. So I wrapped one in horsehair and suddenly it became a much softer, more domestic object.’ Further experiments see the speaker wrapped in curtain fringing and strung with coloured beads. These trials aren’t meant for the market, of course, but show an awakening desire from the big brands to experiment. ‘It’s refreshing for a lot of these technology companies to work with designers that are not in-house. They get this fresh voice,’ Boontje says.
Dandelight, Studio Drift’s LED lamp made with a real dandelion
The Vamp, designed by Paul Cocksedge, provides a Bluetooth connection for any speaker
Dave Hakkens’s modular Phonebloks was adopted by Google, but the project was later cancelled
Since becoming a common presence in our homes, technology has always had a bit of an identity problem. In 1971, Victor Papanek wrote in Design for the Real World: ‘After two decades, the television-set industry ... has not yet resolved the question of whether a television set should carry the associational values of a piece of furniture ... or of technical equipment.’ In 2015, Samsung attempted a rethink with the Serif TV, designed by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec. The freestanding screen has a weighty surround and stands on characterful splayed legs. Bucking the trend for ever slimmer and lighter tech, the reversal gives the television a bold and unapologetic presence. Certain brands – Bang & Olufsen, Lexon, Punkt and Braun – already appeal to those who seek more than just function in electronics, but this tends to come at a cost. Samsung’s Serif TV starts at a reasonable £499.
It’s too early to tell if Serif will perform commercially but critics have been polarised. Some found the idea welcome but the product not sufficiently resolved; others rejected it as retro-futurism. Cynics saw the exercise as design tokenism for the sake of the brand’s image. Whatever the intention, it still came as a surprising move for a large, typically risk-averse company. But Boontje says that, with hundreds of product launches each year, big brands can afford to ‘do one or two things that are more experimental’, catering to what is still a niche aesthetic. For something more complex, like a smartphone, the required investment is much larger. ‘A smartphone takes tens of millions of pounds to develop, and the company has to earn that back. This leads to a lot of market research and asking people what they want from a phone, but there’s a limitation there. People can only express what they want by comparing it to what they already have.’
Audioberry’s Juna amplifier in solid white Corian, designed by Paul Crofts
Although most of the exhibits at Electro Craft are recent, a critical piece from Daniel Weil’s 100 Objects series represents a similar moment of technological dissatisfaction in the mid-1980s. The exploded clock displays its circuit board, wires and display trapped in a transparent case complemented by flamboyant coloured shapes (think of the early look of MTV). Boontje says, ‘It was the first object I was aware of that didn’t put electronics in a box. It was made at a time when the design of electronics, especially hi-fi equipment, was a big deal. But really the only choices were whether you wanted it matt black or silver.’ Designer and sound artist Yuri Suzuki’s exhibit makes a good modern-day homage to the time – a gold wire frame outlines the iconic shape of a ghetto blaster, exposing a tiny set of essential electronics within.
David Simpson worked in the hi-fi industry before co-founding Audioberry in 2014. The start-up’s first product is a small amp that designer Paul Crofts has given a monolithic exterior in smooth white Corian. The product is extremely minimal, with no buttons and an intuitive way of operation. ‘The hi-fi industry is pretty boring,’ Simpson says. ‘If you take a What Hi-Fi? magazine from 1990, it probably contains a lot of similar stuff to what you can buy now.’ He says the problem is that hi-fi technology hasn’t changed much, but to keep moving forward the industry has cloaked itself in jargon, creating a culture of intimidation for the high-street buyer. High margins for these products mean that the quality of manufacture is low, with injection-moulded plastic the dominant material for enclosing electronics. ‘Often a TV comes with a horrible bit of plastic for a remote control. But this is something you touch every day. We thought if we could make something cool, smooth and heavy [in Corian] it would be more pleasurable to use and look at.’
Samsung’s Serif TV designed by Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec
Like Audioberry, two of the exhibits in Electro Craft used crowdfunding site Kickstarter for investment: ROLI’s Seaboard Rise, a tactile silicon keyboard that opens up new expressions in sound; and the Vamp by Paul Cocksedge, a device for making any speaker portable via Bluetooth. The site has become a gateway for the designer or entrepreneur to innovate where the big brands have been too slow, or unable to do so. Simpson says it’s not just Kickstarter that is helping to propel these start-ups but a cocktail of contributory factors. These include sharing knowledge through open-source models, the modularisation of electronics, which has made basic components cheaper and more accessible, and wider facilities for small-batch manufacture. ‘Finally Kickstarter is your perfect A/B testing,’ he says. ‘You can prove or test a market before you’ve made the expenditure.’
Disrupting the electronics industry also gives a chance to challenge its wasteful practice of planned obsolescence. Phonebloks, a modular smartphone project by Dutch designer Dave Hakkens, garnered a lot of attention in 2013. The phone is made up of individual components that can be swapped out, fixed individually and upgraded, improving the useful life of the phone. It started with a video expressing Hakkens’s dissatisfaction with the closed and concealed design of modern phones, and the sentiment quickly gained online supporters. Google adopted the idea as Project Ara, bringing the reality of a modular smartphone closer. In September, it announced the project had been cancelled. No clear reason was given, but it doesn’t take much to deduce that Google discovered a phone such as this would not make enough profit or find a big enough market to be viable. In an interview with Dutch technology magazine Bright, Hakkens said Google’s infrastructure was the problem: ‘[It’s disappointing] especially when you know how much money and resources Google has at its disposal. If it wanted to, it could certainly make a big step in the development of fully modular phones. But it’s the shareholders who decide if a project gets cancelled.’
Busby lamp and USB charging point by Future Facility
Whether an outsider forging new identities for electronic goods, or an established studio bringing expertise in materials and form to the industry’s big players, it seems this is a time of opportunity. Clued-up consumers are tiring of homogenised electronics and demanding the individual choice they are spoilt for in other homeware.
Boontje’s show identifies the roots of this electronic renaissance as craft-based. His chosen ‘electro craftsmen’ have a breadth of interest that is certainly engaging, but their aims and directions are too disparate to yet call this a movement. Challenging established aesthetics will also require more than just a flirtation with design at the top. As consumers we can at least be satisfied that this landscape shows signs of change – and a potential future for electronic objects that is more surprising, rich and diverse.
Punkt’s MP01 ‘dumb phone’ designed by Jasper Morrison
Above: Qu’est-ce que c’est, boombox in gold wire by Yuri Suzuki, photographed by Andrew Penketh