Had a chance to ask the extraordinary founder, CEO, and Head of Design at Teenage Engineering, Jesper Kouthoofd, Three Questions (although I had to sneak in a few extra).
Pretty excited about this one. Without further ado...
Synth History: How did you start Teenage Engineering?
Jesper: So, my background is, I had another company called Acne, which was like a fashion company. We did a lot of different things, then I left that company. When you start a company, sometimes you get super bored from handling all the employees and all that. The culture became something I didn’t like. So I quit and I started to do commercials, directing commercials.
At one point I started to share an office space, though it was more like a warehouse, with some friends that were programmers - we had done films before, for a couple of years. It’s a little bit like a relationship. Sometimes, the door is open on both sides and you’re both ready for something. You know the feeling, right? It’s like a relationship, almost like sliding doors. Both parties, maybe more than two in this case, had the same situation in their lives and I think we all felt, let’s do something meaningful. So we started to share this space and then, you know, you go to lunch and you start to talk about ideas and dreams and one thing led to another. Suddenly we started to make projects together.
When we started the first project, we did installations that we could make money on but still be a little bit free. After we did a couple of those we felt, why can’t we do everything ourselves? From coming up with the idea and then doing everything. So we took the money we had and just started to do prototypes. We started with a lamp first. Then we had this discussion about a clock radio or a portable synth. And that’s how it started. We were super naive, didn't know anything about manufacturing.
Synth History: How did you figure out the manufacturing aspects of the company?
Jesper: You know, we had this vision. I bought this CNC machine. David [Eriksson] was limiting himself to electronics and we had started to do things in that area. I've been a graphic designer since the beginning so I didn’t have any knowledge on how to do CAD and all that. I had done some machines for Elektron before, like the Machinedrum and Monomachine, but that was very, like, almost 2D. Just a box in 2D.
So we did the prototype and then we started to travel. I think that’s what we have in common, the founders, is that we like to travel. We heard from someone, 'Oh, you have to manufacture in China', so we went there and we went to Taiwan. Basically, all over Asia to meet factories. We had to lie about the volumes because we had heard from someone that 'You have to say it’s like 5,000 pieces a year', and we thought, we can't even afford that - maybe only like, 200 or something [laughs]. So we lied a little bit about quantities and started to go to factories and then finally we met two Taiwanese guys that really liked the idea and they helped us a lot, because they had contacts with the factories.
So that’s how it started. Basically we traveled and showed the prototype and learned.
Synth History: Teenage Engineering has a very kind of minimalist approach. As a designer, what or who are some of your biggest influences, and why do you think minimalism works so well?
Jesper: I mean that changes almost every year. When you’re young you have certain influences and then the next year you add another one that you discover. But for me, for a very long time, it’s more about countries and certain times in history.
For example, I admire lots of the stuff that was happening in Germany, basically after the war, I would say, if you look at the map in the south of Germany, almost on the border of Italy. That combination between Germany and Italy, maybe in the 1950s to the 1980s, there were a lot of things that happened in that time, in that area, a certain type of philosophy. The importance of communication and design and what that actually means. It was kind of like a way of looking at life, culture, and communication. So I would say Italy and Germany.
Personally, I want that exact combination, because if it’s all in German it’s very strict and it can be a little bit too minimalistic or too purist or whatever, but in Italy you have the passion, you have the knowledge from sculpture, you have the art from thousands of years back, you have Michelangelo and DaVinci. You have all those guys that were into another type of thinking.
There’s a lot of names and companies that came from that era, from those regions. Even schools like The School of Ulm. One of my idols is Otl Aicher for example, not just for his design work, but his philosophy about how you should think about design. Sometimes it’s even political, you know?
Synth History: If you could design a dream product, even if the technology doesn’t exist yet, what would it be?
Jesper: I already have an answer to that! Imagine if you could design a product for the other side when you’re in heaven or hell, a product for when you’re dead. It would be interesting.
Synth History: What would you name it, and how do you come up with names?
Jesper: It would probably have some kind of like letters and a number. I’m very fond of two letters, dash, and then a number. Just because... you kind of like when nothing turns into something, you know? Something meaningful. The less the name reveals about something, the more you can fill it with.
Synth History: Out of all the Teenage Engineering products, is there anything that you’re most excited about, or is there anything coming up that you’re excited about that you can tell me about?
Jesper: Yeah, we’re working very hard right now on a product that we will announce in July and then we will have a tour in September, from London, New York and then Los Angeles where we will release the product as well. We'll travel a lot in like ten days. What I like about it is that we have done a couple of products now, a line of products, and this is kind of different when it comes to price and the whole attitude is very different. I think it will be very refreshing. And we have a really big name that will be the face of this product, a legend.
Synth History Exclusive. Interview conducted by Danz. Photos by Emil Kullänger.