A YOUNG DANISH DESIGNER WENT FROM DOWN AND OUT STRAIGHT TO THE TOP.
Ø ivind Slaatto had nothing to lose the day he boarded a train to Struer, a small town three hours northwest of Copenhagen. The industrial designer had hit rock bottom. He had no money, no customers, no products on the market. He wore a shirt he had just bought and dragged his mate Dominic Balmforth along for the ride. It turned out to be the best decision he ever made. For that small town is not your average small town in Denmark, but the home of Bang & Olufsen.
“Starting as an independent designer isn’t as fancy as some might think,” he tells WISH. “The conventional way up to my dreams seemed far too long and hazardous, so I decided to aim directly for the best and the best I could imagine at that time was Bang & Olufsen.” Slaatto and Balmforth convinced those at the top of the iconic Danish electronics brand to meet with them, and pitched their ideas for sound products. Balmforth did the business modelling and Slaatto did the designs. After the pitch, the pair didn’t think they had made much of an impression, but they were wrong.
“Fourteen days later they called and
“The conventional way up to my dreams seemed far too long and hazardous, so I decided to aim directly for the best.”
asked me to submit a proposal for what ended up being the Beoplay A9,” Slaatto recalls. The Beoplay A9 is a wireless speaker system that looks like a piece of furniture or even art. It was launched in 2012. “The days of wanting to hide your bulky black stereo are over,” was the marketing tag of the product.
Slaatto says he enjoyed every aspect of the design process of working with Bang & Olufsen. The only issue was that Slaatto had told them he had a studio with a team. He didn’t. He had a studio but it contained only him. “I got help from family and friends when creating the full size mock-ups of the products,” he says. “My girlfriend made the fabric and my mother even helped cook for my rather unusual studio team. It was my very first design to come into production, and it was a significant success.”
Slaatto embarked on designing a number of other products for different companies after the Beoplay A9 launch, from light shades for Louis Poulsen Lighting to wooden stools in collaboration with fellow Danish designer Signe Hytte. During that period, he noticed how bad the acoustics were in his studio (which by
then was populated by a few more people). The location and light were fabulous but the sound was horrible.
“It was clear that we needed to cover the hard walls with some kind of sound-absorbing material and a geometry that reflects the sound in a way which helps to improve the acoustics,” Slaatto says. “Since I had been working with Bang and Olufsen, I suggested they should offer an ‘auditory indoor climate’ rather than ‘just’ speakers, which they are really good at already. I wanted to not only improve the sound but also the silence.”
At the same time that he was pitching his idea, Slaatto was skiing in the Norwegian mountains and became fascinated with the way the light reflected in the snow and how gentle the sound was in this environment. This was the starting point for the design of what would become the BeoSound Shape. Unlike anything else offered by Bang & Olufsen, it is a series of hexagon-shaped fabric-covered tiles that are wall-mounted and create a wireless speaker system. Each BeoSound Shape includes tiles that are speakers, an amplifier, sound-absorbing acoustic dampers and a smart hub (where all the music gets transmitted). You can have as many of the tiles as you want, starting from as few as six, and they come in a variety of colours to suit different environments (from lounge rooms to hotel lobbies).
“It can be custom-designed and turn high-quality music into an interior art form,” says Slaatto of his product. The BeoSound Shape was launched at the design mecca that is the Milan Salone del Mobile in April this year and has been lauded as a marked departure from the “audiophile looking for a one-chair, no-friends listening experience”, according to Bang & Olufsen vice president of brand, design and marketing, Marie Kristine Schmidt. She recommends that those seeking such “immersive high-end sound” seek out other products from their range. “This is really a product for people who want music in the background, who want music as a mood-setter,” she told Wired in Milan. “This is far more concerned with lifestyle and interiors than [anything] you have ever seen from Bang & Olufsen before.”
It is the perfect intersection of form and function for Slaatto, and that is something he strives to achieve in all his design work. “I never think about whether what I do is art or not,” he says. “My focus is just to do my best, no matter what I do, searching for obvious and honest design solutions.”
Slaatto has come a long way since he took that train to Struer. But perhaps he should have had more confidence on that particular day, given his background. After all, Slaatto played the tuba and studied music before going to design school, and who better than a musician to dream up products for one of the most famous audio companies in the world?
“I was raised in a family of musicians where there were no screens – not even a television. When we were bored my siblings and I would play football, play our instruments, draw or invent stuff,” he says. “My older brother played cello, my younger brother was drumming or digging a tunnel in the garden to China (he didn’t finish it). I focused on playing my tuba, inventing airplanes, rubber guns and an eternity machine (I haven’t finished it either) ... today I only play design.”
Industrial designer Øivind Slaatto
Two arrays of Bang & Olufsen’s BeoSound Shapes – a wireless system of speakers, amplifier, acoustic dampers and smart hub