Acne-founder’s new passion
In a garage on the outskirts of Stockholm’s Södermalm district, 25 people are hard at work behind the doors of Teenage Engineering. But despite co-founder Jesper Kouthoofd calling them “teenage engineers”, most of them are neither teenagers nor engineers. Rather, they are computer programmers.
“The Americans are usually disappointed to discover that we are a group of balding old men,” Kouthoofd says.
In the 1990s Kouthoofd was an art director at one of the toughest ad agencies in the world, Paradiset. He was also one of the founders of Acne, the multi-disciplinary creative collective which spawned, amongst other things, the epynomous fashion label.
Teenage Engineering is a nirvana for technology geeks, combining gizmos and gadgets with urban living essentials: music machines, sneakers, laptop bags - and then there’s the white Lamborghini parked right outside.
In the depths of the garage is the workshop where Kouthoofd produces his models and prototypes. He darts about, grabbing three tiny synthesizers, each small enough to fit into your back pocket.
Brand new innovations, the synthesizers are the result of more than a year’s hard work. There’s a bass synthesizer, a drum machine, and a synthesizer that produces melodies. They look like pocket calculators without the casing.
“These are proper high-performance synths,” Kouthoofd says. “You can create your own really cool dance music with them.”
He and his staff have taken on the task of enabling more people to work with good sound.
“We work with sound a lot ourselves, and it’s constantly in our thoughts,” Kouthoofd says. “We love sound, and there is still so much we can do with it. We want to give everyone the opportunity to work with good tools. If you have poor tools, you get tired of what you’re doing pretty quickly.”
For just $ 180 you can buy enough equipment to start your own band. Setting the price of these pocket synths was the first step in the design process, and the price eventually chosen was $ 59 each.
Setting the price forced the design team to create smart solutions for everything, including the hangers. Those little hooks, which allow stores to display and store the products, would have increased the price of the synths, so to keep costs down the engineers chose to incorporate them into the actual circuit board, in a section that can then be snapped off.
Also, the synthesizers don’t come with a case – this is sold separately or can be created using a 3D printer.
Launched in January at the NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) Show, in Anaheim, California, the synths are now on sale in Weekday stores, as well as at Colette in Paris and the MoMA Store in New York.
Kouthoofd anticipates selling 30,000 units, based on the fact that these small electronic gadgets are the offspring of Teenage Engineering’s cash cow, OP-1, which the company launched in 2010. That stripped-back synthesizer is child’s play to use and has garnered fans such as Depeche Mode, Elijah Wood, Jean-Michel Jarre, Nina Persson, Beck, and Nine Inch Nails. Even easier to carry, just as simple to program and play, and at a very different price, miniature synthesizers are now accessible to more people than ever before. The original OP-1 model sold for more than SKr 7,000 ($ 850).
Teenage Engineering was founded in 2007 by Kouthoofd and three others. Kouthoofd had left Acne, which he had helped found, following a personal and professional crisis.
He had intended Acne to be a latter-day equivalent of the German Bauhaus school, a creative collective with shared social and aesthetic values (he describes himself as very left-wing), not a jeans company and advertising agency.
“Perhaps I drew my line in the wrong place,” he says. “I was naïve in how I started the project, commercially naïve.”
He tells how he refused to accept Sweden’s Young Conservatives as a client, even though Acne needed the money. Then his wife left him, and the situation between Kouthoofd and his partners imploded. He felt there was no one on his side, not at Acne nor in his private life.
“It even made me contemplate suicide, and for that I can never forgive them,” he says. “One of the worst things was that it was a corporate culture that I had helped to create. In retrospect, I can see that I was a bit dictatorial at times, which never goes down well. But I still think it is strange. The hardest thing is that they were my friends.”
He hasn’t changed his tune, though.
“I tried to sneak a tiny picture of Karl Marx into a product Teenage Engineering made, but the others stopped me,” he smiles. “I’m still getting up to mischief!”
Bauhaus remains an iconic style that is reflected in Kouthoofd’s design vision as an interdisciplinary and collective task. The creative process takes place simultaneously on both the programming and design sides, not just as a concept that eventually finds its way to the programmers.
“We sit around and chat with one another, go for a burger at lunchtime, and talk about what we think would be fun, interesting, or exciting,” he says. “Then we go back and I build a box that reflects their vision.”
There is a framework surrounding this free creativity in the form of a noticeboard in the middle of the workshop. This is where everyone can see their jobs for the week, written on sticky notes. Once they have completed a task assigned to them, they move the note to the “completed” section.
The aesthetic rules are few but specific. Simple design, like toys. Basic shapes. A specific palette of primary colors, topped off with a bit of humor.
Kouthoofd produces something out of a box that resembles a hockey puck and is about the same size as his personal talisman, his snusbox (Swedish snus is a bit like wet snuff). It’s a remote control for the speakers that Teenage Engineering is currently developing. The volume works with stepless adjustment and can be increased with the swipe of a finger.
All the work done here follows the same process: Ideas are developed as a team and work groups are set up by those who like a particular idea. Kouthoofd builds the prototypes.
“The company is a collective,” he says. “That’s something I learned from Acne. We make our decisions here democratically.”
Text: Emma Olsson
Published: March 3, 2015
Last edited: October 27, 2015