SOUND & VISION

BANG & OLUFSEN

There have been several distinct trends over the decades in the design of consumer electronics, from the alluring and prosaic modernist forms of Dieter Rams – whose influence can be seen today in everything emanating from the Apple Park in California – through to the retro analogue stylings of contemporary pieces that want to take us back to a simpler time of wooden cabinets, vinyl and physical product. Danish brand Bang & Olufsen has, for 90 years, forged an aesthetic that embraces the future. But the B&O version of that future is entirely unique. It is most usually sleek and silver, handsome and muscular, and always eminently visible. It doesn’t hide in a corner, but its silhouette sits in harmony with almost every kind of space, from the most minimalist apartment to the suites at the Gritti Palace in Venice. It’s a thing to admire, and there is a smoothness to its mechanics that is always pleasing to engage with.

Few other brands can charge $16,000 for a new TV set when an equivalent screen size is available elsewhere for $500. But Bang & Olufsen isn’t simply a company with a reputation for high-end build, it’s a heritage design brand with a cult following for its distinctive design vocabulary: blocks of dense black; svelte and tapered metals; radial patterns; flush buttons and unusual vertical planes and broad shapes. B&O designs aren’t merely substantial, they are literally heavy, but with pared down button controls marked in pleasing modernist type. Somehow, the purity of these designs transcends eras. The Beomaster 6000 Commander, which was the first uncorded remote produced for one of their audio products (launched in 1976), would have looked at home on Kubrick’s Discovery One, but today looks classic rather than retro. No mean feat for a design that asserted its modernity so profoundly.

The Beomaster 6000 Commander was designed, like so many of the most celebrated pieces in the B&O archive, by Jacob Jensen. His work through the 1970s took the company to a new level. His Beomaster tuner and amplifier designs simplified the look of stereo equipment while also honing the performance. They offered less visual complication, but much more in terms of quality sound and build. At a time when the market was driven by insanely complicated sets of dials and switches, seemingly intended to ape bewildering professional studio equipment, Jensen offered two simple sets of controls, with primary and second functions. The latter were, in the case of most products designed in this line, placed underneath a hinged aluminium panel, invisible from view and protected from accidental activation. B&O objects might be substantial in size, but they are always easy on the eye.

Jacob Jensen also created the U70, the first headphones made by B&O, which were marketed between 1978 and 1984. While the leatherette pads were ergonomic, and rounded to the ear, the outer shell was squared metal. Again, Jensen was working against the industry’s visual norms of the time.

Some of the most interesting work that has come out of the B&O studio – founded in Struer in 1925 by Svend Olufsen and Peter Bang – has been made of wood as well as metal. The Beolit 500 Portable Radio (1965) by Acton Bjørn and Sigvard Bernadotte came cased in rosewood and won an iF design award the year after its launch. Jacob Jensen’s take on the Beolit, which he continued to develop through to the early 1970s, made things sleeker and more subtly space age. His Beolit 1000 came in a rosewood (as well as a similarly luxe black goatskin) option with a graphic perforated façade to flag up its speaker area, and a row of metallic silver buttons and dials on the top. It was engineered to be entirely portable, but also to be wired, at speed, into a car. It was a go everywhere, use everywhere, hugely functional conceptual piece. Like the earlier 500 product, it also won an iF design award, and was one of seven of Jensen’s pieces selected by MoMA in 1972 to be included in their permanent collection. In 1978, the Museum in New York exhibited ‘Bang & Olufsen: Design for Sound by Jacob Jensen’ in its Goodwin Galleries, which was only the fifth time in the Museum’s history that the products of a single company were shown as a single exhibit.

The Bang & Olufsen design story continues. One of Jensen’s final significant designs for the company was his 1986 Beocenter 9000, which was a minimalist CD and tape player that was operated without either the top layer of the CD or tape components rising above their own level at any point during use. Each component operated with a sliding aspect, to the side. To handle a vintage model today still feels thrilling – how often do you get to experience a complex but single movement mechanism that brings such pure pleasure? From Jensen’s work with the Beocenter, David Lewis – who also had work in the MoMA show in the 1970s – went on to create the first vertical CD player, the 2300, at the start of the 1990s. It remains a definitive design in the company’s canon.

Current design manager Jakob Kristoffersen is pioneering new shapes and products, drawing from the Bauhaus tradition that also inspired Jensen, while creating speakers under the concept of “sound as furniture”. Successful, powerful design in consumer electronics is frustratingly rare. The mass market dictates mediocrity and a lowest common denominator, which is why Dieter Rams and Jonathan Ive captured the imagination so strongly. It’s also why B&O continues to be so compelling – it has moved on in terms of what the market expects from performance (because it must, such is the nature of technology), but it has never deviated from its design DNA. Everything produced by B&O still looks like B&O. Even if some of the formats that the company created products for are now outmoded, each design could still sit in visual harmony next to any of the others, regardless of when it was designed. Which speaks volumes.


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The BeoGram 6000 Record Deck, mid 1970s.

Jacob Jensen’s designs for Bang & Olufsen simplified the look of stereo equipment while also honing the performance. They offered less visual complication, but much more in terms of quality sound and build.

At a time when the market was driven by insanely complicated sets of dials and switches, seemingly intended to ape bewildering professional studio equipment, Jensen offered two simple sets of controls, with primary and second functions.

With their six high-frequency tweeters radiating in all directions, the Beovox 2500 speakers could be base- or wall-mounted, or even mounted from the ceiling. Designed by Jan Jensen in 1967.

The B&O version of the future is entirely unique. It is most usually sleek and silver, handsome and muscular, and always eminently visible

The Beomaster 6000 Commander, which was the first uncorded remote, would have looked at home on Kubrick’s Discovery One space ship.

In 1972 the Museum of Modern Art chose the Beomaster 3000 to be included in their Design Collection.

Stereo envy. The Beomaster 1900 examined by Japanese reporters.

The U70 stereo headphones offered quality, convenience and comfort. Whether you were seeking perfection or privacy,

The headphones were lightweight (only 300 grams) and were very comfortable to wear, even for long periods. The ear cups could be individually adjusted both vertically and laterally and locked into position

The Beolit 500 Portable Radio (1965) by Acton Bjørn and Sigvard Bernadotte. Here in rosewood.

Jacob Jensen’s Beolit 1000 was engineered to be entirely portable, but also to be wired, at speed, into a car. Here in black goatskin.

David Lewis created the first vertical CD player, the 2300, at the start of the 1990s

The sleek Beomic 2000 microphone was designed by Jensen in 1969.

Bang & Olufsen today. The Beosound 2 – a smart wireless speaker with intelligent voice control crafted in solid aluminium and designed for a 360-degree sound experience

LEAD IMAGE

Bang & Olufsen isn’t simply a company with a reputation for high-end build, it’s a heritage design brand with a cult following for its distinctive design vocabulary.