Danish design has had a distinct identity for many decades now. Long before minimalism came be known as the modern design language, and appreciated for its simplicity and timeless appeal, it was already a national obsession amongst the Danish people.
Designers and the companies that they have represented from this Scandinavian country have influenced modern day design in a variety of fields like architecture, interiors, watch-making, appliances and consumer electronics. And the core values of Danish design have always remained the same - simplicity and cutting-edge technology, without compromising functionality.
One of the companies that epitomizes this design philosophy is Bang & Olufsen. B&O, as it is called more often, is a company that is at the very summit of design and technology required to create masterpieces in the consumer electronics space. For years B&O was a company focused only on radios and home audio equipment, but a wave of change in consumer electronics a few decades ago led the company to foray into the televisions space and more recently into personal audio gadgets and accessories.
B&O's target audience is the extremely demanding audiophile who is clear that luxurious design, intuitive functionality and top-notch performance are the fundamental motivators of his choice. And B&O has stood true to this promise with its own set of principles.
The most fundamental of these principles are combining form and function to fit into its design philosophy of minimalism. An unrelenting pursuit of precision in design and manufacturing that makes others wonder "Why didn't I think of that before?". Since this principle has been so ingrained into B&O's universe, the company has been way ahead of the others in dreaming up new design for existing products and for innovating new technologies for them too.
The other very core principle that B&O follows is being honest with regard to the materials it uses in its products. If it looks like wood, it is wood, and if it looks like aluminum, it is the metal and B&O is in love with it. Long before the rest of the companies brought the material into their personal gadgets, B&O was already using a lot of aluminum in its products.
The third principle that B&O works on and builds into every product is, what B&O engineers call, a bit of magic. So, there are TVs that swivel on their stands and turn towards you or literally stand up when they are switched on. There are speakers, like the BeoLab 5, from which an acoustic lens slides out and emits sub-sonic waves to measure and calibrate themselves to suit the acoustic orientation of the room they are put in! Or just look at the BeoSound 3200, which was first made in 1967 and featured the famous floating glass, magic doors, which slid open at the wave of a hand. So, there is always an element of wonderment in B&O's products, when it is not just the design or the fidelity of the product that has left the onlooker amazed.
Much of the design, performance and development of its products reflect a rare clairvoyance that has enabled the company to stay ahead of the curve, and the competition, in high-end audio. Take for example, the fact that long before the other companies thought of universal remotes, B&O (almost 30 years ago) was already integrating multiple devices into one controller. Much before Apple had designed the iPod with the click wheel, B&O had already used it in its radios. And much before audio equipment makers had thought of integrating multiple devices and extending music into every room of a home, B&O Beolink had already thought of it.
B&O takes a long time to introduce a new line of products and is often slow to change its core products simply because they remain fresh and relevant for many years, in fact many decades. Some of its flagship products are years old and still look futuristic and perform to please today's audiences. The classic here is the slim, elongated remote controller Beo4 made of aluminum and which is more than two decades old. The BeoCom 2 cordless telephone, looking very much like it would be at home in the latest sci-fi thriller and constructed out of one piece of aluminum to resemble the bottom half of an elephant tusk, is about ten years old.
There are more products that were introduced first in the 60's and 70's, saw little change in overall design and were only withdrawn during the last couple of years due to the change in the consumer electronics landscape where optical media is fast becoming redundant. For more of the famous purity of design and clairvoyance, you need only to look at something as small as the company's logo. Come to think of it, it was first used almost 80 years ago and the logo with the pregnant 'B' has remained unchanged since.
It was possibly the culture of design and no-compromise manufacture that led to many of B&O's products being called kinetic sculptures. But, products like the BeoLab 5, which could be mistaken for a prop in a Ridley Scott movie, are not just meant to please the eye. They unfailingly also thrill the senses that they are designed to target.
Part of the legacy of B&O is this ability to be ahead of the time and then keep the design unaltered for years. While there many fans of the brand will tell you that it is this trait that is so endearing to B&O, there are others that will call it excessive conservatism. Somehow that, these critics will tell you, is the reason why B&O failed to read and then stay ahead of the coming 'disposable' digital revolution. The Apple iPod has changed everything from the way we listen to music, to the whole intuitiveness of design and the price we are willing to pay for such a player. Portability is the main focus and the life of the music player is almost wished to be just a couple of years.
On the other hand, B&O fans think of it as an investment to buy the company's products. Many of its iconic products become collectible items decades later. Though there is a huge premium that buyers have to pay for the exclusivity and high-end technology that is hidden behind the elegant casings of B&O's products, most don't think of it as a waste. However, a few years ago, poor financial performance, the portable digital revolution and the shifting of the market towards emerging economies in the East, made B&O rethink its strategy. The result was the birth of the BeoPlay brand. Compact to fit into our new-age, crowded lifestyles, colourful to become more attractive for an younger audience and capable of being paired with a whole bunch of new portable players and formats, BeoPlay products will enable the company to explore a whole market segment that it hasn't catered to in the past. Some of the docks and Airplay devices that have since been launched have been extremely successful. The company will hope that these customers will one day be so hooked to the quality of music reproduced and the pictures rendered on these players and displays that they will willingly pay the premium for upgrading to B&O's own flagship products.
A trip to B&O's headquarters in Struer, Denmark is an eye-opener. The small rural hamlet is the setting for B&O's 'Farm', as the company calls it, and this is where its engineers and researchers sit in a brick and glass building and dream up the future. They also share the facility with 50 sheep that can be seen grazing the grass within the compound. Nearby, the aluminum machining and anodizing facility makes the famous bezels and casings for the company's products. This is where the metal is meticulously crafted, machined and holes are individually drilled with diamond-tipped bits.
For those of us who can't make the pilgrimage to the company's headquarters to witness first hand the focus on attention to detail and sustainability, a visit to the nearest B&O store with our favourite music will be equally eye-opening. Many of us, however, might have seen a B&O product in motion than at the store itself. In partnership with luxury car makers like Audi, Mercedes-Benz AMG, Aston Martin and BMW, the company makes audio systems for these brands' flagship sedans.
For audiophiles and connoisseurs of design in India, it will be literally music to their ears to hear that B&O is planning a bigger foray into the market here. More stores and the very latest from its global portfolio will reach Indian shelves soon. The price of their products start from $200 to $100,00 for their flagship TV.