Designing An Icon

by Anton D. Javier
Photography by Chino Sardea
Video courtesy of Bang & Olufsen
26 Feb 2018

André Poulheim of German design studio Noto recalls the scary, challenging, but ultimately, gratifying experience of designing one of Bang & Olufsen’s modern icons — the BeoLab 90

The polarizing effect of the latest Star Wars film, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, came to mind when I interviewed Mr. André Poulheim, Managing Partner of Noto, a design studio based in Cologne, Germany. On one hand, the film was endlessly praised by film critics and a new generation of fans, and on the other, received nothing but vitriol and harsh criticism from die-hard fan boys and purists. Admittedly, it wasn't your typical Star Wars film. It took a different storytelling approach, questioned the role of good and evil in a galaxy far, far away, and asked questions that were never asked before.

Perhaps the same could be said about Bang & Olufsen (B&O) fans and their opinion of the new BeoLab 90 speaker, which was designed by Mr. Poulheim and his team at Noto. Some are more receptive to new a design approach and concept, while others have an unshakeable opinion of how B&O products and designs should look like.


This Is Where It Began

"We had the opportunity to meet B&O's former creative director at an event in Switzerland. Sort of like a matchmaking event where designers could meet companies and potential clients," recalls Mr. Poulheim. "And of course everyone was excited to meet with B&O. If you're a designer, that's one of the brands you want to work for."

The event allowed Noto one foot in the B&O door because after a year and a half of staying in touch, that fateful call every designer dreams of finally happened. "We received a call from the former creative director and he said he wanted to visit our studio. The meeting took place in the afternoon and now that I think about it, it was completely different from your usual business meetings because it was more of a conversation, a casual chat about music and how listening to music has changed from having hardware sources to now having digital sources."

A few weeks later, Mr. Poulheim received another call, and this time, it was an invite to the B&O headquarters. "We were on a tour of the headquarters and I still had no idea what was going to happen. Was it merely a tour, or a prelude to a potential, but small, project?" He got his answer later that afternoon. "They said they wanted us to design their new audio system and at that point, it was probably the biggest milestone in our career. And then someone from the team put his hand on my shoulder and jokingly said, 'Can you feel the burden?'" It was a dose of reality for Mr. Poulheim because yes, he definitely felt it.


Behind the Scenes

Knowing that they were entrusted with the design of a luxury product under B&O’s portfolio comprised of icons, Mr. Poulheim knew that it had to be extraordinary. “The BeoLab 90 has to be different from anything you’ve ever seen in a speaker. If you look at the models we made, a lot of them had these polygon-shaped ideas and studies. We also knew we needed a lot of transparency due to the 360 degree sound movement that the speaker was capable of delivering. Out of the many studies we created, one stood out because we just couldn’t wrap our heads around it. We couldn’t figure it out, we couldn’t solve it, and with the support of B&O, that’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to solve the problem and we all said, ‘Let’s make it.’”

One of the main inspirations behind the BeoPlay 90 was something German architect Frei Otto was known for. The architect was responsible for a lot of roof constructions, particularly fabric roofs held by two lower and two upper points. “This resulted in a very defined curvature and tangent on the fabric,” explains Mr. Poulheim. “This was a completely new way of dealing with fabric on a speaker. If you did this in 360 degrees, there would be no front, no back. No beginning and no end. Just how the sound it produces is supposed to be.”

So you can imagine that the journey of this product was a long, but necessary one. “From the day we got the go signal to design the speaker up until its launch took three years in total. The design phase alone probably took 14-15 months.”

Beyond the speaker, Mr. Poulheim also shared that who they are designing for is equally important. “We are designing for enthusiasts. Listening to music at this level is all about emotions. They do that because they like the goose bumps. And what we also wanted to deliver was even when not in use, they get goose bumps just by looking at it, by touching it.”


Give Them Something To Talk About

Now we backtrack to the Star Wars comparison. Mr. Poulheim admits that the BeoLab 90 wasn’t warmly received by everyone when it was first launched. “When the BeoLab 50 was released, everyone loved it because it’s calm, beautiful, integrated, and a little more hidden. Meanwhile, the BeoLab 90 is loud and the icon for the vision of sound for B&O. If you browse through forums where B&O lovers discuss the products, this speaker is polarizing. Some love it, while some have a hard time understanding it.”

Mr. Poulheim reveals that while the negative criticism hurts, he says it is necessary. “It’s completely right for people to feel that way. If you create something that everybody likes, maybe they’ll forget about it after a while. For a handful of people who see the BeoLab 90 for the first time, they probably wouldn’t know it’s a speaker. Some will ask what the hell it is. And I think that’s the purpose of it all. Design is about evoking emotions, so it’s always subjective.”

But there is a silver lining. “It’s funny that for those who have felt it or gotten close to it,” says Mr. Poulheim, “they go from hating it to falling completely in love with it. And that’s exactly what we want. For them to feel the effort put into the product; to feel that this is something extraordinary and a product that only B&O can make. Nobody else in the world would put that much effort and craftsmanship in building a speaker.”