DESIGN MATTERS: ICONS
For nearly three decades, pioneering designer Jacob Jensen gave form to Bang & Olufsen's vision. It became a defining collaboration that would consolidate the company’s reputation as a world leader in sound and design.
An often-heard quip about classic Bang & Olufsen products, is that they seem to fit more on the set of a science fiction film than in someone's home. But at the core of this light-hearted joke is a profound proposition: in many ways this small company based in the Danish countryside actually did manage to shape the future of audio design through its iconic and avantgarde aesthetics. Thanks in large parts to long-time Bang & Olufsen collaborator, Jacob Jensen.
Born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1926, Jensen left school at thirteen and trained as an upholsterer. Bored by the humdrum tasks at his father's workshop, the young Jensen started tinkering around, making designs and models of everyday items. These eventually caught the eye of an architect who told Jensen’s father that the unusual furniture designs clearly came from someone with great potential. Spurred on by this encounter, Jensen enrolled at the Danish School of Arts and Crafts in the late 1940s, where under Jørn Utzon's tutelage, Jensen was the first graduate in the new discipline of industrial design. He continued to ride the wave of this movement and in 1951 started working for Bernadotte & Bjørn – Denmark's first industrial design studio.
In the seven-year period that Jensen was with Bernadotte & Bjørn, the young designer shaped everything from cooking equipment to porcelain dishes, X-Ray machines, typewriters and intercom systems. His melamine Margrethe Bowl is still in production today. Eager to learn more, he moved to the United States where, alongside qualifying as a sailor for the Olympic Games, Jensen continued to work on a bewildering array of products for the likes of General Electric and others. In 1958, Jensen returned to Denmark, ready to set up his own company: Jacob Jensen Design. The studio is still actively running today under the helm of Jacob's son. Soon thereafter, Jensen and Bang & Olufsen crossed paths, and the rest is history, as they say.
Jensen’s first complete product for Bang & Olufsen was the Beomaster 5000 tuner and amplifier, released in 1967. Jensen credited Bang & Olufsen's Roderik Madsen for the vision in taking on a revolutionary new design. As Jensen put it, “I think this is probably one of the fantastic things about Bang & Olufsen that they saw a possibility to get away from everybody else. The spirit of Bang & Olufsen is that they say, ‘we like it, we believe it, we will do it anyway, we will take the chance and do it.”
“If we had made a compromise, Bang & Olufsen wouldn’t exist. It’s as simple as that.”
This spirit of innovation and experimentation only grew deeper as Jensen's partnership with his fellow Bang & Olufsen designers and engineers evolved. Together, they created landmark Bang & Olufsen designs that challenged the domination of the multinational corporations they found themselves competing with. With every new Jensen product came a story of collaboration and creativity: the Beogram 4000 turntable with its revolutionary twin arms, designed in the home basement of aero engineer, Karl Gustav Zuethen. Or the Beocenter 9000, which went through nearly 80 conceptual designs before its final incarnation. His U70 headphones, meanwhile, were the company's first. They, along with 27 other of his Bang & Olufsen designs, were included in a 1978 exhibition at New York's MoMA, “Design For Sound”. Reviewing the show, The New York Times wrote that the objects displayed “are enough to earn him major rank among the 20th century’s industrial designers.”
They zig, we zag
Throughout his career, Jensen worked to a philosophy of constantly testing the limits of materials and technology. He defined his design philosophy as “Different but not strange.” Jensen also designed hundreds of products outside of Bang & Olufsen. His watches, made from high-spec titanium with simple faces and rubber straps, remain bestsellers to this day.
Over and Over
All his designs were made from his unique understanding of the designer's struggle. As Jensen once explained, “Constructing a fountain pen, writing a poem, producing a play or designing a locomotive, all demand the same components, the same ingredients: perspective, creativity, new ideas, understanding and first and foremost, the ability to rework, almost infinitely, over and over. That ‘over and over’ is for me the cruellest torture.”
Those years of designing hundreds of products for home use gave Jensen the core aesthetic nous that, unleashed by the open-minded policies of Bang & Olufsen, were able to realise designs still in use today by simple re-imaginings of the basic form. His speaker designs, such as the Beolab 5000 cubes, took the most elemental forms of design and through simple twists created new forms, and anticipated the Bang&Olufsen portable Bluetooth speakers that are market leaders today. Jensen understood that just as sound from B&O products fill the room, the devices from which the audio emanates are a fixtures of a space that ought to look as beautiful as any other item.
After 234 products and 27 years with Bang & Olufsen, Jensen retired in 1989 and returned to his lifelong love of sailing. In the mid-90s , he reflected on what had made this collaboration such a fruitful one. “If we had made a compromise of giving up, Bang & Olufsen wouldn't exist,” he said. “It is as simple as that.” Jacob Jensen passed away in 2015.