Published 26 October 2011
With a 20-week production lead time, comprising over 7000 engineering hours, six components suppliers and manufacturing across four international time zones, the Æ+Y mobile phone project proves that designing longevity takes time.
Taking on that challenge is Æsir Copenhagen, a young design-focused mobile phone company based in Denmark’s capital city.
Aesir Copenhagen: The Cost of Luxury
Founded in 2007 by Thomas Møller Jensen, Æsir Copenhagen was set up in response to a newspaper article that questioned why no one had succeeded in bringing a strong industrial led design to the mobile handset market. Aiming to collaborate with carefully selected designers, Jensen’s focus lies in rethinking mobile phone design by allowing complete creative freedom first and tackling manufacturing issues later.
Eschewing whizzy apps and mobile software technology, Jensen is reported to have labelled Æsir’s first handset, the Æ+Y, an “anti smartphone” due to its lack of internet capabilities. The handset can only make calls and send texts – the focus is on material exploration and problem solving.
The Æ+Y was launched by Æsir in 2011 designed by Yves Béhar. Founder of San Francisco-based multi-disciplinary design agency Fuseproject, Behar has pushed the boundaries in industrial design. He has won numerous awards such as Brit Insurance Design of the Year in 2008 for his inclusive design One Laptop Per Child and most recently the 2011 IDEA award for Jawbone Jambox speakers.
To commission such a game changing, hi-tech designer to design a product with a focus on the basic and fundamental is, perhaps, an odd choice. However, for Jensen it was an obvious choice, due to Béhar’s “understanding of technology, his humanistic approach and his emphasis on storytelling through design,” he says.
With a desire to connect people to technology in a simple way, Béhar says: “With the Æsir phone, I wanted to show an alternative to the sea of smartphones and their deluge of features. In an age when the industry seems to think that phones aren’t for speaking anymore, I wanted to focus on the idea of voice, clarity and simplicity.”
So where in this subtle, pared down, seemingly backward version of a mobile phone does the technology lie? It’s all in the detail.
With a ‘less is more’ approach, the product had to be beautiful, super durable and above all function brilliantly, the designers contend. Taken back to grass roots, everything including the font to the way the keys are set to bespoke ring tones were re-evaluated – creating an entirely “new visual, audio and tactile world for consumers,” says Jensen.
The phone itself is unashamedly luxurious. Working with manufacturers who supply components to some of the world’s most sought-after French and Swiss luxury watch brands, the metal work is in gold and stainless steel. The sapphire crystal glass, has a patented ultra-resilient coating that has been developed to produce a display with high clarity and the Dutch-made ceramic casing has been created for the Æ+Y to deliver a highly durable, scratch-resistant, high-gloss finish.
The interface was designed in collaboration with the London-based Tom Hingston Studio to create a custom font and bespoke icons, plus specially commissioned ringtones by Danish- Vietnamese musician Chris Minh Doky.
Where Æsir is pushing technology forwards is in its refusal to compromise on materials and construction. Finding manufacturers who are up to the challenge can sometimes be difficult, says Jensen. “For each phone, we will start the problem-solving process from scratch – that is, we will take each individual design and determine what it requires.” Then the challenge begins.
Another problem faced is the small runs in which the handset is created. Working with specialist technicians, it can sometimes be difficult to “access to some of the quality phone technology parts we required as our order sizes are so small that they are not always of interest to some of the suppliers.” But as a result they can take advantage of working “with the best niche manufacturers and artisan-like suppliers, who do not have the capacity to work with larger companies,” Jensen comments.
With luxury comes a price tag – €7,250 for the stainless steel model or a considerable €42,000 for the gold version. The product’s appeal lies in its quality and simplicity, for those niche customers who are seeking a simple existence where they are not constantly drawn into the internet cloud. At the same time, the small production runs keep the phone exclusive.
The phone is designed with longevity in mind. Æ+Y “is built to be serviced and kept, rather than replaced,” says Jensen. The service – offered every two years – requires the 20 delicate external screws that hold the case together, to be removed before parts can be checked or replaced. Ultimately this phone is aimed at people who appreciate the process and the craft.
Æsir Copenhagen aims to produce a new phone model every two years, intending to work each time with a different designer, who will present new challenges. The next, as yet unnamed, designer is already signed and Æsir Copenhagen is already assembling what Jensen describes as “a bespoke team of technicians, engineers, craftsmen and material specialists to bring each design to life”.