For Per Brickstad and Martin Willers, it all started with a speaker. While running a design bureau, they popped up an idea for a transparent speaker on their blog, which quickly whipped up a lot of buzz, led to the speaker actually being made and them eventually starting a company, Transparent Sound, full-time. Their philosophy is pitched towards creating products that are sustainably made and built to last, which has been their inspiration for their most recent product, the Upcrafted speaker. Made in wood, stone and steel, the speakers are crafted in collaboration with Dry Studios, ceramicist Hortense Montarnal and smith Jonas Majors. We caught up with Brickstad and Willers to talk about their speakers, as well as their ideas about modern production and consumption.
Let’s start from the beginning, how did you guys get started with Transparent Sound? Because this used to be a different company under a different name, right?
Per: Correct. We had a design studio for eight years, called People People. It was started by four friends, designers. We did a bunch of side-projects, furniture, appliances, consumer electronics and so on. We did a lot of side-projects on our blog too, where we talked about how the industry should do things and interesting concepts, basically. We had our own creative ambitions. Three of us had worked for Nokia, and we were held back creatively by this big organisation, so we quit. We couldn’t do sustainable innovation, it was too progressive for them. Then we worked as a consultancy, we actually started out calling ourselves Sustainability And Design Agency. But it was very hard to convince the design buyers to actually focus on those things. And everyone was sort of wasting the opportunities that design thinking could offer. The possibilities basically. So we decided to write about it on our own blog, and this was one of them. The Transparent Speaker was first put up on our blog in 2011. It was this whole idea about taking the transparency, which is supposed to make the speaker blend into where it’s placed, to be interior-design friendly. To make a speaker have rich bass, you need a lot of air, so big volume. When you make it transparent, you get a lot of volume, without the huge visual clutter in your living room. This whole idea about upgradability and long-lasting technology, and a life cycle perspective on construction and design was a big part of that initial design studio as well. So we put it up on the blog, and it went sort of viral, on all these Tumblr blogs. Basically, people were begging us to put it on Kickstarter, so we did and it was a successful campaign. So for years we had that speaker as a side-project with a web shop, people were buying it, and we allowed shops to buy it from us, but we didn’t have a strong focus on the brand or strategy. It was a side-project. So a year ago, we separated from the design studio and Martin and I started fully dedicating ourselves to this brand. So going from Transparent Speaker, the side-project, to Transparent Sound, the brand, which now has a lot of products and ambitions.
If we talk about your philosophy, it’s for sustainable products. Which means in practise that all the parts are replaceable. So can you expand on that? You mentioned moving towards a ‘sustainable closed-loop system’, what exactly does that mean?
Per: It means that things will not end up in landfill and pollute nature. That’s the ultimate goal. And it means that the raw material used in manufacturing will ultimately come from renewable sources as well. We’re working towards that target. Aluminium and glass, which are the main materials for the speaker, have great available sources for recycled material, and are also very efficient to make into new materials. It’s a journey that will take a while, all the components in our speakers will have to be considered for this vision to come true. But I think it’s important to start talking about it, these broken systems. We believe that consumer culture today is broken. The industry is pushing out new products, which stop working after a short time, you have to buy a new thing, and that’s the model we think is broken.
Products are designed to be replaced rather than repaired?
Per: Planned obsolescence. Yes, it’s devastating I think, not just for the planet. We don’t think there is necessarily a conflict of interest between consumers, companies and the planet. We think there’s no compromise between excitement about a product and sustainability. It’s like when you go to any good restaurant these days, you can have a fantastic meal of vegetarian food.
If we look at the speaker, the characteristics of it are that it comes from sustainable materials, and it’s designed to essentially last forever because you can replace every part of it. So let’s talk about the process of how it’s made. From start to finish, how does this speaker come to life, from idea to how it’s made?
Per: For us, the idea is the result of understanding people. Trying to understand the context of the actual product we want to do. We try to consider decoration. Everyone knows that technology and interior design is a contradiction, there’s a war between cables and messy, tech-y stuff and people’s nicely decorated homes. So the idea itself has to be the result of many areas, the more parameters we can include in one solution, the more innovative the idea itself will become.
So how long is the design process then?
Per: The design process is about building prototypes. Building and building and failing and failing, and rethinking and rethinking and testing and testing. Even now, we’re testing and evaluating things about the design for this product (the Transparent Speaker) and solving problems along the way. And staying true to the idea of a design through manufacturing something is a very long process. The first sketch is quite important, keeping that visualisation is important, 90% of the time you’re keeping that vision through the manufacturing process.
So how does the manufacturing process work then? I presume first you source the materials, so you have to find a sustainable supplier of aluminium or whatever?
Per: We don’t actually source the materials ourselves.
The manufacturer does that?
Per: Yes. So we travelling around to a lot of factories, evaluating working conditions and so on. It’s a process of finding the right manufacturer. It’s the only way we, as a small team, can reach the global audience we want. We need to work with contract manufacturers that have a turnkey ability to do everything, from sourcing to construction to audio monitoring and acoustic engineering to assembly to shipping to certification. There’s a lot of things involved in making a consumer product. There’s tonnes of details and processes regarding quality. It’s quite exciting, because today we have all these tools at hand, Kickstarer as a launch platform, Shopify or Tictail as a distributor. So we can run a business where we have a global audience with a very small team. We have a manufacturing partner that understands our brand and situation, that we have high quality products for what is currently a small market. We can order as few as a thousand of the small speaker and five hundred of the big speaker. And it’s quite challenging to manage the funding for even orders like that. It’s the challenging part of the business.
So let’s talk about the Upcrafted speaker. Where did the idea for that come from? Because it’s a collaboration with three small-scale craftspeople, right?
Per: The idea is a combination of things. It’s an extension of trying to make the worlds of interiors and technology meet, to work together. Synergies rather than compromises. This felt like taking this idea one step further, to use handmade ceramics, forged steel and fine woodcraft. It was almost like a challenge: ‘can we make a speaker with these materials work?’. Acoustically, it was a little unknown if it would work at all.
Because I guess that’s something you might not think of. That wood, steel and stone are going to have strange effects on the acoustics? So I’m guessing you got in touch with the three craft studios and pitched the idea?
Per: Yes. And we made some prototypes and we figured out that the sound is not actually compromised at all. It gets slightly different characters in a way I can’t quite describe. The wood one sounds warmer, if I’m not imagining it. It’s funny, one of the most important aspects of a speaker cabinet is that it doesn’t vibrate in itself. Because the more a cabinet vibrates, the more energy you lose, which could have otherwise gone to making the drivers vibrate. So with the steel for example, it’s so solid that all the power just goes through the woofer, so you get this great bass. The power of that acoustic platform is really manifested in that product, the expression is raw power in a way. I really like that one.
How long does it take to manufacture one of them?
Per: It takes a while. We wrote on the website, ‘made to order, delivery within eight weeks’. Since they’re made by hand, there’s a lot of work. You have to order the raw material, book a slot in their workshop that suits their schedule, and then they have to hand-make everything.
So I guess they take in the electronic aspects from the factory and then they handcraft the body?
Per: Yes, we supply the components. We made the drawings collaboratively with them [the craftspeople], so it would be easy to add the components. When we make a wood speaker now it’s easy to assemble the drivers.
Why is it important that a speaker looks good, and what are the aesthetic qualities a speaker should have?
Per: From my point of view, an object that clearly communicates what it is, to a viewer, creates an instant relationship with someone. That’s a principle of design we very much work with. With the Transparent Speaker, we wanted to take away everything that could disturb the appearance of these iconic elements.
All the visual noise?
Per: Yeah, take away everything unnecessary and just emphasise these iconic elements, that are already in people’s minds, that people already have a reference to. Those sound-creating drivers. I think it’s just beautiful to celebrate them, to see when they vibrate where the actual sound is coming from. It creates an extra element to a speaker, it’s not just the audio. Seeing where the sound comes from, almost like a musical instrument. The normal way of doing it in the speaker industry is to hide it, but from my point of view, trying to make products talk about what they are visually, a loudspeaker should look and behave like a sound-producing device. So we put a lot of effort into simplifying the actual elements. A lot of decluttering. There’s always going to be a bit of clutter, as components are functional parts, so there are some demands on how they have to look. But it’s all unicolour. The screws are a standard part, we selected our own colour and finish and so on. Because they’re very visible, we have to be very detailed. And that’s one of the reasons the Upcrafted collection works in my opinion. We have already put so much effort into making these things look nice, and sound nice, so when we place them in other materials it works.
What are some of the challenges of working the way you do, in this sustainable, methodically, sometimes hand-crafted way?
Per: There are a lot of challenges. A lot of challenges in being a small company with limited funds. Making hardware is very expensive. So placing orders, selling speakers and being picky, we only sell in 20 carefully-selected retailers or showrooms around Europe. So balancing this design aspiration with a business perspective is challenging, because if we just tried to sell a big bunch of speakers to Elgiganten or whatever…well, they wouldn’t be interested anyway, and even if we could, it wouldn’t be long-term sustainable for our brand. Sustainability is also about staying true to our values. And actually, we don’t mind growing a bit slowly. It’s like with Patagonia, they tried to grow as slowly as they could. Things that grow slowly keep going, but things that rise fast crash, especially with all this VC money around. You become an expensive machinery, and then when something fails you run out of money to pay for that machinery and you fail super fast.
That’s not a sustainable model?
Per: It’s not. And it only exists to satisfy one group, shareholders. So a slower growth model is healthy. But I think one of the challenges of doing a sustainable brand is that we’re also not perfect yet. Usually, companies are afraid to talk about these topics [sustainability], because they’re not perfect, so they don’t talk about it at all. Or they talk about it, and then get a lot of shit from the media of and people, because they’re not 100% sustainable. And then, they’re so ashamed of it and look terrible. What we’re trying to do is a more consensus-driven discussion. This is a broken industry, and we all have to make more long-term and sustainable business models. And we know we’re not going to be perfect from day one, but we have to work in the right direction to get to the point where the system is not broken anymore. We’re taking many important steps towards that, but we’re not there yet. It’s always going to be a journey. I think the most important thing is to have that ambition and seek constant improvement. If everyone tries, and we stop throwing rocks at the people trying, then we can turn the conversation towards ‘less bad’, which leads to more good. A shift in rhetoric is something desperately needed. Because right now you look at headlines and get depressed, and nothing good comes from that depression. Being inspired by action, just like Greta Thunberg and her environmental strike. She’s doing something, and her take is ‘action leads to hope’. So do whatever you can, and talk about that. And think that connects to our approach. We’re far from perfect, but we want to have the conversation. We want people to criticise our attempts, because that might lead to dialogue and better solutions.
As a final question: outside of just a sustainability thing, should we treat the products we use with more respect, and place more value on them in general? Should we have a better relationship with the things we use?
Martin: I think longevity in a product leads to relationship time. The stuff you have for ten years is very hard to throw away. We have a very strong relationship to our built environment as urbanites, most people live in cities in small shoeboxes painted white, and what we put in that canvas becomes part of ourselves. I don’t think we recognise that enough. I think we fill it with too much plastic and too much stuff that doesn’t reflect our yearning for nature, the medicine of natural environments. So I think absolutely we need to think about that more. I think it’s part of our unhealthy society, we’ve increased stress and unhealthy mental states, especially for the youth. If the environment we live in can be a more positive reflection of our values, I think that’s very important. One hundred years ago we went to church to get our values. Now our homes are the centres of gravity of our values, but there’s not the same level of ambition in expressing those values. Maybe fifty years ago you showed your income with your car. That indicator is also gone now, you show your income with your home. And it’s very unsustainable to refurbish a kitchen, most of that stuff doesn’t need to go. And when you refurbish, are you thinking about colours and fashion or are you thinking about your grandchildren? And I think most people don’t think about their grandchildren, they think about status only. So I hope we can go to a place where we have more long-term values. We want to be part of that, to be something more materialistically sustainable, in terms of materials that will last as long as your stove or stone bench will. Average five-year-olds have over 500 toys, not counting single Lego pieces. Is that good for a kid or bad? Do we maybe need a higher level of editing in what we’re giving to our kids? I do believe we need that. Do things need to be new, to smell of new plastic from China? Or could they be bought second-hand? I think these questions are obvious. Everyone knows the answers, but we are not there yet. We’re too run by the old capitalism of consumerism. That’s our new church, and we haven’t found another one yet. So we want to be part of a dialogue, about how should this new value system look.
The Transparent Speaker and Upcrafted speakers are available from eu.transparentspeaker.com
Main Photo: Martin Willers and Per Brickstad by Hanna Bergström