Formed in 2005 by David Eriksson, Jens Rudberg and Jesper Kouthoofd, Teenage Engineering is far from your average production company, writes Eliza Williams. In fact Eriksson, ceo at te, hesitates to describe them in those terms, and on their Facebook page you’ll instead find them defined as a ‘studio for future commercial products, and communication’. Yet their connections to the worlds of both digital (the trio first worked together as the company Netbaby World, an online gaming community, in the late 90s) and advertising (Kouthoofd was one of the four founders of the Acne communications agency in Sweden) mean they regularly get requests to create film work and interactive campaigns for brands. In addition to this, they work on their own design projects, which have resulted in an eclectic range of objects, including a lighting system, electric bike and portable synthesiser.
Occasionally, all of Teenage Engineering’s skills are brought together within one project. The biggest so far of these was on Absolut Machines for the Swedish vodka brand which encouraged web visitors to make music with two ‘artificially creative’ machines. Teenage Engineering created the Absolut Choir for the project – a group of ten wooden figures. Online, users could submit words to the Choir which were then translated into a musical composition and lyrics and ‘sung’ by the figures. The type of music generated depended on the length and nature of the words submitted. It was also exhibited as a physical art installation.
What made Absolut Choir especially charming was its mixture of complex technology with the traditional-looking wooden figures. “We saw a couple of the other pitches for the Absolut Machines project and everything was touchscreens, led displays, and other new media art technology,” says David Eriksson. “It was a reaction to that, to make it old and classic. It was classical choir music. There is still a lot of technology inside those characters but there were so many cool 3D collections already, we wanted to do something more old-fashioned.”
While much of Teenage Engineering’s other work tends more towards the high-tech, the hands-on approach of Absolut Choir, for which TE made all the wooden figures themselves, remains evident in their other designs. Virtually everything they make is designed and built in-house, from props for their film shoots to prototypes for their design products. “I don’t think there are that many production companies, if we can call ourselves that, who actually build their own props,” says Eriksson. “We have a 3D prototyping machine, we have a laser-cutting system, we have a full woodwork studio, we can do paint jobs in our studio, we can do welding…. Over the years we’ve built up a big workshop where we can actually do stuff in-house, with equipment that would have cost huge amounts to hire.”
Music is also integral to all Teenage Engineering projects. “If we’re doing a commercial or it’s an online application or an iPhone application, it’s going to have very polished and well-done sound effects and music,” says Eriksson. “I think that’s where we spend that extra effort.” Their love of music also led to the decision to design a new synthesiser, which they are in the process of completing after two-and-a-half years of work. “The main thing is that it’s really small,” says Ericksson of the synth.
“It fits in a laptop bag, you can bring it anywhere. It’s got a built-in microphone and speaker, and has laptop type batteries so you can use it on the train or aeroplane or on the sofa, you know, play around with it.”
For projects like the synthesiser, TE has started to design products on an industrial level. “We use CAD 3D software because it’s so much closer to manufacturing,” says Eriksson. “At the start we outsourced that part but now we realise it’s so much more efficient to do it in-house.”
If it seems difficult to reconcile all the different types of projects that Teenage Engineering do, it’s this attitude of playfulness and experimentation that unites them. Even their name is borne out of their pragmatic approach to design – it refers to the time when, in their own teenage years, they would play around with early computer programming to see what could be created. While the sophistication of the current gaming market might make this almost unimaginable to 21st century teens, most of the early digital pioneers were building their own computers and formulating their own programming code to make both computer games and music.
These early experiments clearly taught Teenage Engineering not to be afraid to play with both ideas and technology, an ethos they continue to embrace today. As they triumphantly proclaim, despite the ‘engineering’ part of their moniker, none of them can claim to be ‘professionals’. “None of us have Masters or PhDs in electronics or anything, we’re self-taught,” says Eriksson. “But there are no rules that say you can’t call yourself an engineer.”