Bang & Olufsen home entertainment systems have always been designed to stand out rather than simply blend in. Meet the man who made B&O a byword for intelligent user interface, distinguished British designer David Lewis. By Theresa Valbæk
“What drives me is the sense of irritation I get when something doesn’t work. I simply can’t stand when things don’t work properly. Design shouldn’t just look good, it should also work the way it was intended to.” David Lewis reaches for his coffee mug. Grey-maned and wearing casual dark attire and discreetly modern eyewear, he comes across as a very engaging and sympathetic person. He continues: “It can keep me preoccupied for hours. Problems keep revolving in my mind until I find a solution. That’s just the way I am; I can’t help it.” The 66-year-old industrial designer looks around at his designs showcased at the Bang & Olufsen store on Kongens Nytorv in Copenhagen. He points to a loudspeaker hanging on the wall: “Take that loudspeaker, for instance. It’s designed to sit in a bookcase and provide high-fidelity acoustics despite being surrounded by books. Everything has to be balanced.”
Pencil and paper
David Lewis first joined Danish hi-fi systems producer Bang & Olufsen almost 35 years ago as a freelance designer. Now he is the company’s chief designer and the man behind such icons of international design as the BeoSound 4000 (in Europe known as BeoSound Ouverture). Its sleek sliding panels soon became a defining feature of the B&O brand. Another of David Lewis’ instantly recognisable products is the pencil-shaped BeoLab 8000 loudspeaker, which was the first such object to be recognised as an international trademark on the basis of its design alone. David Lewis and his staff of seven at his Copenhagen design studio constantly strive to achieve the ultimate in design. “When I am given a commission or get an idea, I dig down and start thinking. I can sit and gaze out the window by my desk for ages while I wrack my brain. What should it be capable of doing? What should the dimensions be? Finally, I start sketching with pencil and paper and the product starts to take shape,” David Lewis explains. Despite having all the necessary design software at his fingertips, sketching and model-making are still his preferred methods, and for each final product he creates hundreds of drafts. “We keep changing them. We make numerous models for weeks on end – all with their own little modification. In fact, we continue for months until we reach the result we’re looking for.”
Always on the go
As a young man, David Lewis was sent out by his father, who was also a designer, to work in a furniture factory far from his childhood home in London. He soon realised that his future would lie in conceiving designs rather than merely producing them. Lewis then applied to enter the furniture design department of the Central School of Art and Design in London, but with classrooms fully booked be was instead transferred to the Department for Industrial Design from which he graduated in 1960. He has enjoyed a highly active career ever since and retirement is definitely not in his vocabulary: “I’ll keep going because I am fortunate enough to have a free hand in my work. Not many designers can say that. This is quite unique to my relationship with B&O and much of the reason for our joint success.” David Lewis came to Denmark in the early 1960s. He met his Danish wife Marianne in London where she was working as an au pair and moved back to Denmark with her. Shortly after, he received his first freelance assignments for B&O. “I still meet people who can remember many of my old products. It’s rewarding to learn that my products have made such an impact on people’s lives, and I still come across people who use B&O TVs from 1986. I like the fact that the things I design are so durable and that they please people in such a way that they want to take good care of them.”
David Lewis believes that his strength lies in his professional dedication to finding solutions to even the smallest of design problems combined with his knack for taking a whole fresh look at things. “That’s what art is about: adopting a new approach. Sometimes the right solution comes from turning things on their head, quite literally, and starting all over again with the design process.” David Lewis often finds inspiration at the many art galleries in the area around Store Kongensgade where his studio is located. “I really enjoy browsing around looking at all the magnificent art. I also sometimes walk around and visit our stores and speak with the dealers about the new products.” Despite his awe-inspiring design portfolio and numerous design awards there are still things David Lewis dreams of accomplishing, but he won’t disclose exactly what: “These are ideas that I have not yet had the chance to give life but which I have not given up trying out some day,” he says with a smile. In November 2001, David Lewis was appointed Royal Designer for Industry by the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. In 2002, he received the Danish royal honour the Insignia of a Knight of the Order of Dannebrog for his valuable work for Danish industrial design.