The founder of Teenage Engineering opens up to his creative space
Jesper Kouthoofd envisioned living in a one-room apartment without any money. But life wanted something different for the Swedish ad-man and founder of music-tech company Teenage Engineering. We were granted an exclusive audience in Kouthoofd’s 18th-century house in Stockholm.
Photography KIMBERLY IHRE Words ILENIA MARTINI
In the centre of Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s old town, surprisingly close to the Royal Palace, between charming narrow cobbled streets, stands a beautiful 18th-century building echoing the vision of a classic, elegant Scandinavian architecture. Stepping in Jesper Kouthoofd’s glorious four-metre ceiling height, light-filled apartment, housing large-scale original affresco paintings covering wall after wall, I see a luscious universe with an eclectic colour palette filled with artworks, books, iconic references to the masters of industrial design and, gently taking over like a statement centrepiece, instruments and audio equipment growing into the space in the form of a home studio. Between the apartment’s original features, blending in unpretentiously, some awe-inspiring design objects from Joe Colombo, Virgil Abloh and Arne Jacobsen. Overall, this vast space resembles a symphony produced by an orchestra rather than a flat note. Observing the contrast of bold colours, I think, ”how fitting geometry and organic shapes blend into a recurring home theme.”
Today, living there with his wife and two children, Jesper Kouthoofd, who is not only the co-founder and CEO of Teenage Engineering, the leading Swedish consumer electronics brand, internationally renowned for beautifully designed audio products, but also an exceptionally creative individual brilliant at recognizing the vibrancy of the ebbs and flow of life, turning them into unexpected connections between ordinary things and creative ideas. I had met Jesper a few years back in 2017 at a presentation in Älmhult for IKEA introducing their upcoming collaboration and already back then, the fascination began with this creative entrepreneur who is able to design electronic instruments in such an effortless way that feels everything but intimidating. You know you’re onto something interesting when you are knee-deep in the research process and there’s minimal information about the founders, yet there are millions of likes and a growing number of international artists raving about Teenage Engineering’s first product — the op-1. Fans include Bon Iver, Swedish House Mafia, Thom Yorke, St. Vincent, Bonobo, Reggie Watts — believe me, the list goes on. Although Jesper has had plenty of experience being the spokesperson for the brand, you can understand that I felt intimidated yet extremely curious about his personality and professional background — thankfully we share a love for Italian design which broke the ice as we sat down in his kitchen and started talking. I immediately felt as if for Jesper it’s less about doing more than about doing things more creatively.
With all your creative endeavours I can’t help but feel that you can’t sit still.
— Basically. I really like to learn new things, the learning process fascinates me. I want to understand how the world works, so I go from area to area and then I try to make connections. What I have learned is that many things are basically the same in different disciplines. So if you work with fashion or design or filmmaking, or even banking, you know, it’s basically the same principles that have a different shape, but if you’ve moved from one to another, then you start to see the pattern. Everything I do is some kind of experiment and I’ve been surprised many times that if you have the will to try things, chances are that it works.
Are you still experimenting nowadays?
— In the situation I’m in now, I’m more looking towards collecting. I think this pandemic was a great opportunity to go back and experience things again. So this has almost been a sabbatical year for me. It’s been more about learning new things. More of an input process instead of an output process.
Have you always had the same approach?
— When I was ten I decided what I wanted to do. My father was an architect so I basically grew up under his drawing desk and I promised myself that I wanted to experiment with things, so I failed a lot. I’ve done a lot of bad designs just to explore, whilst I kept looking up to him, although I saw him struggle. He was Dutch, raised in Jakarta and coming from Holland to Sweden was much much harder for him back then but going back to Holland wasn’t an option because that was even worse.
Have you spent any time in Holland?
— I spent a lot of time in Holland. There is a very different attitude and mentality compared to Sweden which has helped me a lot throughout life. Overall they are much more straightforward and ironic; I can feel that I have taken that attitude from my family where I don’t give a fuck, I just do what I want.
— I remember when I was young when we went to Holland to see family friends, and what people did with their apartments looked upside down compared to Swedish architecture. It felt crazy but also amazing to see what good design really can be and you don’t see that in Sweden. I’m actually impressed when some Swedish friends can do great work because they have been fed with this bad kind of boring grey socialistic approach where everything looks the same. Just look at the colours. Everything is brown or beige. I feel so lucky to have had a father with great taste.
Did you experiment outside of traditional Swedish structure when growing up?
— I grew up in a suburb outside of Gothenburg, a small village with a very strong and traditional Swedish mentality where you shouldn’t think that you can do anything. You stay there for the rest of your life, probably work in the local industry like everybody else does but luckily my parents were different. They taught me that you don’t have to be in the system, but you can create your own, so I feel like I’m more like an English sheepdog or better, the director of my own fancy. I maintained the same attitude growing up, and I continue to do so, always trying to push people to be brave and do the things they want to do, just like my mentors did with me.
Do you maintain that same attitude towards risk and creativity nowadays?
— Right after school I started my own business in Gothenburg where I designed record slips. Following that, I moved to Stockholm to work in the advertising world until I was 25. I then started my first company, Acne. At that point, I had been so involved in everything I’ve ever done that I felt almost broken. At Teenage Engineering now we are about 60 and I understand that if you are involved in every little part of the business, it destroys you. So a few years ago I started to rebuild the organisation to essentially shoot me out of daily operations so now I can work on my own projects, and try to stay focused on the things I want to do.
How has that rebuilding process been?
— I try not to share a vision but work on what may inspire people and teach them values to live a life they are happy with. If you’re not happy working with a specific subject, experiment, do something else, that’s why a lot of people in our company have moved within the organisation. I’m always pushing people to find a way to be happier going to work. And I’ve always questioned why people have hobbies, why can’t life just be one entity, why do you have to separate family from work? It’s very common that you go to work doing something you don’t like, that’s why you need to have hobbies as a substitute to make you happy.
You are questioning the way we work, by doing so are you creating your standard?
— I am, I think that’s the only way for me to survive. I have understood that I have to work in my own way. In the past it has been so much stress for me, trying to work in the traditional way and ultimately I ended up creating the kind of companies I wanted to work in, for the people like me who couldn’t fit in any other organisation.
How has that freedom translated into your products?
— We only want to make great products and when you don’t focus only on making money and have reached a certain level, everything becomes about quality. Right now, there is a certain cultural fascination with fast growth, IPOs and so on, but I want to go slow, really slow and think long-term. It takes time to do good things. You see, this cultural phenomenon of speed and growth at all costs is displayed in every startup, they all look the same, it’s like fast food: it looks good, its taste it’s consistent but then you feel horrible afterwards.
Does going slow allow you to play?
— It does! Something new we have going on is the partnership with the company Nothing that brought fresh ideas into our products. We’re having fun, we’ll do anything but don’t release everything and that’s a big difference for us. It’s very hard to build an organisation that works in so many different areas and that pushes focus, which I believe it’s a great thing and it took me a while to fully understand it, especially when it comes down to products. I find it interesting to think about what makes a product, it can be the whole experience and that is something we talk about a lot at Teenage Engineering. For example, our first product was a synth and with that, we started going to trade shows and began meeting people who were into it and started forming connections, friendships that actually turned into collaborations as well. These connections are part of that product. Every person we’ve met, every opportunity we took is because we made a decision, ten years ago, and stuck with it. I find this to be so fun and it makes life much more valuable. I really believe in sticking to your gut feeling and don’t try to be anything else if not yourself.
Did this gut feeling bring you into the music industry? How did you end up in this field?
— As you grow older you understand all the connections, but at the time when I was a child I drew a lot but also built a tonne of electronic kits and one of those kits was actually a synth. Then the teenage years came and I wanted to be an engineer but my parents pushed me to explore creative jobs instead, so you can say that this has become a bit of a revenge to work with engineers. That’s where my mindset is when I design, it’s like from an engineering perspective. I believe design is just good engineering. That’s why I tell my designers to always think like an engineer. So I set up really strict rules on how they are allowed to work. So for example, we’re only allowed to use six or eight colours in total, same with the typeface, we only write in lowercase with one font in a set of sizes that is in a system connected to a grid.
Are these limitations helping you be more creative?
— Exactly. It’s the most critical part. With any kind of creative work you start disabling as much as possible and narrow it down only to the necessary tools you need, and from there start making the work. That’s what I believe makes you super creative.
You are not applying the same structure at home.
— Absolutely not because I don’t care that much and actually we can’t do so much because of the walls being covered in affresco. But these tiles in the kitchen come from a small village somewhere in Italy. We got introduced to them by one of our daughter’s old school classmates. So it’s all about life, you meet a person and these connections bring something else. Of course, I also love Joe Colombo’s furniture and that’s because I grew up with lots of his furniture thanks to my dad. Everything design-wise that I love is German or Italian, for me it’s the perfect combination. With the passion from Italy and the set of rules from Germany, that balance is perfect. I sum it up with a way of thinking that comes from culture and that’s something you can’t learn. I love to reference other cultures and I always tell my designers that you can’t control your output, you can only control the input. That’s why it’s so important to gather inspiration, read interesting books and explore subjects outside your profession, that’s what makes you able to create interesting things in your profession. Another reason why I feed myself with engineering stuff, like manuals, learning how things work and so on.
Do you still get to do that, and spend time gathering inspiration?
— Music is always a source of inspiration, I recently watched a documentary about Conny Plank, a legendary producer who worked with Kraftwerk, Eurythmics, Ultravox and actually a friend of mine a while back called me to check out at a mixing console, which is hand-built from a guy called Michael Zähl and you can’t just buy it, you have to call the guy, that’s part of the whole process and the beauty of it is that it’s not just a mixing console, but he sees it as a musical instrument in the mixing process. In this buying process, I found out that Michael had built Conny Plank’s studio. He basically created the music style for those artists and he was in his house, with his wife and family recording and I loved seeing how everything is connected.
— I also got interested in the outdoors and bought a campervan so I’ve started going out in the woods to explore nature and now what I am working on is a system that allows you to create electronic music outdoors but let’s see what happens because the first thing you think about when going out into nature is silence and the sound of birds. But what we’ve seen is that many people take our products outdoors into the woods and start playing because they get creative. So that’s also an interesting exploration for me right now.
You have started two companies by bringing people you like together. Do you have any boundaries between your work and private life?
— I don’t have any and I also decided that I shouldn’t have any. I could be working, making music until 7 am in the morning but of course, you also have to respect other people for me, I follow the ebb and flow of my energy. I’ve had some tough years, I didn’t enjoy running a company and that’s also why I started the process of rebuilding it, so that I could do creative work again.
Creative work over revenue?
— I always planned to live in a one-room apartment without any money. I don’t want to be connected to any material stuff. I like things because it’s an experience; I can be materialistic in that way, for instance, I can buy an expensive car just to explore how it is to drive it but then for me it’s more the learning process that I like and so I don’t fear. I think that’s my only strength, I am not afraid of failing and of being poor but of course, it’s not fun. I feel like money is just a tool to do the things I like. I actually have this goal to do my best work when I’m 75. So right now I’m still learning, I’m a total novice, and when I reach that point I should be able to work on a masterpiece.
After the experience at Paradiset and Acne, did you have a very clear idea of what your next steps would be?
— It was a transformation over a couple of years and, of course, I didn’t want to start a new company so I failed on all my promises! [laughs] What I learned is that I could set up the company in a different way from what I did in the past and not be so rigid with my ideas but also hire women and people coming from different backgrounds in top positions to create a mixed and inclusive environment; that has been a very high priority at Teenage Engineering from day one and overall we hire people with a great disposition and an attitude for learning, but also with a good personality because we end up spending a lot of time together, especially when we used to also travel a lot together. Although I think that globally, the whole working day and night, workaholic-approach is changing, it’s no longer cool to only care about work.
Where do you draw the line and know when to stop?
— I don’t stop, I bring the family into the process, as much as I can when I travel. When our daughter Ivana was little I brought her with me into meetings, on film sets, and when that happened in the u.s. back then I could see such a big difference in approaches, where culturally, perhaps they never experienced something like it, having a kid in a meeting sitting in the background colouring with pen and paper, so it was a learning experience for each other for sure.
Have you modelled your entrepreneurial style from someone?
— [laughs] Great question. If I really like a company or a brand I try to learn everything about it and one whose approach and culture I reference often is Honda, not just because I like the motors they created, but because of how they set up their company and conquered the u.s. with an engine. Similar to that I reference Sony in the seventies or eighties, and when I get so interested then I deep dive into everything I can get my hands on. With them, I found out that they had some kind of manifesto stating their values. It goes something like ”Sony is the company where engineers’ dreams come true”. What both companies have done is split the offices in two sections, one with engineers working on products, the other with sales and finances, so that the two couldn’t interact. By doing so, there wouldn’t be decisions coming from marketing on what kind of products to push to market, the decisions came directly from the r&d departments. You can clearly notice when this approach shifted for Sony and things started to go bad, that’s when sales and marketing departments started dictating which products they thought people wanted. It’s super interesting for me to see how many successful companies had this kind of setup, where products got created from a place of passion and as soon as they start to speculate on what the market wants in order to make more money, they inevitably start to fail because all you’re looking at is the present situation, not how it’s going to be in ten years from now. But I have this kind of guideline where I look at how people spend their time and how that changes over time. Something like 20 years ago a bunch of designers and I got asked the same question, ”Which company would you like to design for?” and everyone replied more or less with the top fashion brands of that time, I started thinking about where I spent most of my time, and back then Google had started to take off so I would spend a lot of time on that search engine. That question became a guideline: where do people spend most of their time? I think the u.s. has been fantastic at seeing these kinds of patterns, in where people spend their time, how they behave and how to maximise those behaviours for profit. Realising that today tech companies in Silicon Valley hold the power is both fascinating and infuriating at the same time.
Talking about tech companies, what’s the relation between social media and Teenage Engineering?
— You can think of it in many ways. I like social connections but when there’s a hidden agenda behind it, where it starts with an inspiring service or product but the plan is to monitor your behaviour and sell that or add advertisement, I’m not on board. But what I do like is the idea that a regular guy, in his apartment in the middle of nowhere, can become a millionaire by making videos on YouTube, there’s something very democratic in that.
Do you feel like in some way the democratic approach is reflected in Teenage Engineering’s product? Did you have that in mind? The products have simplicity in them.
— The democratic side is super interesting for me. You can build that in the design, you can design to remove expectations and change the behaviour of the people who use your products. Take the film industry for instance, like many others, you need to know so many technical terms to understand the work and participate in it, so I believe you can design a product like a point-and-shoot camera that opens up the industry to a whole group of people who is not necessarily familiar with the language and doesn’t know about framing but still give access to it so you can design in a way that makes products accessible to people and that’s what I really love about us, you don’t have to be a sound engineer to use our products because we have removed all that friction. That’s been the most fun part of designing thus far.
Being Italian the concept of democracy is not very familiar.
— [laughs] That’s very Swedish and it definitely starts from how we get educated, we have to be nice, not stick out. Italians I believe are the opposite, extravagant, and loud, they put on a show that is larger than life but sometimes you just have to be your own person and do the opposite thing. I’m super interested in different cultures, making connections and learning from the differences. I know you can’t generalise cultures but I like to find out what makes them unique. A lot of the time, after I present our products I get asked the same question, what is Scandinavian design? First of all, I don’t know, I personally don’t like Scandinavian design, I find it boring and I once had a very good answer, I said something like, ”Scandinavian design is like a piece of nothing with light wood”[laughs]. A fun part of life is to discover these kinds of patterns and question what you were taught in school and make up your own mind.
Have you developed your own thoughts on your job title?
— I never set out to start companies, I see it more like putting together a band and that’s the thing we create and hopefully, we’ll be recognised for that thing that stands for good quality. It’s a metaphor that I find very close to me. I’ve worked on my own for a couple of years but I’m not the kind of creative who appreciated that long term. I have basically done the same thing over and over, I could call myself a ”serial creative”. I want to work in the same way, with the same process and find a couple of people along the way to play with.
— I noticed that a lot of the artists I’ve met are the same, and when they see that I’m basically a guy from Gothenburg, un-cool who doesn’t like the spotlight, they also open up and meet me at the same level, which is incredible and that starts this chain reaction of sorts where I get to experience so much I wouldn’t have dreamed of, like getting a phone call from Virgil Abloh, who said he wanted to come and visit us, so he came, and we just played on the synth and then a week later he said ”now I want you to come to my office” so we flew to his studio space at Louis Vuitton and showed us around. That broke my misconception that people who reach a certain level are basically not so nice. The same was when we got the call from Kanye West which I met with scepticism at first but at the end of our U.S. tour we ended up there, on his farm. It was me and two friends from the office and Kanye basically ended up having a concert for us for over an hour, and that felt so personal. Being shy it’s very hard for me to work with those people, big artists, but then you realise they are also people, they are also shy.
What do you think comes next?
— Technology coming closer and closer to your body, removing that layer of disconnection that a phone or watch still possesses. Not just from a design perspective but also from the user interface one, technology will gradually disappear and the next operating system will be a combination of your eyesight and sound. When the pendulum moves back, the next step will be physical aberration where you want to touch everything again and that’s a bit of what I’m working on. Objects that you can touch, not like a keypad, something you can actually interact with. What’s so beautiful about creating products is that saying it in a poetic way, if you have that passion it naturally starts waves and those waves connect people. Then you don’t know where it’s going to end up, anything can happen, but if you don’t do anything, if you don’t write that text, if you don’t draw that picture or design that object, you can’t expect anything to happen. You need to start that chain reaction in life.
This story was originally published in Scandinavian MIND Issue 3. Purchase your physical copy here.