Founded in November of 1925, Bang & Olufsen is now 91 years old and one of the most respected names in the world of home electronics. This Danish company has boutiques selling its prestigious hardware all across the globe, serving mostly a clientele that doesn’t blink at four- and five-figure prices for speakers and wall-sized TVs. But its beginnings were nowhere near as glamorous or luxurious, as I found out on a recent visit to the Bang & Olufsen museum in Struer, Denmark. The B&O we know today got its start as a collaboration between two young men, only instead of the now clichéd garage, they used a farmhouse attic as their initial base of operations. And before all the glorious TVs and exotic speakers, it all started with the design and production of radios.
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The very earliest Bang & Olufsen product was actually a component rather than a full-fledged radio. The Eliminator, as it was called, made batteries unnecessary and allowed you to plug your radio directly into the mains. A couple of years after the Eliminator’s introduction, Peter Bang and Svend Olufsen moved their work out of the Olufsen family farm and into a factory in the nearby town of Struer in northwest Denmark. This is where the main B&O manufacturing facilities remain to this day.
In terms of their design inspiration, these first B&O radios were like the original skeuomorphic iPhone OS of their time. They adapted the styling of familiar pieces of home furniture to their technological purposes.
The thing my 21st century mind can’t get over is the level of detailing and ornamentation to all the knobs and surfaces. Using one of these classic radios will have been a tactile as well as an auditory experience. Imagine the contrasting sensations of the subtle wood grain followed by the coarse texture surrounding the knobs. And, seriously, who wouldn’t want to adjust their music equipment using what looks like a combination lock for a safe?
First used in 1932, the iconic B&O logo was created by a local Danish painter, who sold it to Svend Olufsen, the more business-minded of the two founders, for 10 kroner. That would have been worth more at the time than the current $1.50, but with hindsight we can all agree that it was a terrific bargain. Bang & Olufsen quickly branched out from radios, and the company’s museum is scattered with every variety of music playback device, with the logo here being exhibited on one of its gramophones.
And yet, radios did dominate the first half of B&O history, with this austere 1934 model — the Hyperbo — featuring a more geometric Bauhaus styling as well as an integrated loudspeaker and gramophone. It did not prove as successful as its more flamboyantly designed predecessors.
I love the colors and detailing on these primordial user interfaces from Bang & Olufsen. The dense forest of city names sprawls out in a fan pattern, making unlikely frequency neighbors out of such disparate locations as Tokyo and Daventry, or Tirana and Toulouse. The materials used are still primarily hard-wearing, heavy-duty stuff: solid wood and leather with the addition of some plastic for the knobs.
Most radios were focused on integrating parts directly relevant to audio playback, but some of the larger units showed B&O going all-in on the home furniture aspect and building in an entire analog clock. Earliest example of a clock radio? Perhaps.
The Beolit radio from 1939 was the first time that Bang & Olufsen used the “Beo” prefix, which has since become a theme among its various product lines, from the ultra expensive BeoVision TVs to the more affordable BeoPlay headphones sold under the consumer brand of B&O Play today.
Among the earliest Bang & Olufsen TVs was one example that could convert into something approaching a wheelbarrow. You could pull out arms from its side and then wheel the thing in and out of the living room. Or, if you wanted to keep it stationary, it also had a wooden cover that descended down to hide the unappealing blank screen. Future evolutions saw B&O integrating radios and TVs into single-unit chunks of audiovisual furniture (still replete with covers hiding the TV), as well as TVs with wheeled stands.
Getting closer to the modern age, we see Bang & Olufsen doing hardware in more familiar and portable shapes, while still experimenting with new categories such as clothes irons.
And home phones. I don’t mind admitting that I’d love to have one of these even today. Every call I receive would be imbued with an extra sense of urgency and importance because of the phone’s color.
A reminder that, once upon a time, rewinding a tape was a literal rather than figurative action.
Bang & Olufsen also did CD players, which were of course some of the fanciest and most ostentatious CD players in the world. There was once a time when having a six-CD changer hanging on your wall was the ultimate status symbol.
Now better known for its speakers, B&O also had a few of those to exhibit, though I could tell they were the least thrilling thing for the company’s own employees to discuss. This is a museum, after all, and the modern speakers are only really interesting in their cutaway form, with all their internal complexities laid bare. Maybe they’ll gain character and curiosity over time, just as B&O’s earlier products did, or maybe this lack of excitement is an indictment of the impersonal, overly functional designs of the present era.
One of the amusing aspects of the tour was hearing Bang & Olufsen humble-bragging about Steve Jobs’ fandom of its products. Before Apple made all-aluminum construction the trendy thing in mainstream consumer electronics, B&O will tell you that it first pioneered the use of the metal in high-end design. Two of the pieces at the museum are especially called out as being the same model as those Jobs had in his home, and he has previously spoken of his admiration for B&O products. There have also been first-hand accounts about the inspiration Apple drew from Bang & Olufsen when designing the original iPod.
Between that red phone, this TV, and that nostalgia-inducing black rectangle of a radio, I find myself questioning why Bang & Olufsen doesn’t repurpose more of its old designs for newer functions. I know I’m not alone in my longing for the tactility of those initial radios from the 1930s. Granted, they’re heavier and far less portable than we have now, but they also have a charm that modern tech often lacks.
One answer to my query might lie in Bang & Olufsen’s unconventional approach to design. The company prefers hiring external designers as consultants on a per-product basis, operating on the principle that outsiders — through their ignorance of the company’s manufacturing limitations — would push it to greater heights by being more ambitious than an in-house designer might be. That’s been the B&O way since the middle of the 20th century, and the company’s long string of successful and influential products would appear to confirm there’s wisdom in its eccentricity.
The gargantuan BeoLab 90, Bang & Olufsen’s $90,000 flagship pair of home speakers, greets visitors upon their arrival to and departure from the museum. Well, $45,000 worth of the BeoLab 90, anyway — it’s only one of the two speakers, stripped of its cloth covers to reveal a multidirectional array of drivers, woofers, and tweeters. I heard the BeoLab 90 when it was first introduced in 2015, and it remains a benchmark setter worthy of its role as a celebration of B&O’s first 90 years — and hopefully a harbinger of what’s to come over the next 90.
Photography by Vlad Savov / The Verge