While the Steve Jobs-era symbol of status was having the newest model of every phone, tablet, and computer tricked out to Tumble, Tweet, and update Facebook, the tide may be turning. Æsir Copenhagen — comprising Thomas Møller Jensen and Mathias Davidsson Rajani — in collaboration with the San Francisco–based Swiss designer Yves Béhar, present to you Æ + Y, a luxury phone of sapphire crystal and stainless steel or gold that is designed to last for at least the next 15 years. The price of the device ranges from $10,500 to $60,000, but don't expect to beat your best Angry Birds score on it; contrary to the rest of the market, this phone is limited to making calls and sending texts.
Æsir Copenhagen formed in 2007, when Jensen made it his mission to bring style to the mobile phone industry by hiring designers to create unique, high-concept products. "We act more like a gallery," He told ARTINFO. "The only thing we do as a company is guarantee that the artist we bring in is interesting, but the design is up to the designer that we choose."
Jensen and Rajani, who joined the company soon after its founding, spent a year doing marketresearch before approaching Béhar in 2008 to create sir's first phone.Béhar's background made him a logical choice: In 2007 he designed primary-school-appropriate computers for the One Laptop perChild project and in 2009 unveiled Mission One, the world's fastest electricmotorcycle. "There are other fantastic designers who make tables, furniture,lamps, et cetera, but they don’t have a lot of experience with technology," Jensensaid. Moreover, Rajani added, Béhar is "quite visionary."
Béhar's sole instruction was to create a device made of sustainable materials that had the power to last. He went to the drawing board and returned witha device that was extraordinarily simple, performing only two functions. In place of multiple applications and touchscreen, Béhar made it to point to focus squarely on sound quality, tactility, and the most durable of luxury materials.
In many ways his creation was a reaction to the current culture of constantly trading old models for newer ones, although he insists he still admires and uses everything that Apple has done for the industry. ("Steve Jobs once said, 'it's not up to the consumer to know what they want'," he told us, when we asked if his design process ever made use of focus groups).
"Over the years I've had a few opportunities to look at cellphones, and what I've found is very short-lived pieces of complextechnology that no one has really put in the time to bring to a higher level of quality," Béhar told ARTINFO. "My concept is, What if it’s a phone that is likea classic piece of furniture, one you can keep 10 or 20 years because itdoes afew things very well, because it’s built in a way that will absolutely last?"
The prototype was sleek, weighty, and costly, each luxurious feature contributing to the price. Eschewingplastics, Béhar used unbreakable sapphire crystal for the screen, seamlesslyembedded in a ceramic casing; the body comes in stainless steel or gold.As for the shape, although he insists this was not his intention, the phone resembles a luxury watch, down to the arrangement of the keyboard,which is a deadringer for the wristband of a Rolex.
"We used a lot of techniques and a lot of the factories forhigh-end components, and I can see how that feel is sort of alive," Béhar said. "I'm not the kind of designer who makes thing A look like thing B. It was sortof a result of the keys — the feel of them, sort of providing the ultimate tactility."
Jensen and Rajani embraced the design, but realizing it was complex. It is rare, even with luxury goods,for design to come before engineering. It took two years to find manufacturers that couldbring the prototype to life. The pair circled the globe (allegedly twice) shopping forcraftsmen.
"I don’t know how many times we heard this cannot be done,"Rajani told ARTINFO. Issues ranged from the small size of the prototype,to the complexity of the parts, to the limited production envisioned, which also limited the quantities of precious materials used and made investment in them less economical. Béhar's wristband-like keys, covering the entire width of the phone, presented their own problem, as mostmanufacturers insisted it was impossible to prevent them from popping off thesurface.
Unwilling to compromise Béhar's fundamental design, Æsirwent through 60 companies before finding the handful of European suppliersand manufacturers that composed their final team. The final product is slightly larger that the prototype and has Æsir's own extravagant flourishes, such asa bespoke typeface; ring tones composed by Chris Minh Doky, the famed jazz bassist; one-of-a-kind parts like a custom screwdriver; and an enhanced soundchamber of extraordinary clarity.
Now that the four-year journey to produce Æsir's new phone is done, where does the device fit into amarket flooded with devices that do almost anything at a user's touch?
"It becomes an object you can always rely on," Béhar toldus. "You will have multiple technological devices around you, from touchpads,tablets and laptops to smartphones, but this is when you want 100 percentconnection and you want great voice communication. Like a great lounge chairthat you expect to survive and you expect to even pass down to your childrenat some time, there's no reason why a cell phone can't do that."
The phone sold out at its debut last week at the Parisian boutique Colette, and the company is currentlylooking for luxury retailers in the U.S., like Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman. The designers of the next twophones have already been chosen. Æsir wouldn’t tell us who they are, but with a reliable team of manufacturers in place, the production process should be streamlined, so we’ll be able to find out in 18 monthsor so.