The Man and the Cardboard Model
Meet Steve McGugan.
The designer, who never returned from his pilgrimage to the cold north and created Form 2
— a modern classic and the longest living product in the history of B&O.
|WORDS: KRISTOFFER JENSEN
PHOTOS: HENRIK EDELBO
The first time Steve McGugan’s world seriously shook was on a bright summer day in 1976. He was 16 years old and had taken a trip to Bakersfield, California, where a friend would show the young Canadian newcomer a store he had just discovered. The boys were avid hi-fi enthusiasts, but what they saw that day surpassed their wildest fantasies. In a room by itself, almost like a cathedral, stood the most beautiful and spectacular hi-fi system they had ever seen.
Devoutly, like it was the Dead Sea scrolls or Led Zeppelin’s first album on orange vinyl, the two teenagers went into the sacred room, followed by a clerk who pleaded with them not to touch the futuristic marvel of aluminium.
The system was the legendary Beomaster 1900, and that day Steve McGugan made a decision. He would own that system. The following years he worked every summer until he, a pile of dollar bills later, walked into the store again. Steve McGugan threw the cash on the counter and walked out of the store with his Beomaster 1900, unaware of how this hi-fi system would change his life.
It’s stories like this that connect Bang & Olufsen aficionados. My own epiphany is somewhat similar to Steve McGugan’s. I spent most of my early youth with my nose buried in Bang & Olufsen catalogues, drew diagrams of the impressive Beolink system that one day would be mine, and I went on my own pilgrimage to the factory in Struer with my father, who patiently followed behind his feverish 12–year–old son.
But the ironic point in this private digression is that the only piece of Bang & Olufsen equipment my family ever came to own, was a pair of Form 2, which – until it finally succumbed – was the closest I came to the dream… And here I sit facing the designer who created the classic piece 32 years ago. And I’m almost starstruck by the man who went from sunny California to the cold north – and stayed. But Steve McGugan is as modest as his former employer from Jutland, as he talks about how his love for design became his destiny.
A stranger comes to town
One of Steve McGugan’s first assignments, when, in 1978, he enrolled at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, was to disassemble one of his favourite products and put it back together to see if it worked. And of course he turned to the Beomaster 1900.
“I have always been interested in technical stuff and love to make things with my hands.
“Before I discovered Bang & Olufsen I was very fascinated by cars, and I had actually imagined that I would become a car designer. But I realised that car design is mainly about styling. The concept is already established – four wheels and an engine in front – so I thought that product design was much more interesting, because I would be able to design things that did not already exist,” says Steve McGugan, when we sit down in his bright apartment in a Copenhagen suburb.
After a few years at the Art Center College of Design, Steve McGugan decided it was time to go out and find a job as a designer. And he focused on Europe.
“I made a list of all the European companies that I would like to work for, and B&O was the first on the list. Then I wrote a letter to Mr. Bang and Mr. Olufsen,” he smiles.
By that time, Peter Bang had been dead since 1957 and Svend Olufsen since 1949. But the founders’ successor, then–director Jens Bang, found the letter from California interesting. “Jens [Bang] told me that I should be willing to learn the language, and that the company’s headquarters was placed far out in the countryside – in a country with only one television channel! I replied that I had so much passion for Bang & Olufsen that I didn’t mind, and we made an agreement that I could come to Denmark and be there for three months on trial. If I failed, they would send me back home again.”
On a cold Danish winter day in 1982 – the coldest winter in many years – Steve McGugan flew from Los Angeles and arrived in Karup Airport wearing only his thin summer jacket. He was picked up by Jens Bang himself, who drove by his own house to pick up a duvet. A duvet? The young man from California had never heard of such a thing, but in the freezing cold nights it became a dear friend. Steve McGugan and his duvet were placed with a Danish family, where he lived for the next two months.
“It was dark and the snow went up above the knees. There were not many foreigners in the town at that time, and when I walked down the pedestrian street in Struer people welcomed me. Everyone knew about this American who had come to town to work for Bang & Olufsen, and in the shops the door was held for me. Twice a week a girl came to teach me Danish, and nine months later I mastered the language.” He smiles at the memories.
A dusty cardboard model
Steve McGugan spent the next three years in Struer, and once again he crossed paths with Beomaster 1900, as his first job was to redesign the iconic piece of hifi. But Steve McGugan also had his own ideas about how to make beautiful electronic devices, and one evening when he sat working alone the idea of a new set of headphones came up. At that time Bang & Olufsen only had a high–end headphone model – the somewhat clumsy Form 1 – but Sony had just launched the Walkman (which Steve McGugan had bought shortly before his departure for Denmark) and his idea was that Bang & Olufsen should offer a better-looking alternative to the cheap headphones that came with the portable music player.
Steve McGugan drew a few sketches and made a model out of cardboard. The next day he showed it to Jens Bang, who praised the work but rejected the idea of having any other models than the top model Form 1.
“Ok, I said, and put the model on a top shelf. But a year later, Jens Bang came running in one day and said “Have you still got the model you showed me once?” and I found the dusty cardboard construction. “It looks great. We are gonna make those,” he said.”
Steve McGugan laughs. The rest is history as they say. The old cardboard model no longer exists, but while Steve McGugan sits tossing and turning a pair of the new Form 2i, he says that apart from an improved earpad quality, the headphones are
pretty much exactly as they looked at the launch in 1985. Well, except that the model was relaunched in 2011 with new colors, and in 2014 with mic and remote.
“It makes me proud to look at them today, and I consider Form 2 to be one of the best products I have ever designed. They have gone through a lot. Once they were copied in China – which B&O's lawyers put an end to however – and in 1992 they were included in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.”
After three years in the small town on the west coast of Denmark, Steve McGugan left for Copenhagen and got a job with David Lewis – the designer who, from the early 1980s until his death four years ago, was the man behind many of Bang & Olufsen's most loved products.
But since 1988, Steve McGugan has been self-employed and worked with clients such as Ericsson, Georg Jensen and pharmaceutical manufacturer Novo Nordisk. And the wall behind his work desk in the cozy apartment is decorated with design awards. “I have lived in Denmark for 30 years, because almost all the companies here have a design-driven approach to product development. And then the mentality and lifestyle here fit me well.”
He shows the back of his hand, where there is a birthmark. Four red squares in a well known pattern.
“See, it looks exactly like the Danish flag. I guess it must have been my destiny to one day end up here!”
Three decades of
B&O + Steve McGugan
1970's: Beomaster 1900
“The most beautiful thing I had ever seen.” Steve McGugan’s first meeting with the Danish hi-fi brand and the first product he came to work on.
1980'S: FORM 2
Steve McGugan created the design in his spare time, and the first model was almost forgotten. It has been in production for 30 years and since 1992 it’s been part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
1990'S: BEOSYSTEM 2500
Steve McGugan assisted David Lewis in designing several of Bang & Olufsen's great successes in the 1990s, and it was McGugan who came up with the idea of creating a vertically positioned music system.
Current city: Lyngby, Denmark
Education: The Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California
Moved to Denmark in 1983 and has lived there since. Since 1988 he has operated his own design studio with clients like Novo Nordisk, Stelton, Georg Jensen and Ericsson.