I’d been a freelance designer for five years when I accepted a full-time position with Nokia. I was apprehensive. Freelancing suited me – the variety, the lifestyle. I thought I’d stay with their design team for a year or two max, but the early days of Nokia Design were a revelation.
Full of brilliant creatives and fascinating characters, the company was playful, supportive, brave. It championed innovation – fostering a pioneering spirit that found perhaps its most emphatic articulation in the Nokia Fashion Collection. I led the design of three of these phones – 7600 (Mango), 7280 (Lipstick) and 7370 (Swivel). All dream projects as we had the freedom to explore and exploit Nokia’s resources, to drive material innovation and to push the boundaries of production technologies like no other manufacturer.
It was a defining moment, an education in talkability, and the materials… as an industrial designer with an appetite for challenging convention I was very lucky.
“Tej, how would you like to design something completely crazy?” That’s how Mark Mason pitched the 7600.
His brief: to start with a clean sheet and create something truly unique for Nokia’s flagship 3G product. Partly inspired by Zaha Hadid’s acrylic paintings, and also by what my friend Axel Meyer’s team were doing, I responded with a futuristic handset for the now (as it was then) that was also super comfortable to hold and had the screen as its focal point.
Designed to break-in with personality, it featured exchangeable trims that could be snapped on and off in different colour and material combinations. I wanted Nokia to make these trims in real leather and suede, which had never been done for a mass-produced mobile phone before. The team worked together for months to find a way to apply a leather in-mould, bonded to a polymer substrate, that could be removed, exchanged and still pass Nokia’s rigorous testing processes. The result was a world-first in manufacturing.
We launched the 7600 through leading design and lifestyle retailers across Europe – Corso Como in Milan, Collette in Paris, Vincon in Barcelona, Asplund in Stockholm and The Conran Shop here in London. Each retailer received a Limited Edition product and packaging, with a design story book and bespoke trims.
Outside of the Apple world, I believe this was one of the first ‘holistic experience’ projects. At Nokia Design we called it Total Product Experience, meaning we designed accessories, art directed digital content, created the Limited Edition story and were involved in launch strategy, all from one creative perspective & vision. It was a special project and I was very fortunate to be part of it.
The 7280 – or Lipstick Phone as it became known – was originally conceived as a small, wearable device; a second, calls-only phone that you might take to dinner or a party. When Marketing decided it should be fully featured, its size and feature-set grew and it began to make less and less sense as a user-friendly object. But the redirect paid off, putting Nokia in the headlines and the handset in Fortune Magazine’s Best 25 Products of 2004.
Working to a theme inspired by the Roaring 20’s, we wanted the phone to have a special piano finish; black with a white 3D pattern that continued seamlessly over the sides and gave way to red when opened Minox style in camera mode. However it was more difficult than we’d imagined to combine three colours in paint and also retain vibrancy with a lacquer. (The brilliant engineers, based in Copenhagen for this project, eventually solved it by injection-moulding in red first, painting white and then black, eroding the black with a laser to reveal the white and red beneath, and then finishing with a coat of clear lacquer).
The device’s speaker and finger grip areas again featured suede, and it was the first product to carry a fabric tag denoting Nokia’s fashion-focussed category.
Fearless. (And Nokia’s share value jumped when it launched).
The 7370 was designed for a much broader audience and so featured a regular keyboard and UX. We put the learnings from the previous two projects to good use by again working with textiles – this time combing with IMD and laser etching. The 7370 was a bestseller.
So one year became almost six and throughout this time Nokia championed bravery and innovation as core values. My experiences there paved the way for my own studio, where we specialise in the exploration of innovative material application and production methods, creating cutting-edge yet commercially focused solutions for brands (if they’re brave enough).