Profile – Robert Brunner

Working on cool products for cool brands isn’t always enough – industrial designer Robert Brunner discovered his inner client and now enjoys the entrepreneurial life. Clare Dowdy talks to the founder of Ammunition

Robert Brunner has seen the light, and in more ways than one. ‘We are moving from the creation of stuff on to the creation of businesses,’ he says. And his latest venture, Regen, is a hi-tech, solar-powered affair.

As for many designers, design consultancy alone is no longer enough for Brunner – he is also keen to have a sense of ownership and an outlet for flexing his entrepreneurial muscles.

Not that this San Francisco-based industrial designer’s career has been particularly disappointing to date. He co-founded the consultancy Lunar in the mid-1980s, and followed that with seven years as director of industrial design at Apple, where he was responsible for enticing Jonathan Ive to join the team. Then in 1996 he became a partner at Pentagram’s San Francisco studio.

His current operation is the three-year-old design consultancy Ammunition, formed when the product and interaction design team of Pentagram SA was separated from the group.

While client work is all well and good, Brunner has his sights set on bigger prizes. ‘As a designer, I was just happy to get cool stuff to work on. But I was giving away intellectual property very cheaply,’ he says.

A few years ago he had what he describes as an epiphany. ‘I realised I don’t need to take on speculative work, but to form partnerships and drive ideas, brands and businesses. And that’s what Ammunition is about,’ he explains.

So Ammunition combines traditional consultancy work with commercial joint ventures, its latest such venture being a hook-up with ‘cleantech’ venture accelerator Noribachi to launch Regen.

Regen is being billed as a new breed of personal and consumer electronics, running as it does off solar technology.

First up is a range of audio products such as Reverb, a slick black speaker with integrated photovoltaic panel, which gives the sound equivalent of a 60-watt conventional speaker.

There’s also Renu, a personal solar-power generation and storage system, which can power any Regen product.

Brunner’s involvement came about when a former client approached him to come up with some ideas based around clean technology, specifically products that were powered by the sun at the point of use.

This was an area that Brunner had already been considering. ‘As a designer, I’d been struggling with the issue that a lot of the emphasis today is around cleaning up the mess we’ve already created. And, of course, that’s important, but it’s a struggle to get clients to do it because it costs, and it takes time.’

He felt that his involvement could be higher up the food chain, engaging people in practices that are good for the planet and good for them, too. ‘A lot of people would like to generate their own power, but don’t have the means to,’ he says.

Not everything, of course, can be remade into a Regen product. At the moment, these objects have to have low power requirements, so there’ll be no solar-powered toaster, and no products that are on 24 hours a day.

And because this is about changing behaviours, design has a key role. ‘Another challenge with solar at the point of use is that consumer engagement is a requirement,’ says Brunner. ‘If you stick it in the corner in the dark, it’s not going to work. So human interface and physical design is really important.’

He dismisses most solar-powered devices as ‘looking a bit like science experiments’, while his own aesthetic approach is for things to look ‘clean and pure, but, at the same time, engaging and interesting, with some elements of surprise’.

Ammunition is now reconsidering the great outdoors. What about a Regen garden table, with built-in power generation for warming or cooling food, and plugging things in? Or, more ambitiously, a hybrid TV where every one in four hours’ viewing could be solar powered?

Brunner isn’t the first, and won’t be the last, designer to want more ownership of, and involvement with, their ideas. And Regen is surely as topical as they come. Now it’s up to the buying public to engage.

Robert Brunner is talking at London’s Design Museum on Monday 7 December, 7.15pm

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