Top gear

Top hi-fi combines great sound with strong aesthetics. Lynda Relph-Knight asks Clive Grinyer at Tag McLaren Audio about design’s pivotal role in this process

It was a bit of a culture shock arriving at Tag McLaren Audio’s Huntingdon factory last autumn. A meeting with its product design head Clive Grinyer immediately pointed up a key difference between in-house design and consultancy – that of premises and location.

The hi-fi specialist’s offices and production operation are housing in a big, functional “shed”, characterised by corporate grey interiors, in the heart of an industrial estate rather than the funky town centre conversion that consultancy’s aspire to – with a sea of cars in the car park. The Huntingdon factory, though efficient, is also a far cry from Tag McLaren’s Woking complex, where the racing cars are designed, built and serviced, which sports a new Foster & Partners building and exudes a strong sense of teamwork and success.

It was easy to imagine a creative team feeling isolated in the Huntingdon environment, despite the close links with research and production departments. When I visited Grinyer’s “studio”, it comprised of product designer John Wells, who joined from Psion, and Liz Brash, on a placement from Coventry University. Grinyer’s branding colleague Charles Allen was working with graphic designer Colin Needham.

But things have moved on since then, showing the harsh realities of in-house life. Allen was made redundant last October, and Needham has stepped into his shoes (DW 3 December 1999). Wells is no longer there, but Grinyer is soldiering on with renewed vigour, having negotiated a deal that allows him flexible hours and work with the Woking electronics design team to develop the products. This gives him a reasonable family life in Wimbledon, and puts him at the sharp end of the group’s operation.

Grinyer has a high profile in product design. One of the founding partners of seminal group Tangerine, with Martin Derbyshire and Jonathan Ive (now of Apple Computer fame), he has also worked for global product group Ideo on the US west coast and headed the European design operation of Korean domestic appliances company Samsung. At Fitch he was senior director for product design for 18 months, partly working for automotive design consultant Peter Stevens, who styled the McLaren F1 road car, on products for Tag McLaren Audio.

The love affair with his current employer started before then. Grinyer says he was initially attracted to Fitch by the prospect of working on the Tag McLaren account. He and Allen were both coaxed over from the global consultancy’s London office to join the relatively new manufacturer’s team after both designers worked for the group from the consultancy side.

“It’s such a wonderful brand,” says Grinyer. “I became a designer because I didn’t just love racing cars, I loved their shape. I’m sure Mark Newson sees the same shapes, judging by his furniture. They’re such wonderful objects.”

Of his appointment at Tag McLaren Audio, Grinyer says, “The company had to create a lot of products quickly and knew there had to be someone here the whole time. Design had to be part of the process. The problem with being a consultant is that people don’t pay you five days a week. Working in-house you’re on the spot and can inspire the engineer, the purchasing guy and everyone in the company.”

The trouble with the UK is that there aren’t many choices for product designers that want to work in-house for companies that are trying to make a difference, he says. There are few UK companies with in-house studios that are breaking the product design mould – “I went to the US young and saw it there, though I didn’t want to live there,” Grinyer says. “Everything I’ve done since has been an attempt to get back to that,” he says.

He cautions that while working in-house allows you “to build a brand around real people, you’re only as good as your champion”. In his case that champion is chief executive officer Dr Udo Zucker, who is as passionate about the Tag McLaren Audio brand and design’s role in it as he is about audio quality.

Given his belief in the importance of in-house design, the move across to the client side was inevitable, especially as Grinyer was keen to work hands-on as a designer again, generating products rather than building design teams. He also enjoys working with Stevens, making Foamcore models of audio shapes in the studio.

Grinyer’s remit was to develop a complete range of “lifestyle” hi-fi products. The aim was “to create a brand through products that didn’t yet exist”.

“Tag McLaren knew how to make high performance hi-fi,” he says. “It wanted to create products you can touch and feel and know that it’s Tag McLaren.” The black boxes created previously are gradually being replaced by colourful, shapely products in the AvantGarde range, developed by Grinyer.

Hi-fi is about entertainment, says Grinyer, and could take possession of the whole home. “It’s about controlling your living space. The starting point is very personal”, he says, adding that he has a keen interest in the product/ people interface that dates back from his Ideo days.

The styling of the products breaks with the tradition of the black box. Colour is important and the form, while dictated by function, owes much to the sleek form of the group’s racing cars. Cleopatra’s “Egyptian head dress” house heat sinks are reminiscent of a car engine.

According to Grinyer, “People are buying beautiful products, but the option wasn’t there in hi-fi.” Udo’s idea, he says, was to be avant garde, to create products that lead rather than follow the style of the competition.

Grinyer believes the designer’s job is “to expand the horizons and do something that hasn’t been done before”. He believes he has the advantage over many because the company is already geared to innovation. “The F1 experience is brilliant,” he says. “The team has to innovate, push the edges and yet keep the beauty.”

But it isn’t all plain sailing. Grinyer has to fight his corner for design. Each piece of equipment is crammed with “stuff”, he says, and it is a constant negotiation with the engineers and the “golden ears”, who ensure the best sound quality is achieved. There are also production constraints which affect any design, though Grinyer benefits from the precision tooling facilities available on-site or at Woking.

By going in-house, “you lose the glamour and the creative environment”, says Grinyer. “You have to learn how to be creative to work with manufacturers. It isn’t implicit [in the way it is with a consultancy environment].” But for him the effort is worth it for the involvement in the product as a whole.

Company culture

Tag McLaren Group is a design-led concern, set up by motor racing entrepreneur Ron Davies. It is a great design patron – the new factory being built in its Woking motor racing centre is by Foster & Partners – and it cares about quality and precision. If you are lucky enough to visit the Woking site, you’ll be amazed at the craft and care that goes into servicing and developing its small fleet of Formula 1 racing cars, driven by racing giants such as Mika Häkkinen and David Coulthard. Never are you likely to have seen so clean a factory, nor witnessed such emphasis on teamwork, with workers sporting informal uniforms in keeping with their roles, but all tying in to the racing, which is broadcast throughout the building to help everyone focus on the purpose of their job.

Apart from the racing cars there are the limited edition F1 fleet of cars, which are heavily customised to meet customer requirements. Though the series is no longer in production, servicing these cars is handled at the Woking factory.

The acquisition of Swiss watch company Heuer to form Tag Heuer in 1985 is not quite the deviation it might appear. Heuer watches are, like the cars, up-market objects – collectables, even – and their manufacture is geared to precision and reliability.

Audio, too, requires high performance and it was already part of Tag McLaren’s remit before the off-shoot company was formed a couple of years ago, following its acquisition of Audio Lab. Racing cars and other high performance vehicles incorporate audio systems, so driver and ground team can keep in touch. It only took the passion of audiophile Dr Udo Zucker, now chief executive officer of Tag McLaren Audio, to build a separate company dedicated to premium hi-fi production.

In its first two years it has started to build a range of domestic hi-fi equipment at the top end of the range, with AvantGarde designs by in-house product design head Clive Grinyer working alongside consultant Peter Stevens. So far the range includes the Cleopatra sound system, retailing at £4000-£5000, the Aphrodite CD/ tuner deck, priced up to £3000, and AvantGarde speakers at £14 000 a pair, but other products are in the pipeline, according to Clive Grinyer.

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