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Master of Mobility

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It all began 17 years ago when Max Barenbrug had to come up with a graduation project to complete his education at the Academy of Industrial Design in Eindhoven (now the Design Academy). The pushchair he made laid the foundation for a product that would be coveted around the world, eventually becoming ubiquitous on our streets. Barenbrug retired from his position as Bugaboo's head designer and passed the baton to Aernout Dijkstra-Hellinga. As owner and board member, he looks back on an eventful period which saw him build a brand that's now rock solid.

Why did you design a pushchair as your graduation project?

Max: I wanted to do something I could make a statement with, and it would have been impossible in a market that was already advanced. So I started looking for a market where something really needed to change. In those days, pushchairs were a huge disaster. They cost no more than 300 guilders (136 Euro), had red frames, skinny white tires and teddy-bear prints. And they were also much too low for tall Dutch men. The image didn't fit: It was like seeing a guy in an apron beating a doormat. I saw also parents terribly hindered by their pushchairs.

What was different about your design?

Max: It was a revolutionary, robust product for men in response to a frumpy market. It's too ridiculous for words that the whole baby world is permeated with pink goo. Also, existing pushchairs didn't meet all the actual needs of the consumer. You could hang my design behind your bike, but you could also walk around town with it. You could job behind it or go hiking in the mountains with it. In fact, the product was actually ahead of its time for the market. I tried to sell the design, but nobody wanted it. So together with my business partner, Eduard Zanen, I set up a company and started manufacturing an adapted version of the pushchair. This design was just as groundbreaking, but better geared towards market demand.

How could you be sure that the product would be a success?

Did you do market research to find out what the consumer wants? You do have to look at the market, but you must never take the information the market provides as being the absolute truth. True, you should take it on board, but always bend it into something that you feel OK with. Do you think market research was ever done prior the automobile, the light bulb or the first computer? Of course not. People must first see something before they realize they want it. As a designer you have to believe in your idea. You must have the feeling you're working on something 'cool'. And ultimately, you have to be an incredibly pig-headed bastard, then you'll be successful.

Did you know right away that you wanted to do something with mobility?

Max: I first did a trimester in the “living' department, but practically no-one in my class made it through to the next level. Myself included. I then transferred to 'mobility', where I absolutely didn't shine. The focus there lay strongly on automotive design. There were boys in my class who drew amazingly well and had done so since they were six. I had no interest in automotive design, because that usually concerns the exterior of a product. I'm a conceptual designer. I think about target groups, about differentiation, about identity.

What's the design process like at Bugaboo?

Max: We work according to certain basic values. Design leads the way and determines the product concepts. Marketing validates the idea and communicates the products to the consumer. I am highly critical and tend to go all out. When something's not good, I start again from scratch. During the design process, form and function should continually change and balance each other every step of the way. Lots of designers are inclined to make a technical design and dress it up later. That's not how it works. If you've invented something functional but you can't get to look good, you should drop it. That means that you have to sometimes abandon your basic idea and find a new one to take its place. That's a time-intensive and costly route, but it does lead to a design that determines the street scape. The Bugaboo Cameleon has become an icon.

Can you safeguard that process even though you're no longer the head designer?

Max: As owner and board member, I can ensure that my successor, Aernout, is helped as much as possible. That he has the time and the means to develop a design right down to the nutty-gritty. Bugaboo's design team consists of eight people. Not very many. That's why it takes a long time to complete the development of a product, but we never make concessions. You can't just put a product on the market and think that the actual innovation of the design will come with the upgrade. You've got to go all out if you want to differentiate yourself from the rest. Democracy or an open-forum model just don't work.

Bugaboo has become a great success. Are there things that you would have done differently if you were able to?

Max: Personally, I wanted to the the kind of creative director that you usually find in a communications consulting firm, where the commercial director and the management team facilitate. That's seldom the case in the world of product design where, after a a time, a designer becomes a manager and is no longer considered 'creative'. That worked well for a very long time, but nowadays more and more inventiveness is demanded as competition increases. A company has to risk making unpredictable choices. Steve Jobs saw that clearly. It was an enormous step for Apple, as a computer company, to decide to do something in the music industry. That took courage and vision.

Is Bugaboo going to develop something else besides pushchairs?

Max: Yes, but I can't go into details about it yet. All I can say is that it will definitely be about mobility, about moving from A to B and discovering on the way how nice and handy the product is. As with the pushchair, people will see that it's different and talk about it.

Do you really not want to design anymore?

Max: I can't switch off my thoughts and am always coming up with new ideas. Bugaboo's mission and vision are products from my brain. I built this business from the ground. For many years I've been going to Asia, albeit reluctantly, to set up production lines in dark factories there. If I'm honest, I sometimes long for the early days so the chance is great that I won't be able to refrain from doing something new again. But next time I won't be visiting the factories myself. I now have the great advantage of knowing how it all works.

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