Interview: On creativity with Flemming Rasmussen

In April 2021, Lars Kristensen and Michael Børresen invited Flemming Rasmussen to their Aalborg facilities of Audio Group Denmark, the umbrella organization for their three brands Aavik, Ansuz and Børresen. Lars and Flemming go way back to when Lars was a hifi store manager in Jutland and Flemming a hifi importer of Infinity speakers and Kiseki cartridges. Meanwhile Michael and Flemming share a love of fly fishing. They often go out for a day on the salmon which invariably involves freewheeling talks on the arts, sciences, design, engineering and their intersection in fine hifi. The time had come to see whether Flemming could see a more formal place for himself inside their company. With Gryphon having inexplicably let their famous founder go, making an overture to a now free agent was more than fair game. It pays proper respects to a very mature conduit of creativity whose inspiration, it turns out, is far from exhausted yet.

"I've had some things happen with my health which won't change so I have to live with them. Three years ago I woke up one morning to be completely deaf in one ear, 50% in the other; not exactly what I needed given my work and interests. It's been interesting though. Once I was over feeling sorry for myself, I began to enjoy music more in some ways. I was no longer listening to the hifi side of things. Now I'm just listening to the musical performance. That's really what it is all about. Now I can listen to music even in the car and enjoy it." And that's how our Zoom conversation kicked off to briefly touch on what life for Flemming is about now.

"In contrast perhaps to other designers who are creative only when they sit down with their pencil—it's actually just a very small amount of time I do that—my brain gets visual impressions all the time. Many of those inspire me but don't necessarily prompt me to sit down and pencil them out. It can start a chain of ideas though. Mozart is said to have heard the music first. Afterwards he just had to write down the notes. I've been blessed or cursed to see things in my mind. Then I just have to put them to paper. Where this comes from I'm not sure though. But I never make a lot of different sketches on one idea like prototypes. The aesthetic thing is already formed when I see it on my inner screen. But it's not like a strike or thunder bolt. It's quiet and constant. Sometimes an image keeps reappearing. Usually that's the one. Of course I also have to get my feet on the ground and consider what a particular product is supposed to do. I've never been interested in design for its own sake or to impress others. You know those terrible chairs you can't sit in or lamps you can't read a book with."

"With this ongoing process, most sketches only live in the library of my mind. I don't have a collection of unpublished works which someone can leaf through and work with after I'm gone. It's more like how some people doodle on a paper napkin while they wait for their coffee. I doodle in my head. In my life, I started as a painter, first as a building painter because my old man insisted that I acquire a trade. Afterwards I got into the Arts Academy and worked there for some years. Working with paints and blending them was already second nature by then. Still I knew that a career as an artist wasn't very likely or actually desirable. So I got into teaching art for ten years including in the dark room. That formed the background to what I subsequently did in audio starting in the 70s.

"I returned to painting a few months ago which took a bit of tuning up old manual skills. But I'm enjoying it again. This time it's a lot more relaxed. I don't have to prove anything to anyone including myself. I have no ambitions to exhibit or sell. So now I have a more sound approach to being creative rather than being creative. When you're young and aim at becoming a famous artist preferably before the age of thirty, you're under a lot of stress. That's not necessarily even from the people around you but yourself. I know I was. Now that's all gone. That's one good thing about being old."

As to whether Flemming's painting process parallels his design work where he sees the finished object beforehand, "exactly the opposite. And that's a beautiful thing. Now it's about the process of discovery. The result doesn't really matter. What I like is the inner process during painting. What I would really like is to make a firm connection with the bottom of my mind, what we call the subconscious. Have that guide my hand like automatic writing. This goes back to a doctor's work after WWI. He put traumatized veterans into hypnosis. It eventually became the basis for the Surrealistic Manifest which informed Salvador Dali and many of his contemporaries. So I like this approach to painting which is about sensing that deeper psychic connection and being rather unconcerned with the results [mostly abstract – Ed.]

"Brushing up on my skills again, right now I actually do landscapes. This occupies my desire to express myself. When Lars and Michael invited me to get involved, I thought it could become something on the side. It's an interesting development. As a company, they're very different from Gryphon. Michael's approach to engineering and his knowledge of materials in particular is outstanding. That makes collaborating with him inspiring and fun. I've never really been a technical guy but Michael's insight into how things work and his ability to share it broaden my design language.

"There are materials I've never heard of, fascinating new processes or technologies like hydroforming. It all triggers creativity. So a material new to me can drive it. It speaks to me. I can see its potential. I don't exactly know what it is but I'm attracted. That creates the necessary connection. It begins the dance of exploration in an inner dialog of pure visuals.

"Now I can be the older man in the background and give Michael creative input. It works very well. There's no posturing, pride or ego involved. I might give him an idea. He'll say "but you know, if we used this material we could take it even further". That opens up new opportunities for my creative expression. With their team, I'm not handicapped by unresponsive engineering mentality. Michael also has this amazing ability to have me describe an image I see in my mind and an hour later be back at me with a complete 3D render.

"I was also very impressed with their company and not only its size and professionalism but the energy, vibe and enthusiasm among the people. That's rare. With the open floor plan, everyone is on the same level and sees what all the others are doing. They've been great at hiring experts in various fields and there is a tangible respect each has for the other. So it's a very impressive factory especially considering that they haven't really been around that long. They're moving fast and are profitable; no easy things in today's climate. They're also not afraid to invest in technology. They showed me this huge Frankenstein machine to bring cryogenics in-house. Others would farm that out. They wanted full control so invested in one. At the heart of it all is their curiosity. Being curious is really the engine which drives creativity and real invention.

"People usually say that creativity peaks in our mid 20s. That's an alarmingly low number. And it's certainly true that at that time, I myself had a million and one ideas through my mind at all times. Most of them were ridiculous of course but the sheer amount of ideas was certainly impressive. During my teaching period after the Arts Academy, I could see this in my students. The thing with growing maturity is, you recognize which ideas have merit; and which don't. That's where life experience makes a big difference. It tells you how to pick a winner. So it's no longer about quantity but quality. For me that's what seems to have happened to my creativity as I get older. And yes, to me fishing is a kind of meditation. I don't often catch a fish. If I do, I thank it for a good time and release it. I don't fish to eat. I fish because I like the very simple quiet process surrounded by nature that opens me to deeper layers of myself where creativity becomes the bridge which brings things from there onto my inner screen. In some cases that becomes an actual product. It's a bit like dreaming when your subconscious is in full control of the temporary world. I do remember many of my dreams. I've actually dreamt of some Gryphon products. When I was young, I meditated for some years, the Transcendental Meditation by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It helped me then deal with artistic stress."

When asked about whether he could speak to any products he and Michael currently work on, "they have a different mentality about that than my old company. There I would have to kill you afterwards. What I can say at this time is that we're working on a speaker system the likes of which you've never seen before. I think it will be a game changer. It'll change from a décor-happy object to a serious audiophile product whenever you want to listen to it. With speakers, one of many challenges is that the tweeter would really like to hang freely suspended while the woofer wants to sit in a barn door. Yet both have to share the same enclosure. It's easy to design a monstrosity that will have your wife leave you for good. It's a far greater challenge to have something that sonically works in an ideal way but doesn't cause a divorce. So it must unfold into the ideal shape upon demand, then fold back. I'm really looking forward to that because it will be a groundbreaker. We've also designed a turntable for which Michael is currently working on the tonearm. That transfers some of his fishing experiences. We also designed two new amplifiers. That's a lot for the short period I've been there. I throw Michael a ball, he catches it and in no time emails me back detailed renders. So maybe he cannot see the way I do but I can draw it inside his head and he understands very quickly. That's a very efficient way for us to communicate and evolve things as a team.

"Their existing design language is deliberately Scandinavian. That never was my own focus. But that can be gradually moved. They're very open to changes and welcome my suggestions. I never design to please the market or even listen to the market. My first experience with my very first product was that it sat on a Hong Kong dealer's counter, a customer saw it, came over and said "I want one. What is it?" It was just like Steve Jobs saying that people don't know what they want until we show it to them. He's proven that time and time again. He gave us things we never missed or thought about but wanted from the moment we saw them. If we only give people what they want, we're not moving forward. So we should give them more. Now we step forward and up. We don't lower ourselves to a common denominator. Of course it's difficult to say this without being called arrogant. But it is what I try for and at Audio Group Denmark, they're letting me be a part of their group process and go for it. So I'm excited for the future!"