Right from the start of his career as an industrial designer, Roland Iten found himself working with, well, shit. Literally. He was designing clasps for diapers and one of the concerns he had to address was how parents could handle diapers without getting their hands dirty.
This does not mean Iten is an expert at dealing with pure necessity, as you can tell from his own creations. He is a total dreamer and inventor who is certainly a "visionary," as he puts it. Iten likes to observe people to see how they use things and find better – or perhaps just more extraordinary – ways and means. It has been said that Roland Iten designs things that you never knew you needed and it is true. “Millions of people don’t even know that (my segment of products) exists!” says Iten. “I mean, did you know you needed a better cufflink?”
Iten’s description of this particular product illustrates the nature of his interesting niche. He says the difference between a Roland Iten cufflink and everything else is like the difference between a Maybach door handle and a taxi door handle. Inherently, the traditional cufflink is flawed and the Roland Iten cufflink attempts to address that.
Ultimately, for Roland Iten, creating is the supreme luxury. We spoke with him about his philosophy, inspirations and, of course, his novel creations.
Please explain how your products are superior?
The best closing system for a shirt cuff is always a button. For example, if you use a cufflink often it is too loose. Roland Iten cufflinks have a mechanical system that allows them to be worn tight or loose, as you please. When you use it, you will see that it is like the door handle of a Maybach or rolls Royce. I have to explain it to you because maybe you don't notice it.
What you do, with my calibration system for example, it is playful and it has function. You have to try it or you won't understand. Yes, it is more complicated but it is even better to use than an ordinary cufflink. Also, you are able to easily handle it, with just your thumb and one finger. This makes it comfortable.
Do you think of yourself as an artist or a designer?
I am a visionary! Honestly, what I'm interested in is comfort. How to be comfortable. For me luxury is comfort and this is why I use the Maybach and Rolls Royce as examples.
Do you consider though that the product may be too technical to be comfortable?
Not really. You see, about comfort, this is specifically tied to men and their needs. You know, with a belt, something most men wear, you need more than one position to be comfortable. The leather expands and contracts based on temperature so being able to adjust slightly is important. My system (while relatively complex) allows you to do this.
You once said that you were “unemployable.” Why?
You know, I'm a total daydreamer. I'm always somewhere else. I will make a very interesting pilot for passengers. They will never know where they will land. You know how long it took me to get to our appointment from my hotel (which was not very far away, even for Singapore) for example! I will be fired for this kind of behaviour.
Tell us the story behind Roland Iten’s very special products.
I studied industrial design, car design, interior car design - I love cars - in Pasadena. It sounded great to work in the car industry but the thought of living in a motor city was not appealing. The car industry is not based in the nicest places in the world.
Instead of working with cars, one of my first jobs was in fact designing diapers. So I was working with shit right away! We did a lot of research into what women prefer in diaper designs. I worked on a closing system, you know velcro. Even in my early career I was considering small problems like this.
Another thing I designed was an umbrella... What's the best umbrella? Simple, it's the golfer's umbrella. With anything else, you basically have to decide which shoulder you want getting wet.
But with any umbrella, the problem is that you aren't able to stand right in the center. I tried to address this in my design by cutting it in half because you only need half the umbrella. Basically, it won an award and brought me to the attention of Dr. Ernst Thomke at Bally International AG.
This is the same Thomke who was at ETA SA and the Swatch Group?
Yes that’s right! He thinks he saved the watch industry and so did Hayek. Anyway, I developed a men's duty free line for Bally at Thomke’s request. He was in competition a little with Nicolas G. Hayek at the time. You know, Hayek had the Swatch watches and all Bally had was leather wallets! Thomke was not satisfied so he gave me a budget to create extraordinary things for men. These were really extraordinary and inspired me.
When he left though, the idea didn’t go anywhere under the new management. I was really thrilled to be working on these kinds of things though so this was the start for me.
"You know, I'm a total daydreamer. I will make a very interesting pilot for passengers. They will never know where they will land."
So you had already laid the groundwork for your future company…
It was at first for me a challenge because my Italian suppliers were not able to do exactly what I needed. I am talking about small mechanical moving parts here. It was natural then to look to Switzerland, in the watchmaking industry, because here you have these guys who are just gifted in a way when it comes to working with tiny screws!
How do you deal with pressure to compromise your products to favor more sales?
I’m the CEO, it’s my call (completely). I am running the company really badly! What I should do is make one product, promote it for a few years and just change the color or something every now and then. You don’t have any new development costs and even advertising costs. Again, you can see this in the watch industry! But seriously, I am always having new ideas in my head and I really like creating new products.
How do you create your products or find inspiration?
I’m a person who likes to watch people. I just like observing how people use things. Take for the umbrella example. You watch people using umbrellas in the streets and you think this is wrong. The design is wrong. It should be made in this other way…
You know, I don’t like wearing belts because of how they are made, how they work. They are just really stupid and uncomfortable. This inspires me.
In Hong Kong, Roland Iten products are sold at Elegant Jewellery Holding Ltd. In Singapore, visit Malmaison by The Hour Glass. Full details are available here.