Phnam Bagley is a well-known industrial designer in the Bay Area who we had the privilege of teaming up with to bring the Tinsel vision to life -- an audio necklace with integrated headphone functionality. Our vision coupled with her fierce and precise design techniques brought The Dipper to fruition. We sat down with Phnam last week to learn more about her background and get an inside scoop on her design process.
1. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and where you’re from?
I’m a creative director based out of San Francisco. I was born in Paris and lived in France for 22 years. Before moving to San Francisco four years ago, I also lived in Denmark, New York, Texas and southern California.
I do a wide range of product design projects ranging from consumer electronics, lifestyle accessories, packaging, and other products. When I lived in Texas, I was designing spacecraft and that was the actual reason why I left Europe to move to the United States.
2. What led your passion towards design and wanting to move that direction for your career?
Unlike most people who practice industrial design, design was not my passion to begin with. My two passions originally were astrophysics and art. Over the years, I realized I’m actually a very practical person and both those fields felt too restrictive and either you “make it” or you “don’t make it” and there’s not really an in-between. I still wanted to be in touch with both worlds but not necessarily in pure practice. Being an industrial designer to me, mixes art, fashion, engineering, and spacecraft architecture which connects me to the world of space.
3. What were your first reactions when you were approached by Tinsel to design a tech jewelry audio necklace?
The first thing that came to mind was “Oh my God, that’s going to be hard!” because when I design something I tend to celebrate what the design does. What’s hard about this product in particular is that you are hiding an element of the design within the product.
It was creating a marriage between something wearable (practical, easy to take on/off, etc.) and something that could have components be concealed within it. Surprisingly, the hardest part to hide was not the earbuds or the jack, it was the audio cables. Audio cables look like cables and jewelry is not traditionally designed to have cables in it.
When working with the Tinsel team, I had to execute their vision of wanting something that visually looked only like jewelry but also has the ability to transform into something else. Lastly, I had never designed jewelry before, I had worked with some metal products before, but never jewelry per se, so that was also challenging.
4. Can you share some of you main influencers that inspired you when coming up with designs for Tinsel’s audio necklace?
Because I had never designed jewelry before, I spent quite a bit of time on Pinterest looking at jewelry -- what works, what caught my eye, what didn’t catch my eye. Personally, I’m not a big jewelry wearer, so I assumed that things that I liked were things that most people would like because I had more of a critical eye.
My style is more unisex in the sense that I don’t wear frilly, lacy things -- I prefer geometry, precision and purpose. This translates into the necklace I designed for Tinsel in that every detail had to be there for a reason. Whether it was the function of the earbud, the function of the necklace hanging off the neck, the proportions, or certain things being added to the design so it doesn’t look bulky or electronics-like. To me, good design is creating everything you need then taking away everything that’s unnecessary.
5. Walk us through your design process for this wearable tech jewelry product.
First, it was looking for inspiration in the realm of jewelry but also fashion in general. Looking for the outfits of the women I envisioned would be wearing this tech jewelry necklace was important. Typically I don’t look for similar products during my design process because inventing then becomes difficult, but in this case I had to as I had no experience designing jewelry.
After the research, I started sketching ideas very quickly and then putting the sketches into 3-D. Working in 3-D for a product such as this is crucial because everything is about fit (ergonomics, the right length, etc.) and I like to have all of those things figured out from the beginning.
Especially when doing earbud design, you have to be able to fit a large percentage of ear sizes, the earbud needs to stay in the ear when you’re walking or moving, it needs to deliver good sound in the ear canal and of course, look good. It’s easier to figure all of these things out if you put the design in realistic proportions. As a designer, you have to anticipate usability problems as well as making sure the aesthetic of the design looks appealing.
The last stage of the design process was going back and forth with the Tinsel team. I put in my expertise in ergonomics, construction, manufacturing processes and things like that. They gave me feedback on the look and feel of the design, and if stylistically it fit in with the overall Tinsel brand.
6. You made some mood boards for Tinsel that were centered around geometry, bold shapes, dipped metal treatments and more… Can you talk to us a little bit about the concept behind those and how they ultimately shaped the design of The Dipper audio necklace?
Tinsel is a new brand so I believed they needed to step out of darkness with a bold statement. Boldness is also something that is very specific to my designs. I’m well-known for bold, fun and sophisticated designs, and that’s what I tried to push on the Tinsel brand. After meeting with the Tinsel team, I realized that they think similarly as far as not being afraid to push outside of the box, so boldness was an important approach to take with this necklace design.
It was not about being minimalistic or like any other brand. It made sense to come out with something that was rich visually as well as rich when you touch it -- there’s a certain weight and presence to it when you wear it -- it’s the statement piece to your outfit.
Based off of that, we came out with shapes that represented that feeling. To me, an iconic design is something that anybody can draw. If you look at The Dipper, you could literally have anyone do a quick sketch of it and the same thing goes for other iconic designs. So, having this iconic shape that does something unexpected (conceals earbuds) was what I was going for with my design.
7. Can you share a bit about the environment you design in What are some of the essential elements your design environment has to have?
Color is number one (laughs). I don’t necessarily use color in my designs, it really depends on the project, but the balance of fun and sophistication is what makes my designs mine, whether it’s very graphic or very subdued. One thing I hate that surprises other designers, is that I hate minimalism and so my environment cannot be minimalistic. Everything around me has story behind it (from my travels, other products I’ve designed etc.) which brings a certain richness to my environment. I like to be in a space where I can walk around freely, I despise cubicles.
8. Are there any downsides to working in the industrial design industry? Can you share what they are?
The biggest problem I’ve had in my career is that people love to put you in boxes -- if you’re good at one thing that means you’re not good at something else. I’ve shown in my career that if you throw any type of project at me, I can do it.
Another downside, is that this industry is male dominated in a world where women are big consumers. For example, in consumer electronics, a female product is usually just a female color version of the male product.
9. Where is your dream location you’d like to see The Dipper showcased?
The red carpet, of course! Seeing The Dipper at the Grammy’s would be amazing. For some reason I envision someone who is bold, muscular, and fierce wearing the necklace. She can carry herself, by herself, and has led an adventurous life.
10. Besides other design projects you work on actively, can you tell us a little bit about what you’re branching into now with your company, Eternal Luxe?
Eternal Luxe is divided into two companies. One is a design studio and the other side is a leather goods company. The design studio has no particular focus, except I tend to refuse working on boring jobs (they do exist). We do consumer electronics, lifestyle, fashion and action sports products, packaging, branding, etc.
On the leather goods side, I’m currently working on my second collection. You can see my first collection of handmade clutches, card cases and wallets at eternalluxe.com. Every product in our line is handmade by crafters who have mastered the fine art of patterning and hand stitching, and finishing.
Thanks Phnam for opening up your home and studio for an insider peek into your incredibly fascinating creative space and process!
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