Sitting on a nearby desk was the new Teenage Engineering catalog, which featured diagrams of the company’s products, including the OP-1, which is frequently used by musicians as varied as the composer Hans Zimmer and the singer-songwriter Grimes. The founders dreamed up the OP-1 in 1999, when they were just friends, envisioning a Swiss Army knife-like instrument that was small enough to easily carry around and powerful enough to create fairly complex music. But in 1999, the parts necessary to cobble together even a prototype weren’t available; the computer chips weren’t powerful enough, and the batteries couldn’t hold a charge for long enough. What happened in the decade between their idea and being able to build it was simple: The iPhone arrived, and with it a significant manufacturing shift toward hand-held computers and the component parts they were after.
Kouthoofd has very round, icy blue eyes and dresses almost exclusively in black jeans and black T-shirts. (Before Teenage Engineering, he was a founder of the creative collective Acne.) He invited me over to his desk, and as we sat down, he pointed to an object between us. His desk was cluttered, full of oddly shaped items, bits of folded cardboard and a line of antique telegraph keys. The object he was pointing to was about the size and shape of a pack of cigarettes, with a circle in the middle. He leaned over, pushing it closer to me, and then ran his hand over the circle, spinning it, before leaning back and declaring, cryptically, “I was thinking someone like you would like something like this.” He gestured for me to touch the object.
I leaned forward and lightly tapped the circle, stopping it from spinning.
“See?” Kouthoofd said, as if I had revealed the object’s purpose. I looked up at him, baffled.
Kouthoofd explained: “It’s, like, a tape recorder? But it spins?” His statements often came out like questions, particularly if he was speaking about one of his company’s products, as if everything was forever a prototype.
“Say we are having an interview,” he went on, as if we weren’t having an interview, “and I want to say something off the record, I can just hold it,” and he leaned forward again, lightly landing his finger on the disc. “It’s, like, an interaction, a nice interaction between us.” It was this interaction between humans and machines that Kouthoofd was most interested in, the tactile nature of it but also something more basic. To explain, he picked up another object from his desk and handed it to me. It was round like a hockey puck and heavy, and when you set it on a surface it could spin.