Creator Conversations

Aether Eyewear

Interview by Carl MH Barenbrug

Hannes Unt of Aether Eyewear
Hannes Unt, Cofounder of Aether

Our goal was to create a wearable design object as a portal to a holistic aural experience, allowing users to tune into the soundscape that reflects their mood while staying connected to the present moment.

Aether blends refined and minimalist eyewear design with innovative open-ear audio technology into beautiful products that enable you to curate your own personal ambience.

Aether emerged from a vision shared by three specialists in product design, brand development, and creative direction; setting out to channel their expertise into pushing the boundaries of audio technology and high-end eyewear design.

We spoke to Aether cofounder Hannes Unt about collaborative working, combining audio technology with wearables, the inspiration behind the brand‘s launch collection, and how their eyewear will prove to be long-lasting.

Aether Eyewear
Aether Eyewear

What led you into design? And how did Aether come to be?

I think it has to do a lot with luck and right timing, how it all started. I had my first computer and began to play around with web design some time before high school. I was just another kid fascinated with this new medium called the internet (at the end of 90s), and that you can create something on your computer and upload it there and then. I’ve been a car enthusiast for as long as I can remember and at that particular period it was BMW for me, above everything. I was around 14 years old when I basically copy-pasted the official BMW website and created an unofficial Estonian version of it, as back then the authorised local importer didn’t even have a website. And being a young opportunist, I noticed that a lot of websites had “advertise here” banners—the visual ad banner format was just taking off. So of course I had to put this up on my site too and created a page with absolute nonsense made-up data about the visitor profile and so on. And soon enough, a local Nike importer contacted me and wanted to show their ad banner on my site. I got some free sneakers and stuff in return and was super happy.

After this, things moved forward quite quickly. I designed a webstore for a sportswear retailer and did a few other projects, and in the summer just before high school there were suddenly job offers from 3-4 pretty good design agencies. I was already leaning to join one of these, but then got an invite for a brief chat with another ad agency. I decided to go with them and I probably wouldn’t be here today doing what I do if I would have chosen otherwise. So during the three years while at high school, every day after classes were over I went to the agency to work on different web design projects, while being hugely inspired by my more experienced colleagues. These were some of the absolute best people in the industry and being around them gave me the real foundation and beliefs of what is important in design. It also had a huge impact on the direction of how my own sense of aesthetics developed. After this period, I was too eager to continue working with real clients, so I managed to stay in university for only three months, took a student loan, and founded my own design agency.

Aether came to be from a friendship that developed over the years between me and our other two cofounders. I met Raymond and Andy back in 2014, when they had just started their previous project, Memorieslab, and were searching for a design agency that could help build up their brand universe. Our collaboration extended over the years and later we also worked together on various design projects in China. In early 2019, we started to play around with the idea that we should create a new brand together. After months of brainstorming and mapping out different options, we decided that wearables, and particularly audio eyewear, is the most interesting sphere for us, as this new category is just about to take off and it’s where we believed we could have the biggest impact.

You have entered an interesting and ever-growing space in wearable audio technology. What design values are you looking to amplify with your launch collection?

One of our core principles is that audio eyewear will only really work if it actually looks and feels like a pair of well-made glasses. The existence of technology should be hidden in wearables and these products have to complement and add to your looks. Only a limited number of tech enthusiasts are willing to wear products that look and feel like gadgets. From day one we had in mind a customer who appreciates design and has a good sense of style, so first and foremost, we set out to create beautiful eyewear that we would be proud to sell even without any technology. In practice, this means absolute attention to detail. We worked through a huge number of prototypes with our manufacturing partner, fine-tuning even the smallest design lines, to finally arrive at the outcome we’re happy with.

Aether Eyewear
Aether Eyewear

What was your inspiration for combining audio technology with eyewear? What are some of your key audio features? And how does the audio experience differ from that of a pair of wireless headphones?

Our goal was to create a wearable design object as a portal to a holistic aural experience, allowing users to tune into the soundscape that reflects their mood while staying connected to the present moment.

I believe it is a very natural development for eyewear—many people wear optical glasses and pretty much everyone wears sunglasses at some point. The use of blue light blocking glasses is also getting increasingly more popular. Eyewear is the only thing that is already there, sitting on your face—an unused real estate, waiting for the next step to happen.

The experience of listening to music through audio eyewear is something completely new and different. The open-ear listening experience feels like another layer of reality has been added to your life, while you can still hear everything else around you too. This is also reflected in our brand name Aether—it’s like an addition of a new almost mystical dimension. You can experience and interact with the world around you while you have your own personal ambience at the same time.

We’ve learned that there are actually a lot of people who don’t like using headphones or in-ears, especially for prolonged periods. Having nothing in your ears or over your ears while still being able to listen to music or podcasts feels really liberating.

Given the obvious physical constraints of embedding technology in the frames, there will undoubtedly be an impact on certain elements, such as battery life. How do you foresee improving this in future models?

The limited space does present a lot of challenges. But from another perspective it is also a good problem to have, because it pushes us to keep innovating. For example, we will design our own custom-shaped batteries in the future, to maximise what we can do within these physical constraints. The advancement of technology and new possibilities derived from this progress are on our side. Just a few years ago it wouldn’t have been realistic to achieve what we have done today—to hide all of this tech inside temples that have similar dimensions to the ones you have on normal glasses.

Aether Eyewear
Aether Eyewear

Shifting focus to the form of the Aether frames, you have partnered with renowned Italian manufacturer, Mazzucchelli 1849. What was the process of coming to such clean yet distinctive designs for this collection?

We chose Mazzucchelli acetate for our frames because we had a very clear goal from the beginning—to use only high quality materials that you would normally expect from a premium eyewear brand.

For our launch collection, we wanted to achieve a modern and distinctive yet well-balanced unisex offering. It was a long design process, from the early conceptual sketches in collaboration with an eyewear designer to prototyping and revision rounds with our manufacturing partner. There are three models in this collection that showcase our own interpretation of timeless and classic looks—these are R1, D1, and S1. By the way our model naming references the lens shapes (R = Round, D = D-Frame, S = Square). And then we have two very unique models, S2 and R2, which with their diamond-cut-like edges and combination of brushed matte and polished surfaces stand out also among traditional (non-tech) eyewear brands.

In addition to shaping and fine-tuning the aesthetics of the product, the design process also had to solve many functional aspects like the difference of nose shapes between Europeans and Asians, how to ensure the glasses would fit comfortably on a variety of head sizes and so on. We’re very happy that through this extensive process we managed to create a collection that in practice suits so many different people.

Aether Eyewear
Aether Eyewear

The geometric design of the R2 model is remarkable. It is both striking and timeless in appearance. How do you see the longevity of your frames, especially given the technological aspect of them?

This relates back to our first core principle of designing beautiful eyewear that could work even without any technology. It is quite normal to expect that someone who has bought our first generation glasses would want to access the benefits that continuous technological advancements will bring to the next generations of our frames. Yet, unlike so many other electronic products that unfortunately sooner or later become a throwaway, years from now, even if you have a newer model that you prefer to use more by then, our current product will still remain as a pair of beautiful high quality glasses or sunglasses. For this very reason, I think our eyewear has much greater longevity also when compared to products like bluetooth headphones.

Aether Eyewear Charging Case

Another elegant detail is the charging case. Can you talk a bit about the design and how it works?

We wanted to create as beautiful a charging case as we could, as I believe it is a crucial part of the overall user-experience and not something of secondary importance. Every detail counts and every element of the experience is important. The thinking that it had to be an object you can admire on its own directed the design process, so this is why the shape is very pure, minimal, and clean, allowing the intrinsic beauty of the material to stand out. The cold touch of the brushed aluminium has a really nice tactile quality to it and is accentuated with fine details like polished edges.

It’s a smart case too. The glasses charge wirelessly and they start charging immediately when placed inside the case. The case also has a battery inside, so after you have charged it via cable, you can just take it with you and charge the glasses many times on the go, as you need.

The lenses are made by Carl Zeiss Vision. How did that partnership come about?

As Carl Zeiss Vision makes the best lenses, it was really the only natural option for us—we wanted to use nothing but high quality materials and I used to look for Zeiss lenses myself too when buying normal sunglasses before.

Aether Eyewear
Aether Eyewear

Collaboration is clearly at the core of Aether. What is the current shape of your team? How does it operate?

Aether is an international brand at heart. Our core R&D team is in China, but we have team members spread out over many locations—from Bangkok to Tallinn and Copenhagen, with some of our crucial collaborators in Berlin. I’m extremely grateful that building Aether has already given me the opportunity to collaborate with very talented people from 3D to audio design, and such collaborations will only expand in the future as we continue to build our brand universe.

I’m in touch with my cofounders daily, they are based in China, I’m currently in Estonia. As we already have extensive experience with long-distance collaboration from our shared projects in the past, we’re all used to this setup and everything works smoothly, even with the timezone differences.

What music do you listen to while designing?

It really depends on the stage of the project or task what I’m currently working on. If it’s something that requires deep focus for thinking, concept creation, or problem solving, I usually listen to something meditative, that supports this type of concentration effort. It varies from space ambient to minimal piano, but some days it can also be monks chanting mantras for a few hours straight, or nature sounds.

When I already have an idea or the direction in mind where I want to arrive and the work is more about execution and experiments, I usually listen to something more energetic, that puts you into a productive flow state, but it shouldn’t also get you too carried away. So deeper, minimal, and melodic techno works very well for me, or sometimes a bit more progressive sounds. At the moment I really enjoy long sets by Alex O’Rion, Eelke Kleijn, and Hernan Cattaneo.

What are 3 things you value most in design?

  1. Harmony
  2. Simplicity
  3. Attention to detail

What are 3 things you value most in life?

  1. Freedom: to choose your own path, being able to do what you really want to do, and creating/living a life that feels true to yourself.
  2. Love: your family, your friends, self-love, love for life, nature, and this planet.
  3. Passion: all-in or nothing, what ever you do, always give your best or don’t even begin.
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