Would you spend $300 on a toaster? The Japanese company BALMUDA is betting you might for one that looks like a piece of modern art—and which, incidentally, uses steam to lock in the bread’s moisture to produce perfectly browned, crunchy toast. Founder Gen Terao has propelled the company from an ambitious startup 18 years ago to the global brand it is today by embracing a design style that’s rooted in experience and emotion. “Many brands look at what technologies are trending or what is accessible and then think of how to incorporate it into a product,” he says. “But at BALMUDA experience always comes first.” Here, Terao, who recently added Chief Designer to his CEO title, shares his design philosophy, how he applies this process to creating iconic products, and the beauty of bubbling grilled-cheese toast.
What inspires you and the BALMUDA design team?
Gen Terao: Whenever I feel excited, happy, or comfortable, I tune my senses to the aspects that make me feel that way. What am I seeing, hearing, smelling, or touching at that moment that leads to this sense of happiness? At BALMUDA we encourage each other to dream and fantasize, to think out of the box, and then come up with solutions using technology to realize those dreams. I tell the designers to live in the moment, to spend their money wisely on good and real experiences.
Have any personal experiences helped to shape BALMUDA’s products?
When I was 17, I traveled for a year on my own across the Mediterranean coast. My first destination was Ronda, a small town in Spain, and I arrived tired and hungry. It was early in the morning and the stores were closed, but the sweet smell of bread caught my attention. I found a bakery getting ready to open and knocked on their back door. Despite my language [barrier], I was somehow able to get a piece of bread. With my first bite, it filled me with warmth and a sense of security. I [realized] that something as simple as bread can bring happiness and can energize people. If the toast I ate every morning was a bit tastier, how much happier would that make my day and, ultimately, my life?
You played in a band while growing up. Does music inspire your design?
I played rock music. Rock bands don’t research the market before writing a song or try to do what other bands are doing—they simply create what they believe in. So, in that sense, my background as a musician has influenced my business. I often think of BALMUDA as my band.
How has your design sensibility evolved over the years?
I’ve learned to mix a bit of lightness or friendliness into our designs. In my younger days, I wanted to create really slick, cool designs, but since we are creating everyday household tools, our designs need to have charm and shouldn’t be too uptight.
A consumer’s first impression is critical. How does the design of BALMUDA products impact the overall experience?
We believe that whether a design is beautiful or not is determined by how natural it is to the product’s purpose. For example, when we designed the toaster, we repeatedly asked ourselves, “Does this look like something that the world’s best toast would come out of?” When we first started the design, it looked like a home printer and nothing like something tasty bread would come out of. The toaster’s matte texture, rounded edges, small window, orange lights, the friendly ticking sound—every detail of the final design enhances the toaster’s purpose of serving great toast.
Is the consumer experience more important than the product?
I strongly believe that values that can’t be quantified are far more important than those that can. In other words, beauty, comfort, excitement, and tastiness is more important than spec, size, and volume. Values that can’t be quantified are instinctive, fundamental, and universal. It is what drives people.
What are the most important design elements for BALMUDA products? Are they specific to each or common to all?
We have one basic principle in our design that is common to all products: It must be beautiful. In order for a product to be beautiful it must be natural to its true purpose. People tend to praise new designs that they’ve never seen before. But what is new today becomes old tomorrow. If new is the only strong point in the design, then we face problems from the next day. But what is beautiful today is beautiful even after a century.
Does price point come into play during the design and manufacturing of a product?
We are always thinking of ways to reduce the cost. At one point we used to have these cool decorations on our packages; the lid was secured by a black button (with a BALMUDA logo engraved) and a satin ribbon. But we realized these accessories wouldn’t enhance the fresh air from the air purifier or contribute to the comfort of the humidifier. The importance is to protect the experience, but if it’s an irrelevant cost, then it should be cut.
What other innovators do you admire?
In business, I admire Richard Branson and Steve Jobs. They weren’t looking at competitors or market needs, they simply pursued what they believed in and changed the world.
What new innovative products does BALMUDA have in the works?
We will be launching a smartphone [this year] in Japan. We will be entering the tech industry for the first time, and we hope to bring an experience that only BALMUDA can [provide] into the market.
Looking ahead, how do you foresee BALMUDA continuing to innovate?
We are starting a new brand called “BALMUDA Technologies.” Our smartphone will be launched under this line with audiovisual devices, apps, and more to come. Experience will continue to be the key to our creations. For a while now, I’ve been directing the design team, but this year I began designing again. When BALMUDA starts something new, I think it’s important that I do it myself and lead the way.
What kind of bread do you stick in your BALMUDA toaster?
My favorite is cheese toast. I specifically instructed the team to create a cheese toast mode when we first developed the toaster. In this mode the upper heater generates more heat so that the cheese bubbles without burning the bottom toast. This mode was changed to the pizza mode for the U.S. version, but you can still make my favorite cheese toast using the pizza mode.