Roland Iten is an unusual designer and brand. Making everyday items superlatively using watchmaking techniques and quality, mixed with original combinations of both noble materials and modern alloys.
1. What did your parents do? Describe briefly your childhood?
My mother immigrated from Germany after World War II and worked as an Aupair, strangely enough, in the same small village in Switzerland where I first met my wife Carol (who was married to someone else at the time but that’s another story!) My mother grew up in a wealthy family but they lost everything during the war. She still had her impeccable style and good taste though-- nobody could take that away from her. Its a gift you cannot learn, you either have it or not. So she was like this exotic, well dressed young lady in the small farming village of Menzingen and caught my father’s attention. My father was a Swiss born engineer and when I was a small child, he had very little time for me since he worked during the day and attended engineering school at night. So if I wanted to see him at all, I had to get up very early in the morning—something I still enjoy doing to this day. So I would get up, make his coffee and shine his shoes . It was just “our time” and it was the highlight of my day. Then he’d say “sorry have to leave” and I’d say, “why can’t you just play all day and get paid to play”? This must have driven him crazy, because he knew I kind of had a point…
2. As a child did you have any driving ambition? What did you want to be?
I was born in 1961, so when I was 7, Man landed on the moon and of course, I wanted to be an astronaut-- (and also one day have a quartz watch with red numbers)! So I guess like every other 7 year old boy at the time, my day dreams consisted of space ships and submarines, but unlike most other little boys, I had an engineer as a father that stipulated well drawn out technical plans before we embarked on any Lego endeavors. Looking back, I realise that he did it to gain time for himself. I’d bombard him as soon as he’s come in the door with “let’s play Lego” and he’d say, “first draw me the plan of what you want to build and then we’ll play”
When I was 11 my father died and I have to admit, it shattered my world for quite awhile. I had to grow up practically over night. And as my focus shifted from play to responsibility, the corporate life he lived seemed even more pointless to me. For what? He worked so hard and then died before he could enjoy any of it. I vowed that I would live better, but most of all, live differently. I went on a kind of Hemingway kick-- work is passion, passion is life—which I guess still holds true today. But I’m still very grateful to my father for teaching me how to make a proper technical drawing at six years old!
3. What is your first significant memory as a child?
1962. I was only 1 year old and a bit. People tell me its not possible to have such an early memory but there you go. I was standing behind my mother as she answered the door and I watched our neighbor graphically explain with her hands how the bullet entered through the front of a man’s head and exited through the back, taking a large portion of his head with it. It was the assassination of JFK. I had no idea who he was but I remember being shocked by the notion that anybody could lose part of their head!
4. Have you ever had another profession? What did you do?
I’ve always had the same profession. I am a creator. My passions change, I’ve created a lot of different things in my life, from blow-moulded shoes to beer filling lines, but through it all, my ultimate drive is to do things that have never been done before. I have a ridiculous amount of patents -- if only I could line my wallet with them—but quite the contrary, its an expensive hobby to maintain!
When I was a student I would do odd jobs, the most bizarre and probably dangerous was in a full body suit cleaning up chemical waste—(I’m lucky my daughter doesn’t have two heads)-- but any odd job I did was always a quick conduit for my real passion—for instance, I cleaned chemical waste for two weeks and that gave me enough money to spend a month on Stromboli dancing on the volcano like Klaus Man!
5. Who have you worked for in the past? What made you decide to go in the direction you are currently in.
Truth be told, I really wanted to become a pilot, but I’m dyslexic as all hell, and I failed the English exam. Creating and designing were in my blood from a young age and so my second choice was the Arts and I graduated from the Kunstgewerbeschule in Luzern as a graphic designer. I worked in various Ad agencies—DDB—GGK, in Switzerland and in Germany for awhile, but it was very frustrating for me. As a graphic designer, you’re at the tail end of the product launch cycle. You get the product in front of you and have to design a visual campaign for it, and I always thought—"this is a stupid product—if it only did this, or that differently, it would be much better”. But by the time I got to see the product, it was too late.
So when the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California opened an annex near Vevey in Switzerland, I took all my crazy product idea sketches to the committee and applied for a scholarship.
They all thought I was a whacko, and I almost didn’t get in except for one guy on the committee, his name was Freddy-- and he fought my corner and I got a full scholarship to attend the four year programme. It was probably the best, but the hardest time of my life. My daughter was only one year old, and there I was, working and going to school and had no time for her! Life does have a way of reminding you of the irony in it.
6. What’s the worst job you’ve had to do?
At The Art Center, I studied both car design and product design and also spent some time on the Pasadena campus and so my first assignment after graduating was to become part of a product study team for Kimberly Clark Marina del Rey to re-design diapers. I landed literally in shit! I have to admit, I had imagined something a little bit more glamorous for my first post-graduation assignment.
7. What’s been the hardest professional moment in your life so far, and how did you overcome it?
This is a frequent re-occurance. Before we launched Roland Iten Mechanical Luxury, Carol and I ran a product design agency called “outside in” for many years. We’d walk into blue chip companies like Bally and Tetrapak and get briefings and Carol would say “sure, we can handle that” and then came the freefall—I had to come up with the ideas!! It’s the blank piece of paper syndrome. I love it and hate it at the same time.
8. Who has had the strongest influence on you? What are your greatest inspirations?
As a child, my father gifted me a beautifully illustrated encyclopedia set called “Wissen”. I would spend hours looking at the drawings, and it actually made me want to learn how to read. So I’m inspired by anybody that ends up in an encyclopedia! But all kidding aside, my real inspiration are my clients. I’m privileged that I can get to know some of them personally, and co-create with them, and this really inspires me. Most are prominent, successful men who have carved their own paths in life and when we get together we dream of things never before done, and I can make their dreams come true.
9. What are you most proud of?
Oh, that’s easy. My daughter Maxime. Made in France, Cote d’Azur, St. Maxime, 1990. She challenges me all the time and that is invigorating! I’m also quite proud of my marriage—I know it sounds sappy but Carol and I will be married 30 years in August (8.8.88-- hence the name of our first brand The House of Eight). We have always been partners in business and in life and we challenge each other because we are so different. Some couples say they could never work together but we could never NOT work together. It would be too boring.
10. What advice would you give to a 20 something someone thinking of taking a similar path as you?
The Yoda sums it up better than I ever could “Do not think. Do” Doing is how you find out if you have what it takes to create something out of nothing.
11. Name three things on your bucket list.
I drove the Mille Miglia in 2014, and this year, I will do the Gumball3000 London-Tokyo-- together with one of my clients, in a Bentley GT3R. It’s a personal invitation from Maximillian Cooper and his wife Eve, who Carol and I had the pleasure to meet last year at the Global Citizen Forum in Montenegro. I’m really excited about it.
But honestly, I have been pretty much living my bucket list my whole life. I made a profession out of my passion. It’s why the official corporate vision of my company is “Seriously Playful”.
12. Where do you think the industry is going to be in 10 years time.
In Switzerland… Some things never change.
To learn more about Roland Iten www.rolanditen.com