Devoted to design

How a fashion-forward vision for eyewear is driving the next generation of international designers

Gunnar Gunnarsson

Pinning down Gunnar Gunnarsson for an interview is a surprisingly easy task, considering his jet-set lifestyle.

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When OT spoke to the dispensing optician-turned star-designer, who divides his time between his home city of Reykjavik and Los Angeles, he has just touched down on the tarmac after a factory visit in Japan.

But Mr Gunnarsson’s introduction into optics was very much a product of his upbringing.

“My father is an optician and has a store in Reykjavik,” he explained. “I started working in the shop when I was 13 in the summer holidays. After that, I went to Germany in 2000 to train to become an optician, and my interest in optics grew from there. Optics is in the blood.”

Taking inspiration from the time he spent working in his father’s practice, the talented teenager was able to experiment with frames. “I tried them on, I sought to understand how they were put together, how you could get rid of the screws and spare parts.”

It is this desire for clean lines and simplicity that continues to mould Mr Gunnarsson’s vision of good design today. “All the customer wants is something lightweight, fashionable, strong, comfortable,” he asserts.

Having made the conclusion that this approach was missing in the eyewear industry, he decided to act. “Obviously there were brands doing similar things, but I felt there was room for improvement,” he explained, and the young DO established his own eyewear company, Reykjavik Eyes, in 2008.

Mr Gunnarsson put his experience as a knowledgeable optical professional to work, creating his own designs for the frames, sourcing the materials, plus developing the marketing campaigns. With a focus on titanium frames that are screw-free, his classic Northern European-chic designs won company plaudits and commercial success. In mid 2015, Mr Gunnarsson sold the business to Optoplast. 

Creative partnership

The next step in Mr Gunnarsson’s design career came from a highly unexpected place: a telephone call from eyewear supremo Bill Barton, formerly Oliver Peoples chief executive, and now CEO of luxury eyewear brand Barton Perreira. 

“Bill explained that he wanted me to develop an innovative fashion technology brand with his long-time collaborator and business partner, Patty Perreira, and said that they would fly me out to LA to meet the team,” Mr Gunnarsson shared with OT, adding: “You can’t say no to an offer like that.” 

The opportunity still makes the designer shake his head with a disbelieving smile – “Bill and Patty took Oliver Peoples to the next level as an eyewear brand, and working with that kind of team is a dream come true,” he said. 

The Allied Metals Works (AMW) brand hit shelves in 2015, offering a range of optical and sun frames that merge titanium and stainless steel, with Mr Gunnarsson’s now-trademark screw-free design. 

What is life like today for the Icelander, OT asked. “We have a big office in California, and I work on all the innovation and the engineering for AMW. With each new idea, I work closely with Patty. We always start with a blank piece of paper, think about new technologies, and go from there.” 

Mr Gunnarsson agrees that much has been tried and tested in eyewear design. 

So how does he recognise and develop a good idea? “Experience and patience. Ideas can come from anywhere – an object, a car – I will find that all of a sudden I start drawing. But it is the start of a long process. Typically, it takes us two years at AMW to get from the idea to the spectacles on the production line.” 

Materials for frames is another important source of inspiration, but again must be kept in check, he explained to OT.

“There is a fine line between going too far and using materials that do not work. For example, I have tried working with liquid metal – we were going to do this new and innovative metal thing – and we tried it, spent a lot of money, and it just did not work out.” 

Keeping the needs of the eye care practitioner who has to be able to work with the frame is important too, Mr Gunnarsson notes. 

“I am big fan of innovating with things we know work. I use stainless steel for its strength, its flexibility – that’s my thing. We also work with titanium and carbon fibre – material that opticians do not have any issues with. As a business, we cannot sell frames to opticians who are then going to have difficulties in a few years’ time,” he added. 

And while there are amazing materials on the market, their benefits must be palpable for the end user, Mr Gunnarsson outlined. “I don’t think customers are that bothered about having new materials unless they offer something better than a previous materials. New for new’s sakes is pointless. There must be improvements to the aesthetic, the colour range, and so on.”

"I am a big fan of innovating with things we know work. I use stainless steel for its strength, its flexibility – that's my thing"

The quality of the craftsmanship

How does AMW’s design proposition enable the company to stand out from the eyewear competition today? For Mr Gunnarsson, the secret is in what the designer describes as “tactical luxury, no expense spared.”

He explained: “Everything is done in Japan. We use the best factories, the best materials, and the best coatings. That is the benefit of working with a company like Barton Perreira; they will help and guide you, and introduce you to the best factories.”

Asked by OT what factors mark out the Japanese proposition from the competition, Mr Gunnarsson notes that everything that is made in Japan has “some kind of ‘extra’ quality added to it. How they finish the product, the detail of the finish. You can feel the quality. It is the same with Swiss watches,” he said.

And on ‘good’ design, what does this most subjective of concepts mean to Mr Gunnarsson, OT asks? In a beat, the designer responds: “Less is more. It can be a coat, bag, shoes… You need to have to avoid over-designing, over-complicating things – that is not my look.”

“And it needs to be functional but innovative,” he adds, explaining: “Design should have the desire to take the product category forward.”

In search of an example, Mr Gunnarsson opts for Apple. “The company has been doing an amazing job in the tech sector, and has transformed mobile devices. It is a great example for good, clean and simple design,” he concluded confidently.