Named after its Soviet creator Léon Theremin—whose other inventions include the legendary Cold War listening device known as The Thing—Theremins are perhaps the only musical instruments that do not require a musician's physical touch in order to play. Two metal antennas sense the position of a person's hands, allowing the musician to adjust for frequency and amplitude and give the appearance of coaxing music out of thin air. The result is an eerie, otherworldly sound.
Theremins are odd instruments, to say the least, and now designer François Chambard has made them even odder. The 12 Theremins in his new Odd Harmonics series give an overhaul to the device, offering a rich and colorful design language ranging between Danish mid-century, Bauhaus-Pop, and Steampunk. These might be the weirdest (and most beautifully designed) you'll ever see.
Chambard is the owner of UM Project, a Brooklyn-based furniture design company. So why Theremins? After designing the logo for Butterscotch Records, Chambard, who is not a musician himself, met the label's head Allen Farmelo. Inspired by Farmelo's vision to unite art, design, performance, and records, Chambard was convinced to make his first Theremin in 2012.
"Theremins are totally relevant today because people crave simple, personal, and surprising experiences and interactions more than ever," says Chambard. "It might seem contradictory that you can create this kind of experience with Theremins, because most of the time, you're not touching them at all ... but that just makes the experience even more intriguing."
When it comes to how they look, the Odd Harmonics series is all over the place. The first in the series, Antenna Aranea, is described by Chambard as "an insect-machine, a geometric spider with antennas."
The Fé Fée (which means Sheep Fairy in a combination of Icelandic and French) and Eeboo (which is the phonetic transcription of the French word for Owl) have actual wool and feathers. The Yellow Halo is equal parts tripod, instrument, and animal; while Blu Bot is like a cute, vaguely anthropomorphic robot. Chambard's personal favorite is the Pill Box, designed to look like Butterscotch Record's pill-shaped logo. Chambard says it is "probably the classiest one with its contrast between rich and dark colors and a strong splash of yellow, like a brightly-colored pair of socks under a fine suit."
The Odd Harmonics Theremins may be an eclectic looking bunch, but they are united by Chambard's common design vision. "It was actually important to me to create a sense of family," Chambard tells Co.Design.
Picturing his family of Theremins as smaller cells exploding from a larger mother cell, Chambard wanted each to look like destructed elements from a larger whole. He also wanted his Theremins to resemble their sound, "like analog bits floating in the air."
On the other hand, though, don't expect each Odd Harmonics Theremin to sound as unique and idiosyncratically as they look. "I hate to disappoint you, but they all pretty much sound the same," laughs Chambard.