Lelo Sex Toys: the Ultimate Birthday Presents
Maybe not for your mom, but definitely for your girlfriend.
What do you get the woman who has everything for her 40th birthday? The founders of Lelo thought a sex toy would fit the bill, but when they set out to find one, they failed. The trio—one engineer and two designers, working in 3G phone development at the time—quit their jobs and set out to solve the problem. They launched Lelo, short for “luxury erotic lifestyle objects,” in 2003, and swiftly established themselves at the forefront of the Scandinavian sex toy industry. Since then, they’ve branched out across the world with items that satisfy a spectrum of desires for women and couples alike. Lelo products are veritable works of art, inspired by natural forms and developed through an elaborate R&D process. We talked to Luka Matutinovic, the brand’s global marketing director, about Swedish design culture, coupling a minimalist aesthetic with intricate mechanics, and how sex toys have evolved since the early aughts.
Before launching Lelo in 2003, Filip Sedic, Eric Kalen, and Carl Magnusson worked as 3G phone developers. What led to their partnership?
The Lelo story began in the Stureplan district of Stockholm, Sweden. It was here that engineer Filip Sedic met with designers Eric Kalen and Carl Magnusson to share thoughts on a “Pleasure Project” known as Volonté. Sedic's idea was so unique at the time that many simply laughed it off as a pipedream; yet when the project was presented to Kalen and Magnusson, their design sensibilities made it entirely irresistible.
And so it proved with Lelo, when Sedic, Kalen and Magnusson were charged with finding a fortieth birthday present for the woman who had it all. Following the many Volonté discussions, they settled on the idea of a sex toy, yet their search through the streets of Stockholm revealed a complete absence of products they could feel proud of gifting. Everywhere they turned, they found cheaply-made, poorly designed items that were tacky at best—and unhealthy at worst. More than they first imagined, a demand was not being catered to. The trio left their jobs to work on the new project full-time. Sedic sketched out everything from battery and motor placement to quality testing and initial packaging concepts in his notebooks.
How do the three founders collaborate and leverage their unique skill sets?
Lelo was founded on the principle that personal massagers intended for women should be designed with women in mind. The very first Lelo prototypes combined Sedic’s passion for technology with Kalen and Magnusson’s sleek and sophisticated approach to design. Each sample was assembled by hand in Sedic’s living room, and first shown to friends, wives, girlfriends, and mothers. The feedback they gave in these early stages proved pivotal, as the principles of “less is more” and “leaving a little to the imagination” began to form in the very fabric of the brand. Another thing that became clear right from the outset was that Lelo’s Ida and Lily personal massagers would never be seen as typical sex toys. A new name was required for such designs, which soon led Magnusson to propose the concept of “Luxury Erotic Lifestyle Objects.” As the idea began to settle, this singular approach helped define a clearer direction for the brand—and inspired the now famous Lelo name.
What was the sex toy industry like when Lelo launched? How has it evolved since then?
When Lelo was launched 15 years ago, so little attention had been paid to sex toy design, or what customers were actually looking for. Everything was a thumbsuck, completely detached from what women and their partners might want. Lelo saw an opportunity to make a radical difference and set about designing products to fill that void.
Fast-forward 15 years and since the launch of our first product, we’ve succeeded in transforming an entire industry. Our secret has been to focus on research and apply the best engineering practices, good business sense, and the highest quality controls to every product released. As Lelo’s popularity has grown, so too has the array of options from other brands adopting our approach. If you compare the sex toy industry now to 15 years ago, it’s a completely different animal.
Lelo has received 36 international design & industry awards. How do you balance aesthetics and functionality?
We have a defined creative process founded on more than 10 years of research that ensures new ideas are offered on a weekly basis. We’re also continually monitoring customer feedback on our products, as well as tracking industry and technology trends. There’s an open atmosphere of communication across the company as new ideas are offered.
The simpler a pleasure product is to use, the more complex it is internally.
In terms of our brand aesthetic, it’s a blend of things but our designers generally stay as close to organic forms as possible, since nature consistently proves to be the richest source of inspiration. And while our products are minimalist on the outside, the inside workings are far more complex. It’s not dissimilar to the camera on your iPhone, where you tap your screen and catch the perfect image, but it’s all of the hidden internal workings that ensure a good result. Generally speaking, the simpler a pleasure product is to use, the more complex it is internally.
You’ll see many products that mimic Lelo’s appearance, but none can match the performance. Lelo continually comes out on top in terms of durability, safety, power, noise levels and remote controls. And that’s by design, not by accident.
Can you describe your internal R&D process?
The process of developing a new pleasure product is a particularly long one at Lelo. The initial stages are very fluid: inspiration can come from our lives, a long creative meeting, or even from a suggestion from one of our social media followers or retail partners. That’s the first stage: the idea. Then comes refinement and plausibility testing. There are a lot of ideas being generated all the time, so much so that we need to make sure an idea is possible, let alone viable, before we spend time figuring out how to make it real. During this phase, which often involves sketches and clay models and laughter, the product begins to take shape, and the most obvious hurdles of the design are overcome.
We then engage one of our in-house product designers to start drawing up the concept, producing a number of 3D renderings of how the final product might look. At the same time, we’re investigating and developing the machinations and internal dynamics: how will it actually work? What technology is required? What might consumers want? How can we surprise them?
Once we know the idea is solid, and we have 3D renderings and models for review, the production team develops prototypes and squashes any engineering issues that appear. Finding solutions to difficult design obstacles is an incredible amount of fun, and once you figure it out it’s really rewarding.
Once the working prototypes are being tested and refined, we begin working on the marketing: the packaging, the straplines, and the photography. That’s the last creative process before we begin rolling out the product.
You're based in Stockholm. How does the local culture influence your brand?
The biggest influence of Sweden can be seen in our designs. Scandinavian design has a history of blending form and function more than any other design culture. We take pride in creating pleasure objects that are sensuous in look and feel, and that our customers can feel proud about owning.
Amber Rose is your current brand ambassador. What is your strategy for influencer relationships?
As our key demographics vary in age group, and our customers are both male and female, we choose different types of influencers to connect to our consumers. But no matter who we choose, they have to embody the values of our brand. We want to tell our consumers that in 2018, there is no shame in owning a pleasure object, it is all about empowerment and embracing your bodies and your pleasure.
Amber is exactly that, an embodiment of authenticity and empowerment. She talks openly about sex and sexual preferences, which are topics that society tends to stigmatize.
What's next for Lelo?
At Lelo we never stay put and our creative think tank always has numerous ideas waiting to be released. What I can tell you is that we are preparing something big.
Frances Thomas is a writer based in New York City. She recently graduated from NYU.