Ralph Anderl – founder of ic! berlin – has his personal phone number inscribed on the inside of every frame his company makes. It’s indicative of his philosophy for ic! berlin – he wants to be entirely approachable, like a medieval shoemaker, an artisan whose customers return from time to time for adjustments… or simply to ask a question.
Tall in stature with broad shoulders, high-sculpted cheekbones and a shiny bald head, Ralph Anderl exudes confidence. From afar, with his outlandish jewellery and sharp black suit, he looks pretty intimidating. When you’re sitting across a table with a mineral water in hand, he’s the most approachable man you’d ever meet.
Ralph’s story of establishing ic! berlin is interesting, to say the least. His philosophy for the company’s continued evolution is nothing short of inspiring.
“I was doing my PhD in cultural sciences – a mixture of literature, art and philosophy when my friends came to me with an idea. They’d designed a screwless frame and
Going forward, Ralph’s aim is to ‘disappear’
cut it out of aluminium so it was very fragile. They asked me if they could use my head to shoot the prototype to show an eyewear manufacturer in the south of Germany – they wanted to convince him to take the design on.
“They never intended to build a company – they thought design was a difficult business, that because they had no idea about manufacturing it would be much too risky.
“Luckily the guy in southern Germany didn’t like the idea; he didn’t understand the potential and so he didn’t want to do it. It’s often the case that the experts – in whatever field – can’t see outside the box they’re working in. So I said ‘let’s do it ourselves’.
“So we started the whole thing from zero – opening the yellow pages and working out how to make a pattern, how to cut sheet metal – we learnt everything. Then I took my bicycle around Berlin and I showed the opticians our one frame with a few different lens colours.
ic! berlin got the start it needed when one of those opticians suggested they take the frame to a trade show in Cologne. “We had no idea there was a trade show just for eye wear – we were so removed from the industry,” laughed Ralph.
With little financial backing, they couldn’t afford a booth, so they hid the glasses inside their jackets and ran around showing them to people walking through the aisles… until they were told they couldn’t. Unorthodox, yes, but effective. La Roche – offered them a corner of space on their stand for the remainder of the show.
Ralph and his business partners took another unorthodox approach, this time to raising funds to commercialise their screwless frame. Interestingly enough, it’s an approach being used by many companies today. “We did some crowd-funding – we sold pieces of paper that promised a frame within three months. Then, once we had gone into production, we sent two German actors our frames and asked for photos of themselves wearing them. That was magic because they answered and then they were filmed wearing them on movies and talk shows.”
The actors were then invited to invest in ic! berlin, and suddenly the fledgling company became an entity with five partners and the financial backing required to go forward.
These days, ic! berlin is 17 years old and employs a staff of 165 people worldwide. Ralph still has a focus on innovation and to ensure he doesn’t become an “expert who is no longer able to see the potential for new ideas”, he engages young people from all walks of life to contribute to his product design and development.
“Having the knowledge is as important as not having the knowledge – the one is not working without the other. So we have an established system with the knowledge and within that we work to improve our product every day. But we also ask people who have no clue about glasses to get involved in the design process – we work with fashion designers, architects, even children.”
Ralph said the target audience for ic! berlin is… well… everyone: “Whoever has two eyes and one nose… two ears is helpful… they’re designed for people who like the functionality – the age doesn’t matter so much.” He said his aim is to create a frame for every face so that “everyone can find the perfect frame…this is the challenge… this is why we are never finished and we are open to ideas from crazy people who have no idea about glasses – we have a business structure that can fit these crazy guys.”
But product and marketing is not everything, says Ralph, who claims as much emphasis needs to be placed on all areas of the company – even the “boring and grey” areas of bookkeeping, logistics, production and services. “The aim is to get better and better in all fields of the company – we are an art installation that must be beautiful in every field.”
Aim to Disappear
Going forward, Ralph’s aim is to “disappear”.
“The secret to being an inventor is you have to learn what you do and why. In the beginning you do things automatically, without knowing why. Then step-by-step you learn why you do what you’re doing. It’s a long process of learning. Many companies never do this, they follow the founder’s ideas. They do what they do by intuition without knowing why. The important thing, as a founder, is to share information and make everyone in the company understand why we are special… what makes us different… why are we ic! berlin. Then the process of disappearing can start. This is important preparation for the future because the only secure thing in life is that you’re going to die, the company needs to be able to continue once I have disappeared.”
Ralph’s continuous drive for evolution and improvement has seen the collection expand this year. All models are now available with improved bridges especially designed to suit the face shapes of Asian customers. ic! berlin has introduced a more feminine optical collection inspired by the 50s and crafted in sheet metal, an acetate range with an edgy rough finish (rather than polished), and ‘the Green Collection’. This more sporty eyewear with an 6-base wrap, has silicone temples and nose pads for a close fit, orange and copper lenses supplied by OptiSwiss (an offshoot of Zeiss) that improve contrast and darken outdoors, and of course, have the flexible structure for which ic! berlin is renowned.
Individual models have been named after public transport stops in Berlin and promoted with a ‘lookbook’ beautifully illustrated by Japanese-born, Berlin-based futuristic artist and textile designer Shinpei Naito. The lookbook is just another example of the confidence Ralph has when positioning his product, the passion he has for collaborating with creatives from distant genres, and his commitment to the philosophy that makes ic! berlin unique.
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