New technology often walks a tightrope between the necessary and the needless. With our reliance on digital devices ramping up over the course of the year, most of us favoured raw functionality over eccentric forms, as well as the chance to get away from tech wherever possible. On the other hand, companies of all sizes found new ways to innovate, whether it was refining old favourites, emphasising longevity over disposability, or simply creating new forms of surprise and delight. In no particular order, the following ten stories are technology editor Jonathan Bell’s favourite forays into the intersection of design and the digital world, with a healthy dose of care, craft, and creativity thrown in. 

Top 10 technology stories of the year

01. Transparent’s portable Light speaker gets the party glowing

Light speaker by Swedish tech firm Transparent, one of Jonathan Bell’s top 10 technology stories of 2021
The Light speaker (photography courtesy of Transparent)

A portable speaker and lamp in one, the Light speaker by Swedish technology firm Transparent draws inspiration from the traditional lantern. Transparent may be small but it has grand ambitions. Established in 2011, the Stockholm-based brand found early fame with its signature Transparent speaker, a striking piece of industrial design that lays its internal workings bare thanks to meticulous industrial design. Their new Light speaker pushes all our buttons. Writer: Jonathan Bell

02. Cosmo, the cutting-edge take on the electric guitar by Verso Instruments

Cosmo Plus guitar by Verso Instruments, one of Jonathan Bell’s top 10 technology stories of 2021
The Cosmo Plus guitar (Photography courtesy of Verso Instruments) 

In the past year, we saw the electric guitar undergo one of its periodic revivals. While the instrument is regularly written off as old and embarrassing technology, beloved by Boomers and irrelevant to modern mores, interest is always sparked by revivals and returns, as well as a constant stream of innovators who are able to do new things with six strings and a chunk of wood. What rarely changes is the guitar’s form factor; musical innovation doesn’t necessarily need technological change. This is where Verso Musical Instruments comes in. Founded by the industrial designer Robin Stummvoll and based in Hessen, Germany, Verso Musical Instruments builds electric guitars with a difference. Writer: Jonathan Bell

03. Urbanista’s new ‘Los Angeles’ headphones are solar-powered stars

Urbanista Los Angeles headphones in Sand Gold and Midnight Black, one of Jonathan Bell’s top 10 technology stories of 2021
Urbanista Los Angeles headphones in Sand Gold and Midnight Black (Photography courtesy of Urbanista)

Swedish technology brand Urbanista is trying to do something a little bit different. The company’s newest product is dubbed ‘Los Angeles’, an appropriately sun-drenched destination for a pair of wireless headphones that can be charged using the sun. We spoke to Anders Andreen, Urbanista’s founder and CEO, about this new approach to power-saving technology and attention to detail. ‘We make products for modern urbanists,’ says Andreen. ‘Our brand, products, and packaging must all stand out, just like a fashion brand. These headphones have to be something you want to wear.’ Writer: Jonathan Bell 

04. Virtual supercars offer a new kind of driving experience

AMR C-01 by CURV Racing Simulators, one of Jonathan Bell’s top 10 technology stories of 2021
CURV x Aston Martin AMR-C01 (image courtesy of CURV Racing Simulators)

Virtual supercars and the delights of sim racing mean you can test the limits of an Aston Martin Valkyrie or a Zagato, say, without leaving the comfort of your gaming den. For those with the space – be it in sitting rooms, studies, garages, or even dedicated gaming complexes – this new breed of digital driving experience has been developed in close collaboration with manufacturers and designers. We found a fleet of virtual supercars that are primed and ready to tackle the world’s trickiest circuits and most spectacular roads from the comfort of home. Writer: Jonathan Bell 

05. Wallpaper* Smart Space Awards: best new design and technology for the home

 the best new design and technology products for the home
Wallpaper* Smart Space Awards: the best new design and technology products for the home (Photography: Neil Godwin at Future Studios)

In 2021 we unveiled the winners of our first-ever Smart Space Awards, a striking selection of the best new technology and design products for the home. The panel of judges included architect Tosin Oshinowo, of Nigerian practice CM Design Atelier (part of our 2021 Architects’ Directory); artist, musician and designer Yuri Suzuki; and Harrods’ retail manager Veronica Forin, together with Wallpaper*’s editor-in-chief Sarah Douglas and transport & technology editor Jonathan Bell. The five sifted through a substantial pile of entries, searching for objects that inspire, and technology that’s designed to last. As always, the winners are very Wallpaper*, a celebration of undeniable beauty, striking design and intuitive function. Writer: Jonathan Bell 

06. Mod Devices’ open-source instrument pedals play a different tune

MOD Dwarf, one of Jonathan Bell’s top 10 technology stories of 2021
The MOD Dwarf (Photography: Amos Fricke)

Berlin-based Mod Devices creates a new generation of multipurpose audio tools. The small company subscribes to the ethos that systems should be open to those with the time and skills to make a change. Mod builds effects processors for musicians of all stripes, with each device a building block for an unlimited sonic world. In layman’s terms, its digital boxes sit between instrument and amplifier, allowing players to layer different effects in infinite numbers of ways, as well as create their own. Writer: Jonathan Bell 

07. Minimalist speaker designs blend audio with art

Bang & Olufsen BeoSound Level, top 10 new technology of 2021
Bang & Olufsen BeoSound Level (image courtesy of Bang & Olufsen)

A new generation of audio design puts overt technology on the back burner in favour of warm materials, simple forms and ultimate flexibility. We round up the best ways of bringing high-fidelity sound into your home with the ultimate levels of discretion and taste. From Bang & Olufsen to Bose, KEF, Braun and Sound-Aesthetics, these are speakers we’d be very happy to live with. Writer: Jonathan Bell 

08. Fender looks forwards with a new hybrid guitar design

Fender Acoustasonic Jazzmaster, top 10 new technology of 2021
Fender Acoustasonic Jazzmaster (image courtesy of Fender)

Fender’s Acoustasonic Jazzmaster is a hybrid design with a built in ‘Acoustic Engine,’ a processor that transforms its clear but neutral tones into a variety of different types of guitars. When it was launched in 1959, Fender’s Jazzmaster was originally pitched at, unsurprisingly, jazz musicians. It soon found more favour as a twangy surf rock instrument before undergoing a cult revival in the 1980s and 1990s. In Acoustasonic form, it remains one of Fender’s most elegant shapes, with a thin, fast neck that suits any number of playing styles. Pair this instrument with a modern effects processor, and you have a beautifully crafted all-rounder that flatters the everyday player but sounds good enough to use professionally. Writer: Jonathan Bell 

09. Syng is rethinking the art of speaker design

Cell Alpha Speaker by Syng (image courtesy of Syng), one of Jonathan Bell’s top 10 technology stories of 2021
Cell Alpha Speaker by Syng (image courtesy of Syng)

Syng was started by Christopher Stringer, a product designer with over 20 years of experience at Apple, where he worked on various iterations of the iPhone, iPad, MacBook, and Apple Watch. His co-founder, Damon Way, founded skatewear specialists DC Shoes and was also a partner at accessories specialist Incase. As Syng’s chief brand officer, he’ll put his extensive experience with artist collaborations to use, while Stringer’s role as CEO and chief design officer gives the new company a solid grounding in design-driven products, starting with the Cell Alpha Speaker. As well as the solidity of the components and enclosure, the Cell Alpha incorporates Syng’s ‘Triphonic’ sound, a way of mapping space to help shape the sound, with the ‘Triphone’ three-horned sound project at the centre of the object shaped using 3D printing. Writer: Jonathan Bell

10. Inside Apple Park: first look at the design team shaping the future of tech

Apple Park by Jason Schmidt, one of the top 10 technology stories of the year
Apple Park, Photography: Jason Schmidt 

And finally, no apologies for mentioning one of our biggest stories of the year, a global exclusive interview with the Apple Design team. Led by Evans Hankey and Alan Dye, the Apple Design Team holds enormous sway over our evolving relationship with technology. Opening the doors to their studio at Apple Park in Cupertino for the first time, they offered us a deep dive into the working processes behind their latest creations. Writer: Jonathan Bell 

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