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Fast Talk: Frank Nuovo

Frank Nuovo, vice president and chief designer at Nokia, has spent his career developing communication tools for those on the go. As a man who has logged over a week of travel per month for the past 14 years, he’s no stranger to the concerns of the modern road warrior. Most recently, he has stepped up as the creative force behind Vertu, Nokia’s luxury line of mobile phones, using materials like sapphire, leather, stainless steel, and precious metals to create truly high-end phones (they start at $3,850). T+L caught up with him at his home in Los Angeles and found out where he gets the ideas for his designs, how he can help you arrange to dine with the Queen of England, and why the vibration feature on mobile phones is handier than you might think.

1) How often are you on the road?
I travel about 25 to 30 percent of the year for business, and virtually all of it is international. Throughout my time with Nokia, I’ve made monthly commutes from Los Angeles to Finland and England, with regular stops in Asia and the rest of the United States, where I introduce new products and lecture on design.

2) What’s always in your suitcase?
The most essential item is my phone, but part of my job is to understand all portable technologies, so I travel with lots of toys-—laser pointers, exotic pens, video and music players. And then there’s my computer, and chargers and in-flight adapters, because nothing works without them.

3) Where do you find inspiration for new products?
I observe social and cultural behavior, new technology, traditional crafts, and fashion. I’m most creative on vacation, even though I’m supposed to be relaxing. Put me on a beach with a sketch pad and the ideas flow.

4) Cell phones have gone beyond their functional role and are frequently considered accessories. Did you ever imagine that this job would require you to be a fashion designer?
I hoped that it would. Being a designer today is as much about the convergence of creative boundaries as it is about functionality or technology. I wanted to make every tool at Nokia an object of desire, so I surrounded myself with others who understood and fed on fashion. Now I feel just as comfortable discussing and critiquing the design of a suit as I do the workings of a phone.

5) I’m sure you’ve conceived a few designs that never took off. Can you tell me about any of them?
Many good ideas happen either too early or too late—the magic is in the timing. Back in the early days of large briefcase phones, I designed a three-watt analog transportable phone that had a car-adapter charge cord built into the shoulder strap. But by the time we’d worked out all the mechanics, compact technology had matured and there was no demand for these big analog devices.

6) Describe your most unusual design.
While I was attending the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, I worked on a NASA-sponsored project and designed a zero-gravity restraint chair for the international space station.

7) Vertu phones feature a one-button concierge service. What has been the most outrageous request so far?
A customer wanted to have dinner with the Queen of England. Not an easy task, but our concierge researched all of the queen’s scheduled appearances and obtained tickets to one that included dinner. I heard that the customer attended and even sat near Her Majesty.

8) Do you always have your cell phone on, even when you’re not working?
My phone vibrated while I was on safari in South Africa. We were watching a pride of lions. I was glad it was on silent mode.

9) What’s the oddest travel experience you’ve ever had?
On a flight from Los Angeles to Copenhagen, a well-dressed businessman was making strange honking noises. Whenever you looked over, he would just smile innocently. Then he disappeared for four hours and the flight attendants couldn’t find him. He showed up before we landed, but where had he gone?And why was he honking?

10) What is the most memorable place you’ve been while on vacation?
My wife and I visited an Indonesian island called Bintan and stayed in a Banyan Tree Resort. It was really the wildlife that made it remarkable—there were monkeys in all the trees and bushes, and bugs that sounded as big as Volkswagens.

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