Vale Keith Hensel, Breville and former Sunbeam product designer

Breville Group principal designer Keith Hensel died on 11 January 2013. This is an edited transcript of Breville design and innovation director Richard Hoare’s eulogy, reprinted with permission.

Keith: a man with many names. Kensel, Kense, Kenichiwa, Gorge, the Guru, the Oracle.

Allow me tell you a story about Keith. He was born a beautiful second son to David and Catherine Hensel in Adelaide. Four years later and another baby made three boys: Andrew, Keith and Richard.

There were early signs that Keith had an artistic gift. In Kindergarten, his teacher was amazed that Keith drew an in-proportion anatomically correct giraffe.

At Burnside Primary and then Pembroke he did very well academically, excelling in art and all things creative.  He had a vivid imagination and loved adventure, missions and projects.

He made a beautiful gold Tutankhamen mask replica and pyramid of Cheops model out of Plaster of Paris with buttons that would light different parts of the cross section of the pyramid.

No one had a chance against Keith in the Pembroke school science show model award.

Growing up he secretly dreamt of discovering a real treasure chest in his backyard.

He loved the idea of finding a Willy Wonka Golden Ticket to exploring the magical factory owned by an inventor where anything seems possible.

Not content to wait for the Golden Ticket he started some building and inventing of his own. He built mechanisms and marble machines.  He built a telescopic pole to glue up the propeller on his neighbours’ windsock aeroplane.

He built weird and crazy bikes, and if it didn’t work modifications were required until it was perfected.  He played with Lego until he was 19.  Yep — I know what you’re thinking — that’s way too young to stop.

He built a house extension with his Dad, an architect.  He loved working with wood and being hands on.

Keith felt everything was to be challenged and explored, that anything was possible and that you could change the world.  I get the sense that David and Cath empowered Keith with the freedom and trust to explore.

Keith’s Father delighted in exposing him to as many interests and phenomenon as possible to stimulate and enrich his growth and understanding.  Keith developed a passion for photography, music and also became skilled at classical guitar.

Keith enrolled in architecture at Adelaide University topping the year, but this wasn’t for him, and he changed to industrial design at the University of South Australia.

Here he was at home researching, sketching, testing, refining and inventing. He went into his final assessment unsure of how he would go, working late — he was stressing — so much to do.

As can be the contrary nature of creativity, he worried it might be a disaster but he graduated as the top student in a talented year.  For Keith there was always stress: it was the stress and hard work that produced the great solution, but before the great solution arrived it could be an anxious time.

In 1991, with a desire to learn more about how things go together in a factory, Keith joined Sunbeam.

For me, this was the start of 20-plus years of professional collaboration with Keith.  We both learned so much there, including being sent to live and work in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, for seven months to design a range of irons.

We worked hard in the day and we made prototypes after hours in our hotel rooms with super glue and Dremels.

With an impressive folio of award-winning products under his belt, Keith moved to Breville in 2002 with an opportunity to design and develop the best products in the world.  He loved working with everyone in the Breville family.

Keith routinely found ways to do the impossible. He was an inventor with over 220 patents. He won over 25 design awards.  His products receive hundreds of 5-out-of-5 online reviews.  He still thought they needed improving.  He loved reading the reviews — such direct feedback — and a reminder that he was doing a good job.

One of people’s favorite inventions of Keith’s is the “a bit more” button on our toasters, in case the bread comes up a bit light.  This just makes people smile and even spurred an article titled ‘What a toaster teaches you about the future of user interfaces’.

Keith was the Designers’ Designer.  We all know that there are more famous designers, but no-one who knew Keith had any doubt that he could and would run rings around ALL others.

A fund has been established to support Keith’s widow Shelley and children Sam and Zoe. Click here for more information.

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