Take it to the maximum: How Axel Hartmann’s design for the Rhodes MK8 came to life

For iconic industrial designer Axel Hartmann, the Rhodes MK8 design brief was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And as you’ll realise as soon as you clap eyes on this thing: Axel didn’t disappoint.

When it came to designing the Rhodes MK8, it was important to the Rhodes Music Group to pay homage to the iconic Fender Rhodes designs from decades past. The goal wasn’t just for the MK8 to look like a Rhodes, but to feel like a Rhodes too – both in terms of the physicality of the instrument, and in terms of the emotions it stirs in those who play it.

And when it comes to design, there was only one name the Rhodes Music Group was interested in: Axel Hartmann.

Axel has been a go-to designer in the music industry for over three decades, and has created iconic designs for the likes of Waldorf, Moog and Roland, to name a few. For Axel, the Rhodes MK8 brief represented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“Usually, a design brief is about maximising the industrial process – make this cheaper, make it easier to produce at scale, things like that,” explains Axel over the phone from his home in Germany. “But that was not the core of the request for the Rhodes MK8. This was about building an instrument that people really want, and about making it right in any way we can – taking it to the maximum. Rhodes weren’t shy to invest in this, and they never said to me: ‘Oh, we can’t do that’. That’s very attractive for an industrial designer. It’s not so often you have this kind of freedom when you design something.”

Just like Rhodes’ Chief Product Officer, Dan Goldman – who worked closely with Axel on the design of the MK8 – Axel’s relationship with Fenders Rhodes pianos spans all the way back to his childhood. He recalls first hearing the sound of the Rhodes pouring out of the family radio and into his living room when he was around 13 years old.

“I remember thinking: where does that sound come from?” says Axel. “The media wasn’t like it is today, so I went to the music store and asked the guy there. ‘Maybe it’s a Rhodes’, he said, and he told me he’d have one coming into the shop in a week or two. I went back later and, sure enough, I played the Rhodes, and I knew it was the instrument I wanted. From touch, to feel, the sound…everything.”

Axel ordered a brand-new Rhodes Mark I and the rest, as they say, is history. “I was really, really playing it a lot,” he says. “At the heart of it, the sounds and the way it responds to you when you play it…it was something very special.”

With such a deep knowledge and appreciation of the first Rhodes, it was important to Axel to pay homage to the legacy of Harold Rhodes’ original in his design of the MK8, while keeping his gaze fixed firmly on the future. “I wanted the MK8 to look and feel like it has a history,” he says. “But I also wanted to give it a twist that points into the future.”

Making the Rhodes MK8 customizable for each player was important to Axel and the team too – despite the added complexities that customization can bring to the design process. The purpose of Axel’s design, after all, is to mask and house thousands of internal components in the most aesthetically pleasing way possible. “It’s a very complex instrument,” says Axel. “It’s not something you can put together quickly. It’s a piece of love. But we’ve made it so you can customise the MK8 through the website to your liking – you can create an instrument that you would love in your home or on the stage or on the street.”

Axel’s attention to detail and commitment to craft is all over the MK8 – even in the pedal. “There’s a Rhodes pedal from the MK7, but it doesn’t look right,” explains Axel. “It doesn’t have the same character, so we decided to make our own pedal. It involved a lot of cost, but I realised during this process how serious the Rhodes team are about this thing. I really appreciate their work, and the freedom they gave me.”

Ultimately, as far as Axel is concerned, the Rhodes MK8 is in a class of its own – whether you’re talking about electronic pianos or musical instruments more generally. “It’s a real instrument,” he says. “It’s something that you will fall in love with and that will stay with you, probably, all your life. The MK8 is more than just another version of something. It’s a tradition.”

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