Desktop Comet

The icons of desk-lamp design can be counted on one hand and usually have names resembling those of obscure deities or saints: Ara, Berenice, Luxo, Tizio, Tolomeo. Generally speaking, to be a desk-lamp icon it has to be designed and produced slowly in Italy and unveiled in Milan with great fanfare, followed by an extended period of mysterious unavailability.

Lucesco, an American company with a deceptively Italian-sounding name, wants to change that. It was founded last year in Silicon Valley, and its first product, a desk light that uses new LED (light-emitting diode) technology, was conceived, designed, and manufactured in just over a year—the kind of speed usually associated with the computer industry. The European design elite would probably sniff and dismiss the lamp as another novelty electronic gizmo from the land of the Segway if it weren’t for the fact that it was designed by Richard Sapper, a name inseparable from the icon of high-design task lights, the Tizio.

Now well into his 70s, settled (but not retired) in Milan, and an éminence grise of product design, Sapper might not be expected to throw his hat in the ring with a California start-up founded by a semiconductor-industry entrepreneur. But the designer was so crucial to this venture that the company only came into being once he was on board. The illuminating tale of the LED desk lamp begins in Palo Alto in 2003, where Curtis Abbott, a former software engineer who had sold his semiconductor business during the dot-com boom, began experimenting with the idea of light fixtures based on the mobile sculptures of Alexander Calder. “I got interested in LEDs because they can be very small lightweight sources of light,” Abbott says. “This is especially appropriate when you’re putting things at the ends of mobile arms.” A friend saw his experiments and suggested he meet David Gresham, a prominent designer and design manager, formerly at Steelcase and Fitch.

Early in their conversations, Gresham had convinced Abbott that he should meet with Sapper rather than try to develop the light themselves. “I had started sending him to various designers’ Web sites, all the guilty suspects,” Gresham recalls. “I said to him, ‘You can’t design the light, and I can’t design the light. If we’re going to start a new company we need to start with a known quantity, a designer who has a reputation in this arena.’” He arranged a lunch meeting in the IBM tower in New York in November 2003 to demonstrate to Sapper the rapidly emerging capabilities of LED technology.

LEDs, which are semiconductors, are now commonly used for car brake lights, bike lights, and traffic lights because of their robustness and durability. They do not burn out but gradually diminish their light output over about 20 years; they are more energy efficient than incandescent or halogen light sources, which convert only five percent of electrical voltage to light (LEDs convert between 15 and 20 percent; fluorescent lights convert 30 percent). As with the rest of the semiconductor industry, advances in LED technology are exponential, with improvements in light efficiency, color, intensity, and cost spawning more design applications. Las Vegas, the perennial showcase for dazzling new illuminations, is now awash in LEDs. But of particular interest to Lucesco was a new generation of high-powered warm white lights, which manufacturers are beginning to market as alternatives to incandescent bulbs.

Sapper was familiar with the technology from his knowledge of the computer business: for more than 20 years he has been product design consultant for IBM, where he has left his indelible mark on its Thinkpad line of laptop computers. (Like the new light, the Thinkpad was conceived as a product that reveals itself only when operated: the form is inspired by a cigar box or Japanese bento lunch box, its smooth black exterior opening to reveal a jewel-like interior.) Sapper was not aware, however, of recent developments in the technology. “I doubted very much in my first discussions with Lucesco that there were benefits over halogen lighting,” he says, “but there are a group of reasons.” For one, LEDs were being coated with a phosphor film that produces a white light with a color-rendering index very similar, according to Sapper, to halogen and incandescent bulbs. They were also coming down in price. And for Lucesco the relatively high cost of LEDs would be offset by the fact that one never need replace the light source—at least not for 20 years or 50,000 hours. Engineers in the business argue both these points, contesting that over the years LEDs do deteriorate and that the color spectrum of coated LEDs is not yet as broad as is advertised. But Lucesco holds that the technology is just at the cusp of viability as a task light; it has looked at three different LED suppliers since the project’s conception in its search for the most suitable light source.

Perhaps the most beguiling aspect of Lucesco’s proposition to Sapper was the small size of the LED head, enabling him to pick up where he had left off 35 years earlier. “It made it possible for me to do the balancing act I did on the Tizio, but with movement in all dimensions at every joint.” He adds, “If I had been asked to design the Tizio today I would opt for LEDs.” Sapper, Gresham, and Abbott made a handshake deal, and a company was born.

More than 20 million of Sapper’s Tizios have been sold by its Italian maker, Artemide, since it was launched in 1972. With a small angular head swinging from a pivot and counterweight system, clean lines stripped of springs and wires, a transformer plinth base, and an efficient footprint, the Tizio came to symbolize the 1980s idea of high design, for better and worse. It popped up in countless movies, including Wall Street, in architecture and design offices, and in most design anthologies of the twentieth century. Its resemblance to an oil-pump jack only seemed to underscore its associations with the hyperbolic world of finance capital and commodities.

As a functional piece of design the Tizio was exceptional, with a wide range of movement and a cool, precise pool of halogen light designed to illuminate a piece of paper without getting in the way of the person using it. But its first selling point, the tiny halogen light, was also its Achilles’ heel. Despite the fact that Sapper used a bulb that he thought was becoming widely available in garages for car headlights, the Tizio’s lightbulb has remained expensive, difficult to find, and in the earlier design, a fiddle to replace. Artemide’s best-selling task lamp these days is the Tizio’s successor, Tolomeo, designed by Michele de Lucchi and Giancarlo Fassina, which uses a conventional incandescent bulb. Artemide makes more than 100,000 Tolomeos a year, according to industry lore, compared with the Tizio’s annual production run of 50,000.

Back in Milan, Sapper was so intrigued by the possibilities of an LED desk light that he went to work immediately. In February 2004, Gresham flew to Milan to introduce Sapper to Lucesco’s newest recruit, engineer John Tang. To their surprise Sapper pulled out a model he had already built: it was made of hand-soldered brass, with a head of crushed soda straw stapled and held together with a pair of red pliers. “My first impression was that he had been thinking about this for thirty years,” Tang says. “I was greatly impressed with that first model. I wasn’t sure from an engineering standpoint if it would work, so when I got back I built my own. It worked perfectly, without pliers.”

Tang was no stranger to the idiosyncratic ways of product designers. His company, Think Outside, developed the once ubiquitous foldout Stowaway keyboard that enthusiastic Palm users attached to their handheld PDAs on planes and airplane trays. Prior to that he worked with Jonathan Ives’s industrial-design team at Apple Computer, when the group was producing complex curvaceous surfaces. But, Tang notes, Sapper’s methodology is different from that of the Apple designers. “He has quite a bit of technical background and has helped me in resolving some problems. That is another contrast with the Apple ID people, who were very heavy on the design, using a completely different CAD system, Alias, whereas the engineers use Pro Engineer. There alone was a communication gap.” Sapper is intensely focused on the physical form of a product, prototyping early. Tang adds, “Richard doesn’t feel comfortable until he’s seen it.”

Collaboration ensued at an excited pace across several time zones, with Tang in California and Sapper in Italy. Tang instituted the Skype Internet telephony system, and the veteran designer took to it with teenage enthusiasm. “Due to my age I have problems with hearing on a speakerphone,” Sapper says. “Skype’s great advantage for conference calls is that you aren’t using the lousy speakers in a phone, but the decent speakers on a computer. The voice quality is much, much better.”

One of Sapper and Tang’s biggest challenges was the heat generated by the LEDs, which made the head too hot to touch. At first they experimented with heat-dissipating fins, which inspired Sapper to name the light Halley: “The head of the lamp looks somehow a little like a comet, with a tail, and on the next joint we have a balancing weight, a sphere, which in my mind is the Earth.” Eventually Sapper turned back to a solution familiar from his Thinkpad work—the miniature fans in notebook computers. Abbott and Gresham were at first resistant both to the name and the fan, but Sapper persisted. (He once famously won a battle with IBM over the color of the red eraserlike tracking ball at the center of the Thinkpad keyboard—which IBM worried signaled “emergency”—by agreeing to magenta then gradually shifting the tone back to red with each successive prototype.) In the end, the fan, which includes a heat pipe, became a defining feature of the light’s kinetic characteristics.

This January Gresham strode into the offices of Metropolis carrying a large black shotgun case. He gingerly opened it to reveal the fruits of Abbott’s early impulse—Lucesco’s first working prototype, nestled in dense packing foam. Although it was unfinished, requiring Gresham to hold the transformer when moving the light to prevent a cable slipping out, the Sapper trademarks were apparent: spare, minimal, angular form, more stripped down than the Tizio, with two whimsical-looking but functional features—a bronze sphere protruding from the central axis, and a birdlike head comprising a small fan and a flat panel of 16 points of white light.

In its final form—with black or silver finish, in two desk sizes and a floor version—the Halley retains the air of an experimental piece. Perhaps it is the strangeness of the light source—16 miniature spotlights arranged like a sports stadium floodlight—or the delicate fan enclosed within an orange cone, inspiring more trepidation than a desire to grab and move. Yet the motion itself is as pleasingly fluid and responsive as a German car, revealing another Tang-Sapper innovation: a patented joint that both connects and conducts electricity while allowing 360 degrees of motion. The joint was inspired by audio plugs, with friction added to prevent the light from acting like a mobile and dancing with the slightest breeze. In this respect it is clearly a descendent of the Tizio, offering precision but also more maneuverability. If the Tizio has a “predatory” look, as design critic Penny Sparke once put it, the Halley’s disposition is more inquisitive. The robotic comet articulates at its three axes, moving smoothly into position.

After the Halley is sent into orbit at the Milan furniture fair this month, the company is aiming to make it almost immediately available in stores. At press time about 60 retailers had agreed to carry the light in the United States, and Lucesco had begun talks with European retailers with the goal, according to Gresham, of reaching sales to rival the current number of Tizio lamps sold per year. In January, however, the goal of instant availability was still in the balance. Tang and program manager Rich Coulter tag-teamed two-week stints in Taiwan with the light’s manufacturer to deal with various production hiccups. Sapper observes, “In the furniture field you usually exhibit something at a fair and then you wait for the reaction to decide whether you want to make it or not.” He has experienced the raw end of this arrangement as a designer whose product was shelved after a lukewarm trade fair response. As for Lucesco’s ambition of instant availability, Sapper chuckles, “I’ll wait to see if it really happens. If it happens it will be great.”

Lucesco’s reasoning for a fast launch is that the experience of the computer industry—as well as Gresham’s lesson from Steelcase—dictates that every day a product is unavailable after its unveiling amounts to lost sales. Another reason for haste is that, unlike its lighting rivals, Lucesco has no existing inventory to sell after its Milan debut.

The one-shot product line will expand quickly, however, if all goes according to plan. The company has already recruited at least five more designers to work on further LED-based lighting designs to add to its range, but these are unlikely to appear until Milan 2006. As Gresham and Abbott see it, the whole field of LED lighting is similar to Moore’s law of exponential increase in computing power; and as prices decrease and capabilities broaden, the technology will inspire an entire new way of looking at how lights are designed. “It’s going to change the design parameters for lighting,” Gresham says. “You will no longer have to design the source at a single point; it could be spread out around the entire surface of the fixture.”

In a sense, then, Sapper’s arrangement of 16 LEDs in a rectangle may be akin to the first personal computers, those hefty typewriters with TV screens taking their cues from antecedent technology. Now that our methods of inputting and interacting with data range from touch screens and voice commands to global positioning systems, personal computers are disappearing into our pockets, cars, and walls. With the increasing miniaturization and power of LEDs, task lights might just go the same way.

On the other hand, Sapper has a knack for developing forms that withstand the fashion fluctuations of the most fickle industries. It is possible that we will still be buying some form of the Halley light 20 years from now.

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