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The light bulb, long a symbol of breakthrough ideas, is slowly fading into obsolescence, sooner or later to be replaced by the newer technology of LEDs.
On the sooner side, at this year's International Contemporary Furniture Fair -- the biggest design trade fair in the U.S., held in New York from May 20-23 -- designer Yves B?har and furniture giant Herman Miller are introducing the Leaf lamp, based on LED technology. While it's not the first LED lamp to hit the market, it comes backed by Herman Miller's brand and sales strength, which should give the technology a boost.
If buyers jump when the elegant product hits stores later this year, it will also increase the company's share of the lighting market. Both B?har and Herman Miller hope it offers a glimpse into the future of hip, environmentally friendly accessories for the home and office.
UNLIT SEGMENT. The project began four years ago, when Herman Miller -- the company behind the legendary Aeron Chair -- approached Béhar, whose designs for such brands as Toshiba, Tylenol, and Mini (as in Mini Cooper) had turned heads.
"Herman Miller has a history of being innovative in seating. And we wanted to be true to our roots," says Mark Gierz, concept project manager at Herman Miller. "We really thought, 'If we built an innovative product in 2002, what would it look like? And how could we also find a way to grow in other categories and gain market share?'"
Since it only offered a limited line of lamps, the company settled on lighting as a segment with potential. And the cost of researching, developing, and manufacturing a lamp was less than that for larger furnishings such as couches or desks. Plus, as Gierz says, the company believed customers shopping for a chair might well need a lamp, too.
EMOTIONAL APPEAL. Béhar liked both the challenge and the scale of the project. "It seemed like something small that we could do without too much risk," he says. But a series of design and financial challenges stretched the project over a longer period than originally anticipated, and forced the team to stretch their imaginations.
From the beginning, the designer wanted to create an "emotional" product that would be inviting to use and also provide a flexible, self-contained lighting system that could be adjusted to reflect different moods. Practically, he wanted to address a potential growth market -- lighting for the home office.
"More people are taking work home, and at the same time, offices are becoming like home," he says, referring to the ever-increasing length of American workweeks. "But there aren't too many products truly adapted for work in the home."
TOO DARN HOT. To create a product suitable for today's home office, "What we did was look at tech not as tech but as way to keep things simple and intuitive," Béhar says. "We want to convey that tech is at the service of the human, setting up mood and feel. It enhances our lives."
Béhar started simply by drawing shapes and making paper mockups. He wanted a slim, flexible lamp, one that could easily be adjusted to various angles. He made cardboard models first and looked at different bent shapes, then created them digitally, using CAD software. Through these initial design studies, new challenges emerged.
One major challenge was heat. All light bulbs generate heat that can make lamps painful to touch, and therefore a nuisance to adjust. LEDs give off even more heat, and in the early stages of the design Béhar was considering standard bulbs. He experimented with various systems, including incorporating a small fan (a common strategy) and a water-based cooling system (perhaps not so practical or safe, as the lamp is electric and requires a plug).
BULB BREAKTHROUGH. At the same time, Gierz and Béhar started to research emerging, energy-efficient alternatives to standard light bulbs. The Herman Miller team attended several conferences on LED technology, and brought on an engineering firm -- Los Gatos (Calif.)-based Gecko -- to help with the technical specifications of the lamp. In the early 2000s, however, LEDs weren't as commercially available as they are today -- and especially not in reading-friendly white hues. The ones available were mostly being used for bright public displays, and came in colors like deep red.
Then, in the midst of the project, the team hit a financial red light in 2002. Facing economic challenges after the dot-com bust and the events of 9/11, Herman Miller put the Leaf lamp on hold.
In the end, the delay was fortuitous. By the time the team was ready to ramp up again, Béhar, Gierz, and Gecko had made contact with Nichia, a Japanese LED maker which had just developed a compact, white LED.
Béhar liked the small size of the bulbs since they meant he could achieve his aesthetic goal of a sleek lamp. He wanted to showcase the LEDs, and make the user aware of their presence. So he elongated the lamp's head, making the LEDs neatly and dramatically spaced. The prominent head of the lamp also suggests a more anthropomorphic shape -- as if the lamp were a creature with, well, a head, thus speaking to Béhar's goal of creating an "emotional" object.
LITTLE CHIMNEYS. But Béhar found himself back at the drawing board when it came to cooling. LEDs might be energy efficient -- "40% more than compact fluorescents," he says -- but they still get hot. He tried incorporating a fan, "but then I lost the slim shape," he says.
Béhar took a long, hard look at his design, wondering how he could add to the lamp's personality and its functionality. And then a light bulb went off, metaphorically. He realized he could build a functional role into the small bumps in the stamped metal he had initially incorporated as a way to highlight the LEDs. By punching a tiny hole in the top of each crown, he turned them into little chimneys.
He also realized that the stem of the base could provide a "heat sink" -- an extended area over which the heat could spread and dissipate. He built channels into the lamp's head and neck that would draw air away from the bulbs and down to the base, making the sleek form as useful as it was graceful.
MIXING LIGHT. With these problems solved, he still had two to go. How could he make the lamp's lighting system adjustable? And how could he design the lamp, with its built-in LEDs, in a way that made it easy for the user to replace the bulbs rather than discard the entire piece when the lights wore out?
He concentrated on the hinge connecting the head to the base. The head, now cooled efficiently, wouldn't be too hot to touch. So users could bend the head up or down -- or twist it -- to control the level of lighting in a room. The hinge is also simple to remove, so that a new head can be added when the LED bulbs eventually go out.
Finally, to turn the light off or on, Béhar added a dimmer that he believes is intuitive to use -- you simply roll, or scroll it. While the analogy to the iPod controller is obvious, Béhar says he was more inspired by LP records and the way hip-hop and dance-club DJs mix music. "Instead, you can mix light," Béhar says.
CLASSIC IN THE MAKING? Gierz sees a parallel between Béhar's Leaf lamp and Herman Miller's Aeron Chair. "Like the Aeron, it's aesthetically compelling, and fulfills a promise when you sit in it. It's driven by features and functions," Gierz explains. "We wanted to do same thing with light. The Leaf draws you in, then continues to delight."
But is the Leaf destined to become a design classic, like the Aeron chair? Already, it's turning heads. "When a new tech comes into play, it often takes designers time to find the right formal expression of that technology. LEDs have actually been around a long time," observes Paola Antonelli, design curator at New York's Museum of Modern Art. "But what's most interesting is that the Leaf lamp's very expressive form is justified by mechanical requirements."
In other words, like Edison's iconic light bulb, it marries art and technology, bridging form and function.