You recently launched the Plume Solar Chandelier, Chlorophyta and the Sun Calendar. Tell us about the design inspirations and how you designed/created them?
As LED lighting technology improves, its color range will widen; now, however, the range is still narrow and therefore benefits from skillful filtering and dispersion tactics. In our research in LED lighting, we have found that an important way to make LED light more comfortable is to filter it through natural materials, helping to dissipate the light in a manner that glows more softly.
I’d already produced solar chandeliers with seashells inspired by a client who lived in a beach house. I had been exploring customizable options for different environments with various organic materials. Plume was inspired by an Instagram post of a friend, Ulla Parker, in her friend fashion designer Naeem Kahn’s fabulous costume of black iridescent feathers.
In an increasingly high-tech global world, local organic materials with known origins are familiar and connect to the natural world. Biomaterials filter LED light and counterpoint the glossy, techno-photovoltaic material in this lighting design.
Chlorophyta takes inspiration from the algae material. Algae is translucent and has sculptural potential; its colors are varied, rich and vibrant. Texture and shape are also main factors; the unpredictable form of each algae shade after the drying/molding process, as well as its tactile textured surface, help to dissipate the light in a manner that glows more softly. The frame is golden-hued brass or bronze to help reflect the LED bulbs in a warmer light. As LED lighting technology improves, its color range will widen; currently, however, the range is still narrow and therefore benefits from skillful filtering and dispersion tactics.
Sun Calendar is inspired by different senses of time. The wall installation is made of a rectangular grid of square reflective photovoltaic panels, represents linear time by mirroring a fragmented image of a historic house across the street, and cyclical time by representing the sun’s rhythms in the shape of its curve, where each panel faces the sun optimally according to the seasons. Its pixelated appearance refers to the fragmented sense of time we experience in the digital world. In addition, the LED lights replay the daily movement of the sun after dark, underlining slow biological sun rhythms.
As opposed to the lightning speed of information transfer on digital screens, this photovoltaic screen operates according to the slow passage of the sun in its energy transfer. It engages us in a slower type of perceptive process that may allow the mind to rest in a moment of reflection as opposed to reaction. The duration of multi-sensual experience of solar rhythms allows us to connect with nature’s clock, strengthening mental apprehension of biology.
Resembling a typical monthly wall calendar that is divided into squares, the screen makes palpable the overlapping of the passage of the sun with a clock-based calendar of months and hours. The calendar/screen takes the form of a three-dimensional field consisting of a slowly moving grid of shadow patterns and larger evolving geometric shapes of projected sunlight. This diurnal and seasonal schedule of sun diagrams operates according to a cyclical notion of time. The lights will be programmed to shine faintly during the periods of dawn and dusk, and more brightly during full darkness. Also, the memory of the repetitive and predictable yearly sun passage is represented by the curved shape of the screen based on optimum energy collection throughout the year.
How does your academic work inform your professional work and vice versa?
I dove into academia for several years to explore the ‘why’ behind my work. Since I began my doctorate in architecture in 2008, I read, taught, and wrote about philosophy, architecture theory and environmental technology while I designed and built my pilot project, Cocoon House, along with all its interiors. I explored the debate around affect theory to develop a unique architectural approach. Now that I’ve expressed that approach in the form of Cocoon House and for my clients’ work/live spaces over the years, I’m moving fully into the realm of practicing architecture again. As an architect, I continue to be inspired by the latest developments in philosophy, architecture, art, and environmental technologies.
Tell us about your product design. How did you begin and where do you see it going?
My product design began in sketchbooks I filled from the moment I finished architecture school. I kept sketching architecture and sculptural furniture pieces that were inspired by nature, especially the vast Nordic landscapes that surrounded me when I lived in Oslo. There I designed and built the Arctic Line of furniture, which was launched at the Copenhagen Furniture Fair Talent Zone in 2007, made possible by a grant from Norsk Form.
I now see my product designs as accessories to the environments I create for my clients. The products can sometimes play central roles, where the architecture and interior design may serve as backdrops to environmental design pieces, lighting and/or furniture.
You are a professor, writer, architect, interior designer and product designer. Which one do you prefer and why?
I prefer architecture because I believe that’s where I can make the greatest impact as a designer, in creating sustainable spaces that uplift peoples’ lives.
When designing, how do you prioritize sustainability, functionality, and aesthetics?
I start with asking how the client may experience the space in ways that serves their wellbeing. I take inspiration from biology, which is most often sustainable, functional, and aesthetic simultaneously. I align my design thinking with ‘organic essentialism,’ a term coined by the British product designer Ross Lovegrove. ‘Essentialism’ entails boiling the concept down to its essential aspects – in product design it means expressing the structure of the piece without extraneous materials – the way biology functions. In architecture and interior design ‘organic essentialism’ may translate into minimalist style in addition to serving the environment.
The original sketch for Cocoon House, for example, upon which the entire house is formed, is based on basic Passive House principles of functionality and sustainability, as well as the wigwams of the native American structures of the historic neighboring Shinnecock reserve. The aesthetics then follow automatically as an integral part of the concept, which is inspired by and shaped by the natural elements of the site, and most importantly how the inhabitant will experience them. Essentialism also entails efficiency – the house is first based around passive house principles in its orientation and building principles, including rainwater recycling and native planting, then takes advantage of active strategies for solar power collection (there is no gas or oil used in the house).
If I’m designing a space that has little access to nature, such as a basement or a dark apartment, I include biophilic design elements that may lift the space and the human spirit.
Light seems to be an important part of your work. Can you tell us about the power and functionality of light?
In terms of functionality, the orientation and geometry of a structure in terms of how it filters light are key elements in its energy efficiency. In Cocoon House, for example, the sunlight entering the southern glass façade provides passive heat gain. The thermal masses of the thick northern/western walls keep away humidity and retain heat while providing privacy.
Again, light is an integral part of biophilic design that considers the experience of the inhabitant above all. The way light is filtered into a structure can synchronize with living patterns. For example, finding evening sun in the dining area, and morning sun in east-facing bedrooms, if possible, to promote healthy sleeping patterns. The study of how daylight affects our wellbeing is based on research performed on hospital patients and their reactions to daylight related to the healing process.
Daylight is a healing element if designed in ways that enhance wellness, for example by heightening awareness of slowly moving biological sun rhythms. Again, taking Cocoon House as an example, experience of the sun in a structure that is half opaque and half exposed guides the framework of the design. In the half of the house that is crystalline and transparent, sunlight filters through the translucent colored skylights, reflects off the water cistern and enters through the glass facades. The translucent colored skylights located above the hallway are based on Goethe’s color theory, used by J.M. William Turner in his sunlight paintings above water. The colors range from vermilion red, which signals sunset and rest, above the main bedroom, to deep yellow, which signals zenith and activity, nearest the living room. The changing daylight on the round projection screen connects to solar rhythms throughout the day, directing attention to biorhythms in the passing of seasonal and diurnal cycles, marking hours through slowly moving light patches.
Electric lighting is also an important area of research and development at nea studio. We design lighting fixtures (described earlier) as part of our exploration of how to improve the LED industry to provide visual comfort in the spaces we design.
Nea studio is also currently gut renovating a studio apartment in the meatpacking district, where the main purpose of the design is to maximize the view and daylight entering in the large southern windows. Our apartment renovations often focus on optimizing daylight through design strategies such as material choice and placement of walls, ceiling height, etc.
What can we expect next for you?
More sustainable architecture that uplifts peoples’ lives. I mean sustainable in the broadest sense – affordable and serving the wellbeing of both planet and human beings.
Currently I’m in the process of designing and building a modest starter home for a client who lives on a waterfront property on the Shinnecock Reserve. The house will be simple but provide a threshold for the community to the water, which historically was a fishing community. The windows onto the water view will provide daylight to power and illuminate a solar feather chandelier that I designed, inspired by the head dresses worn for traditional Shinnecock ceremonies. The chandelier will be fabricated by the talented seamstresses who sew the regalia for the pow wows and placed above the dining table.
Additionally, nea studio is in process of gut renovating an apartment in the meatpacking district, designing the interior architectural elements of a house in Cape May, NJ, as well as designing and building a new construction in Vermont.