Going Organic

A new breed of flexible, ultrathin lights seems poised for design ubiquity.

Just when you thought you’d gotten a handle on LEDs, along come OLEDs, or organic light-emitting diodes. OLEDs have been around since the 1980s but only recently received widespread attention for their potential to create a new generation of incredibly thin, bright, and energy-efficient televisions. Now the technology is winning converts among industrial and lighting designers, and may soon become a common element of people’s everyday environments.

In the simplest terms, OLEDs are solid-state devices containing organic molecules that emit light when electricity is applied. Unlike the rigid crystalline layers in LEDs, the carbon-based layers of OLEDs are thin, light, and flexible. They are also extremely expensive to produce, but that is beginning to change. GE Global Research recently developed the first cost-effective printing-press method of manufacturing paper-thin OLEDs. “We expect the first application to be a high-end architectural product such as recess lighting in a cabinet,” a company spokesman, Todd Alhart, says. As costs continue to come down, Alhart predicts that entire rooms could be illuminated by a color-tunable, light-­emitting wallpaper. “OLEDs will provide people with an entirely new way to light their home or office,” he says.

A more immediate application is task lighting. Last spring, Ingo Maurer debuted Early Future, a table lamp made in collaboration with the German manufacturer Osram Opto Semiconductors. Resembling a small tree, the lamp has an array of ten thin glowing “leaves” that were only possible thanks to the OLED panels’ unique properties: they don’t require reflectors for light direction, and they are light­weight enough to be attached by metal pins.

OLEDs’ flexibility and modest size also make them ideal for small-scale industrial-design applications. Avnish Gautam won a Red Dot Award last year for his Mark bookmark, which uses a thin sheet of plastic embedded with OLEDs to illuminate the pages of your favorite book. Lv Zhongfang, a Chinese designer, has developed a watch with a random assortment of OLED dots that quickly arrange themselves to display the time when the face is tapped. And the Moscow-based Art. Lebedev Studio recently began taking orders for its Optimus Maximus keyboard, which allows typists to use any language, thanks to tiny, customizable OLEDs embedded in the keys.

Of these examples, the first two are still concepts and the latter has a price just shy of $1,900—clearly, OLEDs still have some hurdles to overcome before mass adoption. But this should be a matter of years, not decades. Brace yourself: the organic aisle is about to get a whole lot wider.

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