Straws Into Gold

Padlab turns a humble object into the stuff of beauty.

Plastic straws are up there with Popsicle sticks and poster board on the list of school-project flashbacks. However, Los Angeles−based design firm Padlab has elevated the lowly straw to a work of art with Flexicomb, a new material that fuses the plastic tubes into honeycomb-like structures. After finishing as finalists in the Metropolis Next Generation® Design Competition for the idea, Dan Gottlieb and Penny Herscovitch debuted Flexicomb lamps at the ICFF this past May.

“Flexicomb didn’t actually start with straws,” says Gottlieb, who met Herscovitch at Yale when she was an undergrad and he was a graduate student doing an independent study on double curvature—surfaces that have more than one plane of curvature. Honeycombs, which exhibit double curvature when bent, quickly surfaced as a material with a unique pairing of strength and flexibility. “Honeycombs are used mostly in the aerospace industry,” he says, noting that high strength-to-weight ratios make the structures choice candidates for airplane wings because of their need to be stiff, long, and light while allowing for little deformation. Honeycombs like those used in airplane wings have a structural “skin” like sheet metal glued to one end that reinforces them. “The price per square foot is substantial, so I had to make my own.” Gottlieb experimented with a variety of materials before packing straws together, with which he then became obsessed. The result of his research was Flexicomb, which has less rigidity than traditionally skinned panels but displays interesting geometrical and optical properties. “The straws in Flexicomb make their own skin,” Herscovitch says. “They don’t fill in the holes but self-skin to one another—we aren’t adding that additional layer like a typical honeycomb.”

Through a combination of heat and pressure, Padlab fuses the straws together into a hexagonal matrix like a beehive. “The straws start as individual cylinders,” Gottlieb says. “As heat is applied, they warm up and morph, inducing a polypropylene-polypropylene bond. So rather than thousands of individual tubes, the straws are held together in an open web.”

The two have quickly become known for incorporating light into their material exploration, a focus that was born out of necessity. “When we came to L.A. nearly three years ago, we found this great studio space, but it had no natural light,” Gottlieb says. “So we started designing, and it just clicked. Within six months we developed two or three lights.” Concurrently with the ICFF, Padlab exhibited an eight-foot-long Flexicomb wall fixture at the Center for Architecture, in New York. “It was in conjunction with the Richard Kelly show—he did most of the architectural lighting for Louis Kahn and Mies van der Rohe,” Herscovitch says. Between the Center for Architecture and the ICFF, Padlab received a great deal of feedback from people in the lighting industry. “We hope to work on more projects with architects and to explore sustainable options for new materials,” Herscovitch says.

This environmental interest was the direction Padlab pursued with Flexicomb for the Next Generation® competition. “We wanted to get straws that were used for their intended purpose of sipping and then sanitize them.” Herscovitch says. “But it would have been tough to incorporate recycled straws into our first retail product. It would have been a huge added challenge to reliably source enough recycled straws—approximately 7,000 per lamp—and set up effective procedures to sanitize them while getting the rest of our production and vendors lined up.” Their line of ethereal Flexicomb lamps, although not currently produced with recycled straws, is sustainable. “There is nothing in Flexicomb except for the polypropylene from the straws,” Gottlieb says.

The Flexicomb lamps, which give off a soft glow of diffused light, are available for sale on Padlab’s Web site. The designers are also collaborating with architects and others on custom versions. The lights will be followed by a new product: Boba Burst pen and card holders, fabricated with 37 fat Boba bubble tea straws. “Upcycling—adding value to a product instead of simply disposing of it—or recycling are realistic options for Boba Burst, especially since there are so many Boba Tea shops around Los Angeles!” Herscovitch says. She and Gottlieb still hope to incorporate used straws into their designs given the astronomical amount of them turned out annually. “One company, called Tetra Pak, has a factory that can produce enough straws in a year that they can circle the Earth twenty times,” Herscovitch says. That’s a lot of lamps.

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