December 1, 2006
The Electric Kid
Moritz Waldemeyer is the technical wizard behind some of lighting’s most dazzling creations.
As information and technology grow exponentially, and novel ideas suddenly appear, how does a conscientious designer cope? By spending more and more time pursuing new knowledge and skill, or by stuffing all that and consulting specialists? On the international scene, one of the latest time-saving experts to have emerged is a young, suddenly invaluable electronic-controls-and- mechanisms designer: Moritz Waldemeyer. If overnight prestige is enticement enough, his example might be considered a new path to follow.
Waldemeyer—born in 1974 in Halle, Germany—took up business studies in London and got practical experience at the Robert Bosch center in South Carolina. Finding the engineering of Bosch products fascinating, he decided to seek out a new course of study at King’s College London called Mechatronics, a combined grounding in two previously different disciplines, mechanisms and electronics. “Since electronics now control every product and device,” Waldemeyer says, “the two are no longer separable.”
He moved to the United Kingdom to work with Philips, which sponsored his academic research project on lighting systems programmed by DVD. After three years the company tried to draw Waldemeyer deeper into the development of its home-entertainment business, but as the future experts’ expert had left business studies behind, he reconsidered his position. He wanted to understand how artists performed as designers, so in 2003 he phoned product and furniture designer Ron Arad, whom he’d been hearing about.
Once in a blue moon cold-calling works: Arad agreed to meet him. When asked what had attracted him to Waldemeyer, he replied, “I immediately knew I’d encountered a brilliant technician.” Soon Waldemeyer was teaching part-time at the Royal College of Art, where Arad was a professor of design products, learning from other members of staff—and especially from students, “with their crazy ideas,” as Waldemeyer puts it.
Around this time Swarovski commissioned Arad to design a chandelier. The Lolita light was to be a flat ribbon spiral made from thousands of crystals lit by light-emitting diodes (LEDs). Arad asked Waldemeyer to build the light, integrating the LEDs and connecting them to computer controls so that viewers’ text messages would appear on Lolita’s matrix of illuminated crystals. The glittering result, with lit-up letters moving downward that make the spiral appear to turn, was produced for Swarovski’s Crystal Palace Collection in 2004, and later exhibited at the Venice Architecture Biennale and Tokyo Design Week.
The chandelier’s success was followed in 2005 by a second one, Miss Haze, bearing the fictional Lolita’s last name. Arad designed it as a rectangular surface made from 2,500 clear Swarovski crystals dangling on thin wires. Its lights, with electronics by Waldemeyer, were again controllable LEDs, but this time shapes could be drawn that would change or move like a magic flying carpet. Waldemeyer programmed them to function via a handheld personal digital assistant (PDA) with a touch screen. If you and a partner were to dance underneath and you were to draw a heart on the touch screen or write “I Love You,” Miss Haze would reproduce it in pixels in the air above. (Or you could write “$142,000,” the price of the chandelier, which might impress a loved one even more.) Arad says that Waldemeyer’s role was as a technician; he bridles at the idea of his being a collaborator. But “Moritz’s heart is in the right place,” he says. “He detects every tiny critical issue and then goes off to solve them.”
In person Waldemeyer is not your typical nerd. He comes across less as a lonely geek by the blackboard with a bunch of pens in his shirt pocket than as a boyish hipster who’s laughing with the smarter crowd at the end of the pub bar. When I phoned about writing a piece on his work, he said, “Do I know you?” I quickly put up the ambiguous hedge that I use to conceal my dodgy memory. To my mortification, he turned out to be one of my son’s and daughter-in-law’s best friends. I’d last seen him at their wedding five months before, when he was a volunteer DJ on the late shift.
“So did Moritz string up the fairy lights?” I asked someone else who’d been at the wedding. “Probably,” was the reply. “He’d cheerfully tackle anything. Moritz completely disproves the unemotional German stereotype. He was at his best at the stag party. When he arrived he announced that he was leaving soon because he had to get to the Albert Hall in the early morning.” (Moritz later interpolated, “To wire up the glasswork table displays for a Swarovski charity event the next night.”) “But he was still with us at one a.m. at the go-kart track, where he beat us all and won the race.” (Moritz cherishes the trophy.) “At three a.m. he was the life of the party, and it was about six a.m. when he left the last club we got to, just before he had to show up at the Albert Hall.”
Around the same time that Moritz was becoming the go-kart Schumacher of London—most likely complete with champagne shower—he had started consulting for Zaha Hadid. She was doing some projects for DuPont with the company’s Corian, a thermosetting acrylic polymer that’s been around for years. Hadid was asked to bring a bit of architectural excitement to the material. The architect’s team thought of a few ways to do that with kitchen counters: the plastic is layered and thermoformed into astounding shapes. And as plain Corian has a milky translucency, Waldemeyer’s contribution was to embed lights under the surface that remain invisible until they’re turned on.
Waldemeyer’s design briefs are normally quite specific. His usual method, he says, is to “think through the whole apparatus of technical bits and pieces including what I’m not familiar with. I make a prototype, or a collection of prototype modules. Then I stick them together.” He tries to master the technical issues before building a more refined version.
Hadid and Waldemeyer are now working on a new project together that’s hush-hush, but the engineer has used his DuPont connection to develop new ideas on his own for Corian. These include Pong, his take on the classic 1970s game that consists of a rectangular white Corian table concealing an integral back-and-forth play of computerized lights; and the more impressive Roulette, an oval Corian table—with the current off, it appears plain white—that turns on to become a numerical field for the placement of chips. When all the bets are down a random-number generator makes the table lights flicker in haphazard order, while around the overhead lamp shade a revolving beam shines out like a mad lighthouse until it stops turning at the same moment the flickering numbers slowly come to a stop at the winning number.
Arad seems annoyed by Waldemeyer’s Corian designs because he thinks the engineer’s interactive LEDs come too close to his own use of fiber optics to project film onto Corian. I don’t see the similarity myself since a primary element of Wal-demeyer’s work is the expression of electronic controls. When Roulette and other Waldemeyer exclusives were presented recently at the Rabih Hage showroom in London, the gallery’s PR person dubbed him the “Electric Kid.” The title bemuses him, though it seems affectionate. Quite appropriate really: Das Elektrokind.
Waldemeyer is keen to keep designing entirely on his own. On the other hand, there is a cautionary German proverb that he translates as not doing all the cooking in your own juice. He continues to enjoy collaborating with others, and he loved working with the innovative fashion designer Hussein Chalayan on the Paris and Tokyo shows.
As a demonstration of changing shapes in fashion, Chalayan wanted to end his show with six dresses and two hats that would transform themselves electromechanically on the models along the catwalk in real time. Confronted with that challenge, most engineers might well have said, “Get lost,” but Waldemeyer devised the control electronics for a complex set of micromotors with tiny pulleys and nearly invisible cables. In September, when the spring/summer 2007 Paris fashion show was held, the concluding group of Chalayan dresses and hats in the promenade spectacularly changed shapes; and for the series finale the ultimate hat magically raised the costume below like a curtain on threads and absorbed it, leaving the model naked to sophisticated stormy applause. Vogue called the presentation “an astonishing feat of technical wizardry.” So the Electric Kid may only be about three years into his career as an electromechanical-design engineer, but smart money should be on him to win a lot more go-kart races.