March 1, 2012
The Sweet Spot
Lured by higher margins and lower entry costs, young American product designers are making a profitable discovery: creating lights might provide the best business model around.
To see the full range of offerings from Roll & Hill, the decorative-lighting company founded by the designer Jason Miller, you don’t proceed to a glitzy downtown showroom. Nor do you stop by the D&D Building in midtown Manhattan, where other, comparably priced luxury fixtures are sold. Instead, you travel to a building located in a gritty section of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, near a scrap-metal lot and in the shadow of a Brooklyn-Queens Expressway overpass. Here, in the main room of what was Miller’s old apartment—now expanded into a 4,000-square-foot warehouse, prototyping area, and office—five workers hand-assemble Roll & Hill’s signature pieces from components sourced from around the country. Hanging in one corner is Lindsey Adelman’s Knotty Bubbles, a sculptural tangle of thick rope and handblown glass globes. To the left is Paul Loebach’s Halo, an industrial-looking pendant made of four concentric metal rings. And there, against the wall, is Miller’s ceramic Superordinate Antler chandelier, the fixture that remains a prime example of Roll & Hill’s creative direction. “It’s lighting that aims to appeal to the American market,” he says of the company’s ethos. “It’s not Americana, but pieces that have a bit of history to them, a depth and richness that seem comfortable and recognizable to Americans.”
Three thousand miles away, in a storefront office in the tech-and-design nexus of Potrero Hill, San Francisco, Peter Stathis is developing LED lights and light engines. A product designer and educator whose clients range from Amazon to Humanscale, he currently spends most of his days immersed in what he calls “structural-mechanical-electrical” pursuits. Five years ago, he decided LEDs were the way forward. So his Virtual Studio began developing strategic partnerships with Asian and American companies that had advanced technical and production capabilities. The aim: to create affordable LED fixtures that mitigate the technology’s aesthetic shortcomings (the quality and color of the light, for one, and those god-awful bulky heat sinks, for another). “We designed these ball-and-socket joints so the electrical current passes directly through them, without the need for additional wiring,” he says, point-ing to the Trapeze, a table light whose streamlined arm and balance resolve into plump dewdrop shapes. “The joints have a 360-degree range of movement and unlimited rotations, something not achieved before.” The fixture’s warm glow is courtesy of its proprietary flatpanel LED light engine, which Stathis cocreated with engineers in Asia.
What do Miller and Stathis have in common? They’re the two faces of independent American lighting design, a sector that’s exploding due to new markets, new technologies, and new manufacturing modes. On the surface, these protagonists may seem to represent the greatest geographic bifurcation of styles since the days of Biggie and Tupac: East Coast designers primarily interested in the luxury sector, and West Coast ones fixated on technology. To an extent, that binary is true. But those lines have an awful habit of getting smudged as designers on both sides of the country find ways to thrive in the mid-to-high-end market.
“High-end lighting, it’s just one of those things where there are enough people willing to pay a premium for it that you can make a pretty damn good living from it,” Miller says conspiratorially. “A chandelier is a showpiece. There are not a lot of home goods that are. And it being a showpiece, people want to know there is a person behind it.” He leans in, elbows on his Parsons desk. “Having an independent designer is an add-on to the price. But for lighting, people are willing to pay for it. That’s why we’re in this business.”
Roll & Hill is a primer on the current direction of New York independent lighting. Its roster is a veritable who’s who of emerging talent and Brooklyn’s big guns (the only glaring omission is David Weeks, whose fixtures have long been repped by Ralph Pucci). Designers license pieces to the company, but retain the right to sell other work on their own. It was frustration that drove Miller to start Roll & Hill two years ago. Despite being an internationally recognized talent, one with all the right connections and credentials, he was barely breaking even. So he looked at what was selling, and to whom, and made a decision. He would create a luxury decorative-lighting company with a distinctly artisanal aesthetic. It would trade in bespoke quality, not mass quantity, and use name-brand talent. And for the privilege of those designers’ touches? Miller priced the fixtures to achieve margins north of 50 percent of wholesale, compared to the 10 to 30 percent average for furniture.
So far, the bet has paid off. Roll & Hill has doubled its team in the past 12 months and expects to double its sales this year. Offerings include $360 sconces and $950 table lamps, but the company’s chandeliers—which clock in between $1,500 and $30,000—remain “its bread and butter,” according to Miller. Chalk that fact up to an economy where the one-percenters are still in force. “That market that has been—and continues to be—consistent throughout the economic ups and downs,” says Jamie Gray, the founder of the Manhattan design store Matter and the creator of the luxe furnishings and lighting line MatterMade. Also to thank is the show-stopping nature of a great fixture. “It’s like the diamond on a ring,” Gray adds. A $10,000 sofa, no matter how formidable, simply doesn’t compare.
For many indie lighting designers, Roll & Hill’s approach serves as a template for producing and selling high-end handmade goods—especially in the aftermath of the limited-edition market’s crash. And in its success, the company has exposed an asset that’s unique to lighting: the ability of a single model to appeal to multiple design sectors. Back in the day, interior designers used to specialize in one type of market. But now, with the fluidity between resi-dential, commercial, and hospitality sectors, “the lines are so blurred,” says Lindsey Adelman. “In some of these houses, there’s not much of a difference between doing a living room or a hotel lobby.” In the experience of Rich Brilliant Willing—a trio that self-manufactures some its fixtures and licenses others to Artecnica, Roll & Hill, and the Spanish company Marset—office designers have scrimped on furnishings in order to splurge on lighting. “This big commercial space just purchased a lot of our Delta lights, but then opted for no-name, injection-molded chairs,” says Rich Brilliant Willing’s Charles Brill.
In the case of LEDs, the tide has flowed from the commercial market to the residential. Advances in color and light rendition were the reason that Cerno Group believed it could take this traditionally task-oriented lighting out of the office and into the home. Three years on, the Laguna Beach–based concern—whose lines include modern LED floor and table lamps, wall sconces, and pendants—is even aiming for the hospitality market, introducing a line of linear pendants this spring.
The new aesthetic and technical opportunities offered by LEDs also explain why designers are flocking to lighting. The light sources’ tiny size allows for shapes that have never been possible before. (That’s the case with Miller’s Endless lamp, which is composed of tubes too narrow for halogen or incandescent bulbs.) Plus, thanks to advances over the past five years, LEDs have turned into a material unto themselves. They offer a laundry list of characteristics with which to experiment, from creating multiple planes of light and sequencing them in unheard-of ways, to altering lumen output and pushing the boundaries of energy efficiency. The curious can opt for sophisticated plug-and-play LED modules off the shelf; the more serious can create their own custom light engines, as do Cerno and Stathis, to achieve certain effects (the latter’s proximity to Bay Area lighting research facilities and start-ups helps, of course).
LEDs’ possibilities come with a steep learning curve, so designers committed to using them must collaborate in ways to which they may not be accustomed. The simplest examples include consulting with an electrical or mechanical engineer (which many of the East Coast designers do) or having one on your founding team (as Cerno does). In Stathis’s case, it led him to spend nearly half of last year abroad. He’s partnered with a company in Taiwan for his studio’s current work on large, luminous LED surfaces. “It’s just very difficult to do this in the States, as the leaders in those developments tend to be in Asia,” he says of his choice. “We want to work with the best people that we can, and we have to do that wherever they are.”
Using LEDs also poses unique financial and production challenges. “When you’re designing a table lamp with an incandescent fixture, the bulb costs around 50 cents; when you doing it with an LED fixture, it may be 25 dollars,” says Stathis, laying bare the field’s high entry fee. “So to come up with something competitively priced requires advanced manufacturing facilities, knowledgeable engineering partners, and a desire to work efficiently with your materials and form.”
Stathis, whose business model is volume-oriented, has the majority of his pieces manufactured in Asia. But that’s not the only game in town when it comes to LED technology—particularly if you’re looking at small-batch production, to which lighting lends itself. Cerno, for instance, makes several thousand of its fixtures each year in the 3,400-square-foot workshop located below its office. The space is outfitted with wood and metal areas, a CNC router, an electronics assembly station, and an R&D lab where the company tests all of its LEDs. “We’re using high-tech machinery and high-tech components, pairing them together in a sophisticated way,” says Cerno cofounder Nick Sheridan. In its quest to ensure quality control, the company also makes nearly all of the components in its offerings. “It’s not an easy thing, where you can take a bunch of things off the shelf and jump into it,” he says. “It’s a developed process, a kind of craft.”
Together, Cerno’s high-tech craft and Roll & Hill’s luxe LED fixtures prove a point: American lighting is not as simple as an East Coast–West Coast divide. Ultimately, the designers are all serving a market. “I always thought it was crap when people claimed Americans have no taste,” says Miller, noting that domestic orders account for three-quarters of Roll & Hill’s sales. “It is just a different taste, one not confined to European modernism, which is what people tend to consider, quote-unquote, design.” He leans forward and drums his MacBook Pro. “So when people lodge that complaint about American consumers, what they are really saying is that Americans don’t want to buy European modernism.” He grins. “And frankly, I’m totally fine with that.”