Design Heritage - Interview with Daniel Stromborg

MELLOW LIGHT far more than just a new office luminaire

The new MELLOW LIGHT demonstrates an iconic design that references back to previous generations but also shows progressive aspects. Lightlive spoke with Daniel Stromborg of Gensler to find out how he managed to develop a design that matches the pioneering technology of the new MELLOW LIGHT without losing connection to its design legacy.

"The project had already kicked off when Zumtobel took me over to the Year of Light celebration in Dornbirn in April 2015. At this point, Zumtobel had already developed something and the question was which direction the design should take." (Daniel Stromborg) © Daniel Stromborg / Gensler

A little bit out of the blue Daniel Stromborg, Product Design Practice Area Leader at Gensler, got a phone call from Wolfgang Egger, Executive Vice President Global Sales North America, asking if he was interested in developing a light together. Pleasantly surprised Daniel said: “Yes, absolutely!” As he felt that not often someone at Zumtobel, a company that he had known as best of brand in the lighting industry, asks you to work together.

So what excited you about the project?
I've been interested in light for a long time, but for the most part, I have done furniture in the past. You sit back in a chair and you know how the chair sits, how the back feels and if the arms feel right – with light it is totally different because it is intangible like air. This makes it so hard to plan from both a design and experiential standpoint. The optical engineers have a much better feel for it and this is one of the great things about collaborating with them. I loved the project because I learned so much and, in many ways, it has dramatically affected the way I look at space. I think it has opened up a new skill set and it is fair to say that at least, so far, I have raised a considerable appreciation of luminaires and lighting design within my team here.

Daniel Stromborg from Gensler. © Daniel Stromborg / Gensler

How did the design process unfold?
It was a very unusual approach compared to the product design process than what I am used to. The project had already kicked off when Zumtobel took me over to the Year of Light celebration in Dornbirn in April 2015. I was introduced to the team and given the backstory of the project, in terms of the research and design that had already been done. At this point, Zumtobel had already developed something and the question was which direction the design should take.

For me, there were two directions the design could ultimately go: either you take a heritage approach that references back to what is happening in MELLOW LIGHT 4 and 5, even maybe 3. Or you go for a progressive approach that negates the history and is doing something radically different, as far as technology and form factor would allow. Zumtobel’s original concept was very organic and way more on the progressive end.

What was your take on this, did you have a feeling straight away which direction the design should take?
When I got involved, I looked at what Zumtobel had done thus far in order to get a feel for what direction might be the best way to head and we looked at this idea of heritage and progression. The MELLOW LIGHT 4 had historically done incredibly well and there was feedback that the end-user, as well as the sales team, loved it for a couple of reasons. Those reasons were compelling from a form standpoint, and because of them, I decided to lean more towards the heritage end of things. It became more much about an evolution of form, rather than doing something radically different. My analogy on this is the Porsche 911. The 911 has gone through more than 50 years of evolution at this point in time, and it’s a form factor that I would say almost everybody in the developed world is aware of. You could put two cars next to each other that were developed 50 years apart and you will understand that there is a common form language that’s evolved over time, but they still bear a certain resemblance to one another. So I asked the development team to look at what was successful in previous versions and use that form language to dictate what happens in the new MELLOW LIGHT.

The new MELLOW LIGHT - more than just another light. © Zumtobel

How did you build the bridge between former versions and the new MELLOW LIGHT?
Looking at the MELLOW LIGHT 4, one of its key components was the idea of a third dimension that we wanted to keep. It had a narrow light engine compared to MELLOW LIGHT 5, and the significant middle grill which was very popular. Even though people loved the grid, there were issues with it in terms of light performance, but we wanted to reference back to the grid with a very high performance looking, crystal optic. Unfortunately we couldn’t go with that small of a grid because it too killed our performance, but you can see the tie in. James Irvine had done an incredible job with what I refer to as layered patterning in the MELLOW LIGHT 5 because it breaks up a rather mundane big object. Another key takeaway from James's work was what I call the ‘Irvine Step’. This is something that I really wanted to keep, as a kind of homage to James Irvine and his development team. But with regards to the wings, we went more into the organic so that we were still satisfying the request of people that were asking for a more organic cross section. So this goes back to MELLOW LIGHT 4 and how there was more of that soft feel in terms of the reflector that was casting the characteristic mellow light onto the wings. We did address the progressive end by integrating the optics Zumtobel had applied in their original concept with very beautiful water clear, crystal lenses.

What is your most favourite detail of the new MELLOW LIGHT design?
This is definitely the 'Irvine Step'. It was awesome to have the chance to work on an evolution of something he had designed. I have huge respect for what he accomplished, not just with MELLOW LIGHT, but as a whole. It is a subtle thing but I really like the way the detail worked out between the ‘Irvine Step’ and the water clear primary optic. But aside from that design reference, it also serves a very specific purpose in our updated design.

How was your experience working with Zumtobel?

There is always a give and take of what the engineers wanted to do and what I pushed for. But I have to say that, Zumtobel is amazing to work with, because very rarely do I ever hear the word “no” when I ask a question. They would always come back with an answer for me. Even if we couldn’t do want I wanted to do, I was at least always given a thorough explanation of why we can’t and what we could do instead– and that I guess is one of the wonderful things about working with Zumtobel. Their ability and willingness to explore is fantastic.

"I think if you look at the history of truly successful objects, they are as relevant today as they were 50 years ago. And I think, with MELLOW LIGHT, we managed to continue the evolution of its form language in a timeless yet iconic way." (Daniel Stromborg) © Daniel Stromborg / Gensler

The Zumtobel headquarter is located in Dornbrin/Vorarlberg, what was your first impression of the area?
Well, Dornbirn is a funny place to go in order to visit the thought leader in lighting. They are not in Berlin, Vienna or Zurich – they are in Dornbirn. But I would move there in a heartbeat! I love that my team in Dornbirn are all active people. I like to spend my free time in the mountains, either on skis, climbing or on my bike, so there was a lot of bonding with some of the team after the work stuff was done. For me, going to the mountains can be very inspirational, it’s like pushing a mental reset button and is pivotal to my sanity in a lot of ways. And my time spent in the mountains can also give me creative clarity.

How would you describe your design philosophy and how did it inform the development of MELLOW LIGHT?
Keep it simple, stupid (laughs)  – this is actually kind of true. I like to let materials speak for themselves and let materials do what they want to do, because this can give you amazing opportunities with form. I like honesty in design and a certain level of timelessness versus fashion oriented design. I think if you look at the history of truly successful objects, they are as relevant today as they were 50 years ago. And I think, with MELLOW LIGHT, we managed to continue the evolution of its form language in a timeless yet iconic way.

In your opinion why do you think the new MELLOW LIGHT is built to thrive?
There is a fine line between just another light and becoming a smart light. The whole backstory of the human centric design MELLOW LIGHT, especially with the Infinity version, is bringing something to market we don’t see with other products at this point in time. Also, I think this particular product is well ahead of the curve in terms of bringing this story to the US. Just recently, Gensler issued another large survey called The U.S. Workplace Survey 2016 and it reiterated this idea of Choice. This is big trend right now - and a global phenomenon – but this idea of Choice is also running hand in hand with the softening of the work place, the idea of moving back to a residential look and feel. The super sterile workplace is, to some degree, disappearing, giving way to a softer, more human centric workplace through material, through shape, through proportion, not necessarily having a whole grid of identical light across a whole floor plan. It is about creating moments in the design that give a break. It is also about how you can facilitate the transformation of a place that has previously been for focus into a place of collaboration. In my opinion MELLOW LIGHT has all the potential to offer solutions to these questions.