Contextual Illumination

Disegno #13 (2016)

Image by Delfino Sisto Legnani. 

One of the most compelling sections in Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow is an account of planned obsolesce in lightbulbs. Given that the book also includes a Pavlovian-conditioned attack-dog octopus; a retelling of the ‘Hansel and Gretel’ story with SS officer Captain Blicero and his Kinderofen in place of the witch; and a plot hinged upon how the erections of Lt Tyrone Slothrop, agent of ACHTUNG, are causally connected to the strike zones of V-2 rockets across Europe, it is a remarkable achievement that a history of the lightbulb stands out as one of the book’s most bizarre elements.

The section is told from the perspective of Byron the Bulb, a lightbulb manufactured by Tungsram in Budapest who, through a quirk of statistics, is immortal: he will never burn out. At the point in the story at which we enter, Byron is plotting for his compatriots across the continent to begin to strobe violently (“you can actually trigger an epileptic fit!”) or else “flame out in one grand burst instead of patiently waiting out their design hours”, as part of the emancipatory plan of Byron’s self-styled Guerrilla Strike Force. However… “Is Byron in for a rude awakening! There is already an organization, a human one, known as ‘Phoebus’, the international light-bulb cartel, headquartered in Switzerland […] Phoebus fixes the prices and determines the operational lives of all the bulbs in the world, from Brazil to Japan to Holland (although Philips in Holland is the mad dog of the cartel, apt at any time to cut loose and sow disaster throughout the great Combination). Given this state of general repression, there seems no place for a newborn Baby Bulb to start but at the bottom.”

Pynchon’s history is broadly accurate. Between 1924 and 1940, the Phoebus cartel dominated the global incandescent lightbulb market. Led by companies such as International General Electric, Osram and Associated Electrical Industries, the cartel reengineered lightbulbs that were capable of 2,500-hour lifespans such that they reliably failed after 1,000. At the cartel’s peak, Phoebus companies sold 420.8m bulbs a year, meaning that the worldwide lighting industry spent 16 years designing purposefully inferior products in order to maximise profits on a mass scale. Phoebus was eventually killed off by World War Two and its resultant failure in effecting close coordination between the cartel’s constituent members (Osram was German, Associated Electrical Industries British, Tokyo Electric Japanese and so on), but it remains indicative of the malpractice that can emerge within an industry when a technology is in its infancy. Today’s lighting market, for instance, may not be rigged in the manner of Phoebus, but there are nevertheless few reasons to be optimistic – at least from a design perspective. “The lighting industry is a disaster,” summarises George Sowden, a Milan-based designer who has been working to redesign the lightbulb since September 2014. “We’re creating lightbulbs that cannot be recycled or disposed of; that require a vast amount of energy and resources to produce; and which are hugely inefficient to run.” The result of this two-year investigation is the Sowden Light, a new luminaire that is planned to launch in 2017 and which proposes root and branch change of the lighting industry. “The lightbulb is an iconic shape, but it has one foot in the past,” says Sowden. “The solution, therefore, is to simply get rid of it.”

To understand what the Sowden Light is and why a new form of lighting might even be required, a little history is required. In 2005, beginning in Brazil and Venezuela, governments across the world began to phase out incandescent lightbulbs. “The European Union remains committed to achieving its objectives in the fight against climate change,” read a 2009 press release from the European Commission when it announced its own plans to abandon incandescents. “There is a four to five-fold difference between the energy consumption of the least efficient and the most efficient lighting technologies available on the market. Inefficient lamps […] will be phased out gradually from the EU market.” For “inefficient lamps” read “incandescent lamps”, the technology that precipitated the development of the lightbulb format by Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison in the latter part of the 19th century. The reasons for the bulb were originally functional. Incandescent technology relies upon heating a filament until it glows, but the filament needs to be kept out of contact with oxygen or else it combusts – hence a protective bulb. The shape, however, quickly went beyond functionality and acquired sufficient cultural cachet to become inseparable from the notion of light itself. “So accustomed are we to electric lights,” lamented the philosopher Junichirō Tanizaki’s in his 1933 essay ‘In Praise of Shadows’, “that the sight of a naked bulb beneath an ordinary mild glass shade seems simpler and more natural than any gratuitous attempt to hide it”. In spite of cultural familiarity, however, the form had considerable problems. In 2006, the International Energy Agency (IEA), issued statistics showing that artificial light accounts for almost one-fifth of the world's electricity consumption, as well as generating around 1.9bn tonnes of carbon a year, much of which can be attributed to the inefficiency of incandescents. A standard incandescent lightbulb requires around  60W of energy in order to produce 800 lumens (lm) of light – meaning that only 5 per cent of the energy input is actually converted into light.1 The remainder is lost as heat. The precise number of lightbulbs sold each year is unclear – some estimates run as high as 15bn – but few are recycled. “So, lightbulbs are an environmental disaster, a huge product mistake and an enormous waste of energy because they are engineered incorrectly,” summarises Sowden. “A disaster.”

In 2008, the United States Department of Energy (DoE) militated against this situation with the launch of the L Prize, an international competition to create a design to replace the standard 60W incandescent in a bid to “spur lighting manufacturers to develop high-quality, high-efficiency solid-state lighting products to replace the common incandescent lightbulb”. The DoE offered $10m to the manufacturer of the first lightbulb that could deliver 910lm with an energy input of less than 10W, thereby transforming the L Prize into a kind of Millennium Prize for the lighting industry: a cash driver for rapid technological advance.2 In particular, the competition represented a potential springboard for LED lightbulbs, a technology that produces light by passing a voltage through a semiconductor to achieve electroluminescence. LED lightbulbs had been on the market since the early 2000s, but at the time of the L Prize the technology remained relatively niche and underdeveloped. “There were just a few LED bulbs on the market that could serve as a replacement for incandescents,” notes the DoE, “and most were 25-40W equivalents.” The only viable alternative to LEDs were (and remain) compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs), which can produce around 800lm with an energy input of 15W, but which have to contain a small amount of toxic mercury in order to operate. The US Environmental Protection Agency’s advice should a CFL break in your home is stark: “Have people and pets leave the room.”

In August 2011, the L Prize found its winner. Philips (Pynchon’s mad-dog disruptor) produced an LED bulb that could provide 910lm using only 9.7W, an achievement that the DoE boasted led to energy savings of $51.3m in the first two years after the bulb’s commercial launch in 2012. Philips’s device became the first LED lightbulb that could compete on a level playing field with incandescents and the problem seemed solved. “But what wasn’t discussed was that the Philips LED bulb weighed around 200g, meaning that it required a huge amount of material to make,”3 says Sowden, pointing to the heavy metal collar required to dissipate the heat generated by the bulb’s circuitry and LEDs. “So you’re absolutely saving energy if you use that bulb, but at the manufacturing end they’re using a lot more energy to convert that mass of materials into a product.” The Philips bulb and its descendants require heavy heat sinks4 because the heat generated through the operation of the LEDs makes the device act as a micro-greenhouse. “Which is insane,” says Sowden. “You leave yourself with an engineering problem created solely by the fact that you’re trying to make it look like a lightbulb, and end up with a Sorcerer’s Apprentice situation of multiplying insanity. Edison didn’t make his light look like a candle; he made it look the way it needed to. This is a big accusation to make, but the lightbulb shape is fundamentally wrong for an LED.”5

So enters the Sowden Light: the LED lightbulb that isn’t a lightbulb. The design breaks down into two parts. The first is the driver, a thin tube of plastic that contains the circuitry required to manage the power supply to the LEDs. In the case of the Sowden Light, this driver comes in two forms: a retrofit version that screws or slots into an existing lightbulb fitting and a version that is wired directly into the mains. In most other LED lightbulbs the driver is integrated into the bulb itself – the Sowden Light’s use of separation is unusual. “To use a fashionable term, we deconstructed the lightbulb,” says Sowden, who worked on the project’s engineering with Cristian Loddo, a designer in his studio. There are multiple reasons for this separation between driver and light source, the first of which is tied to the nature of LEDs themselves. “The Edison bulb has one functional feature which is interesting in that it gives off 360° of light, whereas LEDs only give you a cone of light which is around 120°,” says Sowden. “So if you want a sphere of light, you have to arrange the LEDs into a pattern.” As a result, Sowden placed the Sowden Light LEDs into a small plastic puck: a glowing halo that clips onto the driver. This ring construction positions the LEDs such that they combine to throw out 340° of light, while the separation from the driver exposes the halo’s large surface area to the air, cooling the LEDs without the need for a heat sink. The separation also aids disassembly of the light’s component parts for recycling. “An LED itself will more or less last forever,” says Sowden. “The thing that always breaks on LED bulbs is the driver, so it makes sense for those components to be separate such that they can be easily replaced.” The result is a light that produces 800lm from a power input of 6W and which weighs around 50g. “But you have to understand that it’s not a design project,” says Sowden. “It’s a political project, a technological project and an environmental project. And it has to be that because the current situation is a disaster.”

“Disaster” is a theme that Sowden has returned to throughout his career. Born in Leeds in 1942, he studied architecture at Gloucestershire College of Art before relocating to Milan in 1970, a city in which he has worked ever since. In Milan, Sowden initially worked for Olivetti, designing early computers for the brand. It was there that Sowden first collaborated with the designer Ettore Sottsass, with whom he went on to achieve widespread acclaim as one of the founders of Memphis, the postmodernist design movement that launched at the 1981 Salone del Mobile, uprooting a discipline previously locked into the dogmas of modernism. Memphis’s designs were gleefully patterned and coloured, filled with brazen forms that seemed drunk on op-art, American minimalist sculpture and pop. Sowden designed the group’s totemic Metropole clock, its teetering-towering D’Antibes cabinet and a series of kaleidoscopic textiles with his partner, the designer Nathalie Du Pasquier. It was a riotous body of work that, combined with the other Memphis objects, opened up new possibilities for understanding what design might be. The objects had a uniform aesthetic, but this was largely incidental. Memphis designs looked the way they did because they could. These were clownish objects, brazenly thumbing their nose at the status quo, and the point of the exercise was to show that the discipline was broader than the clinical aesthetic valorised by modernism. The Memphis aesthetic, in all its vulgarity, was presented as both an acceptable expression of design and a satire of the rigidity of any orthodoxy that denied its validity. “But of course, Memphis was a disaster,” says Sowden, whose subsequent career focused on more straightforward examples of industrial design, such as glass cookware for Pyrex, mobile phones for Swatch and a series of micro-filter coffee and teapots for his own Sowden brand. “It absolutely needed to happen because modernism had become totally irrelevant, but nobody understood what we were doing and everyone just thought it was an aesthetic. A total disaster.”

Sowden’s use of “disaster” is notable insofar as it provides a link between two extremes of his career. It acts as a touchstone between the postmodernist frenzy of Memphis and the rigorous electrical engineering of the Sowden Light. Central to both projects is Sowden’s desire to understand them as responses to specific situations and to resist any effort to unyoke them from the problems to which they were calculated to respond. His position’s roots reach back to the collapse of modernism, prior to which critical assessment of objects was largely equated with the efficacy with which they accomplished their function: “the modernist misunderstanding about the equation of functionalism and design,” as the academic Alexandra Midal summarised in her 2011 essay ‘Design Wonder Stories: When Speech is Golden’. The arrival of postmodernism disrupted this, however, suggesting that rather than calibrating objects towards an ideal functionalism, designers instead practised as something more akin to authors: figures whose work, at least on some level, is subjective in value.6 “We’re all postmodernists now because design today has become very much about a personal approach,” notes Sowden. “Everybody is judged by what they do in their own sense.” But with this notion of the design-author as the new background paradigm, the manner in which design is critiqued also changed. In 1967, Roland Barthes’ essay ‘The Death of the Author’ prompted extensive discussion of the relative importance of authorial intention and subjective interpretation in critical assessment of a text. With the advent of postmodernism, a parallel discussion became valid in design. What’s more important in analysing an object: the facts of its creation or its subsequent consumption?

The general tenor of contemporary design skews closer to the latter option.7 The discipline’s discourse is dominated by discussions of open-source design, while an increasing number of practitioners draw inspiration from unauthored, everyday items. “The character of objects with no particular parentage is quite often more appealing than the character of ‘pedigree’ objects, where the creator’s ego may have replaced some of the object’s usefulness and even its ability to behave naturally in everyday surroundings,” wrote the designer Jasper Morrison in his 1996 essay ‘Immaculate Conception – Objects without Author’. In other words, the measure of a thing is found in our interactions with it. “In the real world,” Morrison concludes, “an object is just an object that depends on its long-term usefulness for survival.” Sowden, however, places the stress differently. Rather than focus on the object’s performance, he seems primarily interested in its provenance: what led to it being created in the first place? “I don’t like to refer to the Sowden Light as a design project, because it’s really an individualistic response to something very complicated,” he says. “A designer has to create their own place in the world and every time something happens within that world, you reposition yourself in accordance with it.” While neither Sowden nor Morrison are absolutists – Morrison is not negligent of the context in which a design arises, nor Sowden of its need to function – they nevertheless present different emphasises in their analyses. For Morrison, separation of a design from its creation is often illuminating, whereas for Sowden the intention and motivation behind a design is essential, insofar as any critique of a design is impoverished without the ideas through which it was conceived; to divorce an object from its context is to neuter it. “Design is always linked to how you make something and who makes it,” he says.

In the case of the Sowden Light, this emphasis on production is essential. The light is manufactured in Godech, Bulgaria, a small town northwest of the capital Sofia and close to the Serbian border. Godech sits on the Nishava river to the far west of the Stara Planina mountain range, a rural setting that belies the fact that it is home to Octa Light, the world’s only LED manufacturer with production based entirely in the EU. “We’re a vertically integrated company,” says Yordan Jeliazkov, Octa Light’s sales director. “So we go from production of LEDs and LED components, through to assembly of modules with mounted LEDs and luminaires for all kinds of illumination systems. We make everything in-house and everything can be custom-made.” The Octa Light factory, a laboratory of clinical white rooms filled with the infrastructure of industrial LED manufacture, bears Jeliazkov out. There are clicking die bonders and transfer stampers that attach semiconductors 0.2mm big to LED packages, as well as machines that use ultrasonic vibration to weld threads of gold wire 25 microns-thick into place. Moving through the laboratory, you come to the machines that fix 15,000 components an hour onto printed circuit boards, manned by technicians in lab coats and sterile elasticated shoe covers, as well as the reflow oven, which heats up to 260°C to solder the freshly seated LED components into place. Finally, there are the two automated assembly lines, which roll out 240,000 lightbulbs a month: “Probably the biggest robotic devices in a radius of 1,000km,” says Kiril Nikolov, Octa Light’s technical director. From its base in rural Godech, the Octa Light facility is a paean to high-tech manufacture. “But we do have a problem,” says Jeliazkov. “We ask clients using Samsung components, for instance, whether they would like to use something similar, but which we’ve customised for them. ‘OK, What’s the brand?’ Well, it’s Octa Light. ‘What’s that?’ We’re a Bulgarian LED manufacturer. ‘I think I’ll stick with Samsung.’”

Octa Light was founded in 2010 as a joint venture between Monbat, a Bulgarian lead-acid battery manufacturer, and Octagon International, Octa Light’s parent company. “We founded the company because we saw the changes to the lighting industry that were going on in the EU,” says Veselin Iliev, Octa Light’s business development director. “We knew that LEDs were going to be a big deal.” Octa Light is in some senses treading familiar ground, however. Bulgaria has a tradition in microelectronics that stretches back to the 1970s when Todor Zhivkov, leader of the socialist People's Republic of Bulgaria  between 1954 and 1989, positioned the country as a supplier of electronics to the USSR’s Comecon economic network. Under Zhivkov, Bulgaria eventually produced around 40 per cent of all computers in the Eastern bloc, with the country’s electronics industry employing 300,000 workers and generating 8bn rubles a year ($13.3bn). Much of the production, however, was geared towards manufacturing devices such as the Pravetz Series,8 a clone of the Apple II, a strategy that meant that when the markets opened up after the collapse of Comecon, Bulgaria’s position in electronics faltered too. Today, its standing in the worldwide electronics industry is very different. “We come from Bulgaria and Bulgarians are not very well accepted in western Europe,” says Iliev. “So we produce all of our own LED components, but unfortunately nobody believes us. Everyone assumes we just import from China.”

There are advantages to production in Bulgaria, however. “Bulgaria is the new China,” says Jeliazkov. “VAT is 20 per cent, returnable within 45 days. Corporate tax is also a flat tax of 10 per cent, which is a great benefit, and being in the EU means fast delivery and no customs. Cost of utilities and raw materials is cheap and the cost of labour, unfortunately, is also comparable with China given that the median monthly salary in Bulgaria is around €350 to €400. So a high-quality product that comes out of China is not significantly cheaper than a high-quality product made in Europe. We can’t compete with the lowest segment of Chinese manufacturing, for sure, but we’re not trying to. In the range we’re looking at, we’re competitive.”

This form of manufacture is inextricably tied to the design of the Sowden Light. “When I first met Octa Light, the efficiency they were getting seemed insane,” says Sowden. “A lot of the bigger companies like Siemens or Philips claim about 80lm of light for every watt of energy, but these guys get close to 150lm for every watt because they’re manufacturing every element and producing on a smaller scale, so they have far more control. There are huge technological advantages by going to Bulgaria.” Alongside these technological virtues, there are also political benefits.  In July 2016, Osram sold its general lamps unit LEDvance to a Chinese consortium – which included the LED maker MLS – for around €400m. The news followed Philips’s announcement in January that a proposed $3bn sale of its Lumileds LED business to a group led by the Chinese investor Go Scale Capital had been blocked by the US government – Philips hopes that the company will now be sold before the end of 2016. “I don’t know who will buy the Philips business in the end, although it will 100 per cent be a Chinese company,” says Jeliazkov.

“Ten or fifteen years ago, every manufacturer went to China because it was cheaper and they thought it would help them sell their products to the Chinese,” says Sowden. “But exactly the opposite happened. Instead, the Chinese manufacturers took on board the knowledge that was being brought over and used it. Too much know-how and technology was transferred and it’s very difficult to come back from that now. But I’d like to bring work back to Europe.” Alongside the electrical components for the Sowden Light that are being manufactured in Bulgaria, Visastamp – an Italian company based outside of Milan – is producing the plastic casing. “Part of the original tooling was done in China,” says Sowden, “but that has been moved back to Italy. Light is a very important thing and I think that we should have it in our own hands. We don’t have to be passive consumers and a project like this – producing in Europe – is a political statement. I don’t see why we can’t manufacture lightbulbs in the EU.” In this spirit, the Sowden Light accords with a report issued by the European Commission in 2013, setting out the EU’s longterm plan for its electronics industries. “Europe has no other choice but to engage in an ambitious industrial strategy for micro- and nanoelectronics,” it read. “The global turnover of the sector alone was around €230bn in 2012 […] micro- and nanoelectronics is a Key Enabling Technology (KET) and is essential for growth and jobs in the European Union.”

The success of Sowden’s response to this situation will depend upon many factors. To date, the Sowden Light prototypes have been produced as a partnership between Sowden and Octa Light – “we take care of everything that is not visible,” says Jeliazkov, “George takes care of everything visible” – but further partners are likely to be needed if the product is to have the impact to which it aspires. “It’s the kind of product you need to make millions or tens of millions of or else it doesn’t make sense,” admits Sowden, who is in early discussions with Enel, the Italian energy company, about backing the project. To further aid the light’s commercial viability, Sowden has designed a series of lampshades that connect directly to the light source. Alongside broadening the light’s product base, the shades play a role in familiarising a design that is otherwise radically different to existing lightbulbs: they are skeuomorphic visual clues that orientate the Sowden Light in relation to what has come before.

Such clues may be essential to general perception. In an essay in his 1979 book, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, the American psychologist James J. Gibson set out the Theory of Affordances, the idea that we perceive our environments in terms of objects with which we might interact. These potential interactions are the titular affordances. “If a surface of support […] is also knee-high above the ground, it affords sitting on,” wrote Gibson. “We call it a seat in general, or a stool, bench, chair, and so on, in particular. It may be natural like a ledge or artificial like a couch. It may have various shapes, as long as its functional layout is that of a seat. […] if a surface is horizontal, flat, extended, rigid, and knee-high relative to a perceiver, it can in fact be sat upon. If it can be discriminated as having just these properties, it should look sit-on-able.” Not all affordances are perceivable,8 but when this is the case it is the job of the designer to put in place signifiers instead: guides as to how an object might be used. “In design, signifiers are more important than affordances, for they communicate how to use the design,” wrote Donald A. Norman in the revised 2013 edition of his text The Design of Everyday Things. Creative designers incorporate the signifying part of the design into a cohesive experience.”

So what happens when many of the familiar signifiers of a typology are stripped away, as in the case of the Sowden Light? “That’s an issue because we can’t even call it a lightbulb,” notes Jeliazkov. “Appearance-wise it has nothing to do with traditional LEDs or conventional bulbs, so will people actually like that or understand that? Well, when the first iPhone came out it had nothing to do with anything on the market. It was a phone but not a phone. I want to stay away from the idea of comparing the Sowden Light to the iPhone, but it’s certainly an appealing thought that you could maybe do something similar in lighting. Something radically different.” Here, Sowden is quick to point to his own history. “When I was working at Olivetti after arriving in Italy, the design department had the terrible problem of working out what computers actually were,” he says. “These things were new technology and across both the marketing and design departments nobody knew what to do. Then someone had this brilliant idea: a computer is really a typewriter, but instead of paper you have a screen. That, however, turned out to be an enormous mistake because you need to look to the future. We didn’t get anywhere until we moved away from that idea of a typewriter and saw computers as their own thing: when we began to deconstruct them as mono blocks and started to put the electronics underneath the desk, for instance. But this always happens in design. Motorcars were originally called horseless carriages and lightbulbs were originally sold in terms of candlepower. You always reach a point where a new technology has to be refined, move away from what’s come before and make a statement that is sufficiently relevant and convincing in order to be accepted. I think we’re now at that stage with LEDs.”

The Sowden Light could look to Gravity’s Rainbow for more than a mere history of the lightbulb. When Pynchon published his novel in 1973, the reception was mixed. Few doubted the book’s virtues – Richard Locke, writing in The New York Times, praised it as “a work of paranoid genius, a magnificent necropolis that will take its place amidst the grand detritus of our culture” – but its postmodernist oddities were jarring. The problem, Locke’s review pointed out, was that in his encyclopaedic desire to “relate the history of Germany to that of America and indeed the entire Western world”, Pynchon had created a work that was “bonecrushingly dense, compulsively elaborate, silly, obscene, funny, tragic, pastoral, historical, philosophical, poetic”, but also “bloated, beached and blasted”. The Sowden Light will need to reckon with a form of the same problem: how do you parse a design project whose purview is as broad as environmentalism, politics and technology, and which proposes to resolve these issues through a radically new typology? Over time, Gravity’s Rainbow’s quirks faded as they were fully absorbed into the canon – to quote Sowden, “We’re all postmodernists now.” If the Sowden Light is to succeed, its innovations must one day feel similarly commonplace.



  1. A team at MIT are developing an incandescent that they hope will up this efficiency to 40 per cent. The device works by surrounding the filament with a crystal structure that bounces back the energy otherwise lost to the atmosphere as heat.

  2. The Millennium Prize Problems are a series of seven mathematical problems stated by the Clay Mathematics Institute in 2000. A correct solution to any of the problems results in a $1m prize. Only one of the seven – the Poincaré conjecture – has been solved to date.

  3. The original Edison bulbs weighed around 25g to 30g.

  4. Contemporary LED bulbs are lighter, but remain reasonably heavy. The Philips E27 Edison Screw LED lightbulb, for instance, weighs 100g.

  5. The lengths that lighting brands will go to in order to ameliorate this are striking. When Flos created an LED version of Gino Sarfatti’s 1968 Model 1095 lamp in 2013 – a design intended to work with an incandescent bulb – the company resorted to engineering an elaborate water-cooling system to prevent the LEDs from overheating. Sowden’s comment about insanity seems applicable.

  6. Modernist designers no doubt did this too. The contrast is not with the way in which these designers worked or the results they achieved, but rather with what the design writer Michael Rock described as “the rationalist ideology” of modernism in his 1996 essay ‘The Designer as author’: modernism’s aspiration to an authority akin to scientific objectivity.

  7. Although consumerism potentially runs in the opposite direction. Naomi Klein, author of No Logo (1999), noted in a 2010 article for the Guardian that one of the chief impetuses behind her book was the realisation that businesses were being driven by “a single idea – that corporations should produce brands, not products”. What matters is the commercial ideology behind a product.

  8. Gibson’s discussion of a seat takes an easy example. The affordances of something more complicated like an iPhone would not necessarily be perceivable.