One Lamp to Hundred-Foot Chandeliers
It was one off-hand DIY project eight years ago that would evolve into one of the key preoccupations of Arjun Rathi’s practice. His fascination with lighting design has its source of inspiration in master modernist Walter Gropius as well as in graphic novels. Currently, the practice is working on an ambitious scale, hundred-foot tall chandeliers to name an instance. The young Mumbai -based architect and founder of the multi-disciplinary practice Arjun Rathi Design talks to Scale on how he ventured into lighting design.
SCALE: Tell us a little about your journey. Are there specific things about your personal background and your training that has led you to lighting design?
Arjun: Having studied as an architect I never imagined the practice would evolve into a lighting design studio over time. I started the practice in 2012 with my first building project at the Mundra port, which a couple of months into the job got canceled; and suddenly I found myself out of work. Meanwhile, I decided to keep myself busy. I wanted to design and gift a lamp to a close friend and classmate of mine from college. It was an upcycled product using an old Ambassador car headlight, and surprisingly it got published in a few magazines early on and caught the attention of an architect in Mumbai. He offered an opportunity to do a custom lighting installation using the same concept. The installation was very well received and I really enjoyed the hands-on process of working with fabricators and experimenting with materials. I was then offered to design a few more lights for the same project and suddenly found a new passion, which I then felt was a great stop-gap process until my next architectural project. As more opportunities came in lighting design, my passion for experimentation in this area turned into one of the main verticals of our practice. Going from one lamp to 100 feet chandeliers has been very surreal over the past eight years.
SCALE: What is the ‘dirty’ work behind the beautiful lights? Tell us a bit about the dark side that is the process – from brief to ideation, prototyping, and refinement.
Arjun: I have learned about the materials and processes involved in lighting production by consistently failing at everything. No formal training prepares you for decorative lighting design and the material experimentation I was looking to do. All the early works were self-worked with fabricators to understand the limitations and potential of each material or process. Failing early at everything is the best way to learn.
I love sketching and all my ideation happens on large sheets of blank paper. I always encourage my colleagues and co-workers at the studio to design on paper and use the computer only as a tool for representation. Most of our works were customized for spaces, hence the process I evolved was very similar to the architectural design process, using technical drawings to understand the scale and 3-dimensional aspects of the space to conceptualize custom lighting for.
The prototyping process is definitely expensive, being a self-funded studio. Each completed project gives us a small budget for personal experiments, for which I recommend doing a little research on production before jumping right into it. Refinement is a process I’ve come to realize rarely stops. We had designed the Standing Loop Lamp of our Bauhaus Collection, in 2018 as a custom piece for a client in Kolkata – as it was very well received, we decided to take it up for production. We have been refining the details of that product till date. I feel it’s important to allow your product to evolve with time to render it timeless.
SCALE: You are an architect sensitive to light and are now known for your lighting design perhaps more than architecture – how did you begin to observe the effect of light in architecture?
Arjun: It took me years to arrive at the idea that the lighting design I was doing is a type of “architecture“. I believe a light, natural or artificial, has a strong psychological effect on people inhabiting any space. Circadian lighting, a current common study, which works with lighting systems to match the human body clock, was of great interest to me early on in the practice.
Surprisingly, my early learnings on how light and space interacted were through graphic novels. I think graphic novelists think of space through an impractical and sometimes surreal lens, which can be a great learning process for designers who are trained to think formally.
SCALE: Are there some memorable collaborations in your experience that you could share?
Arjun: I think my best collaborations have been with my fabricators I learnt from early on. All my sense of detailing and engineering knowledge has come through practical learning of the production process. It’s very important to note as a designer you are one part of the whole product design process.
The studio recently launched a lighting design competition called India Light Craft, where we invited designers across the world to share designs with a brief built around mass-producible light fittings, using a lens of Indian craft. The jury selected some amazing designs, allowing our first collaborations with Indian and International designers. We are excited to produce the five winning entries and launch them in February 2021 at the upcoming RAW Collaborative Showcase.
SCALE: Your Bauhaus Collection appears to be a tribute of sorts – tell us more about this series and the thought process behind this.
Arjun: As an architect I was greatly inspired by Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus school. His ideals where he wanted the designer, fabricator and artisan to work together to produce craft and design always resonated with me. In true Bauhaus style, we explored industrial processes of metal fabrication along with hand blown glass, to create a collection of lighting for mass production. We wanted to create clean, geometric and functional forms made from these enduring materials, embodying a futuristic look.