Meet the Makers: Sylvain Willenz for RBW
RBW used to be the new kids on the block—the NYC-based studio, known for their minimalist, design-driven fixtures was founded in 2007 by three friends fresh out of design school—but after being in business for over a decade, the young upstart studio is now a major player in the American renaissance of industrial design. RBW continues to unveil lighting that’s both surprising and covetable. Here, we talk to designer Sylvain Willenz who designed RBW’s latest collection, Print, available exclusively through YLighting.
What is your design story? How did you get into design?
When I was a teenager, I wanted to become an illustrator, or more precisely, I wanted to do comic strips. After high school, I did a foundation year in Art and Design in Northampton, UK and that’s when I discovered product, lighting and furniture design. I started getting hold of as many books as possible about design because I wanted to know everything in that field. That was 1998. I discovered the works of Philippe Starck then, and that’s when I really understood I wanted to become a designer. I then studied 3D Design in Bournemouth, UK. And finally I enrolled in 2001 onto Ron Arad’s Masters Design Products course at the Royal College of Art of London, UK, graduating in 2003. In 2004 I opened my own studio in Brussels, started to experiment for a few of years until I came up with my TORCH light which was launched by Established & Sons in 2008. And that was a tremendous moment as it opened a few doors such as those of Cappellini, Hay, Febrik, DWR amongst others.
So, what makes for good lighting—is there more to it than simply illuminating a space?
Of course! A lighting fixture also stays off most of the day, so it has to look good too. Ever since I discovered design, I was of course fascinated by the works of Ingo Maurer, who completely re-invented lighting design and fixtures! A lamp was no longer an illuminating object, but also a sculpture, an explosion of dining plates, and expressive or an interactive artifact. Also, most of the time, your lamp, has a very central position in your home, say over the dining table for example, so, I think it’s very important that it looks good and in tune with the interior. It’s also very important to be able to modulate the lighting to your moods and needs, and thanks to today’s technology we can do that, which is great. I think Print is a very passé-partout lighting fixture; it has a striking yet subtle design combined with great performance.
What is your design process? Does it start in the studio, or does inspiration strike you in unexpected ways?
Good question… well there isn’t exactly one answer, because every project is so different, specific to its context and so on. Sometimes a product is born out of a very focused and oriented brief, and sometimes ideas come in a much more organic way. Most of the time, I like to close my eyes and imagine an object like it’s come out of a picture, or out of a cartoon. For example, I was once briefed to design some poufs and seating islands… I closed my eyes and imagined mushrooms popping out of the ground. That was the image… then I turned that into a product.
Where do you find inspiration?
Most generally I’m inspired by all sorts of things around me, which I notice as much in nature as in the industry. Of course, my eye is my eye, my way of thinking is my own, and I have my design style, which I like to call “ligne claire”, in reference to Hergé, author and illustrator of Tintin. I love to find inspiration in materials, technical processes, samples that I have in the studio. Oh and patterns! Which I apply to textiles, as well as objects, like in Print light. I also love to find old art and design magazines, and dive back into the past. And one thing that gets my brain going is digging into interior design and decoration books, as it allows my thoughts to travel freely.
And how does something go from an idea to a design to an actual product?
From a sketch, to a 3D render, back to a sketch, to a discussion with the client, to a cardboard or paper model, to a prototype and so on. It’s a very iterative process, product design is one of the slowest disciplines, it takes so much time and back and forth from the original drawing to the finished item. Generally a product, like a chair, a lamp, does ta ake minimum a year to elaborate.
Tell us about your new lighting design, the Print for RBW.
Print is a simple and complex design. Simple because its shape is a pure and minimal soft sphere, made in either glass or plastic. Complex, because its surface incorporates a printed diamond texture which is the identifiable feature of Print, but which mainly diffuses the light. It’s modern, timeless, but classic, at the same time. I love to design items that give a sensation of “déjà-vu” … this “you’ve seen it, but you haven’t feeling. “It’s familiar, but it’s new”. Print came up when I was experimenting in a glass research center a few years ago. I asked one of the technicians to blow a bubble of glass onto a metal grid that was lying in a corner. I saw the result and wow, that was the starting point for a beautiful lamp.
Are there any notable technological advances used in this design?
Under its classic looks, Print is packed with high performance technology. The diamond texture, which creates a sparkling play of light, is of course, an efficient prismatic shade itself. With RBW’s fantastic engineering team, we managed to design Print and its components, in such a way that allows for versatility in usage and applications. The possible configurations are infinite, from ceiling to wall, to outdoors, pendant on cable or stem mount and so on.
Was the design process any different this time around with a global pandemic affecting just about every aspect of life—including travel and production schedules?
For the design of Print, actually not so much; me being in Belgium and the RBW team being in NYC, we had to have a sound and clear communication anyways. Which we did. I would just mention that Print was a highly complex design to develop, though its simple looks, but thanks to the amazing RBW team, its organization and its online productivity tools, the entire process was super efficient and straightforward. It’s been a great collaboration on all levels, I am so proud with the lighting collection we achieved, from pendant to wall and ceiling versions.
Is there anything else you’ve been working on that you’d like to share?
Lately we have been working on many new projects. We are soon releasing new mirrors, new sofas, chairs, amongst other things. But there are two projects I’m particularly excited to see soon. One is a coffee table combining unexpected materials. The other is a new upholstery textile with a dynamic and very architectural pattern. Oh, and I’ve been working a lot with ceramics in this last year, developing my very own and personal collection of unique and handmade decorative objects. Most of them are imprinted with my RAZZLE pattern. The collection consists of sculptures, called FRAGMENTS, and decorative wall MASKS. I love to go back to my home ceramic workshop and get my hands dirty.
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