Bright Young Things

Finn Magee, 24 and a second-year Master’s student at London’s Royal College of Art, strolled to the front of the class with a cardboard tube tucked under his arm. The man from Artemide, Ernesto Gismondi, was in the audience. So, too, was Professor Ron Arad, head of the school’s design products department, who watched as the young Dubliner removed a poster from the tube, pinned it to the wall, and plugged in the cable that coiled off the side of the page. On the poster was a photograph of a generic black task light, the ellipse of its “shade” now mysteriously illuminated from within.

Magee and his 70-odd peers in Arad’s design products course had been given three weeks to redesign the classic equipoise. The resulting prototypes would be featured in “New Moves,” an exhibition currently on view at London’s Aram gallery, while the very best would be selected for production by Artemide. Magee’s design wasn’t exactly a task light as we know it, but the panel all agreed it had something: “I like it, it’s cheeky,” says Arad. What appealed to Arad about the collaboration (Artemide originally wanted him to design a lamp, but he was otherwise engaged working on the new PizzaKobra light for IGuzzini and proposed that his students pick up the baton instead) was the idea that “the subject was a typology that exists already. That’s where inventiveness comes in,” he says.

Magee, for example, having “borrowed” an old desk lamp from the college and set it up at his workstation at home, wondered, “Would an image of this be enough?” The challenge then lay in getting it flat. He trawled the internet to find LEDs that came on a flexible strip, die-cut the shade aperture, then covered the back of the paper poster with black Fablon to create a diffused light source and stop leakage. The price point of the final product was vital. “Why would I buy the flat thing if I can buy the real thing for less?” Magee says. He adds that it helped having visiting lectures from Artemide stars Richard Sapper and Michele de Lucchi, designers of the Tizio and Tolomeo lights, respectively. “It was good to hear how someone like Richard Sapper had to fight, starting out as a designer,” he says. (Though judging by his success so far, Magee may not have much of a struggle; already he was selected by the London Design Museum for its prestigious Designers in Residence show, held every September.)

Portuguese first-year student Tiago da Fonseca’s contribution, called No Angle, No Poise, takes the form of a silicone rubber cast of a generic equipoise light, the catch being that with no metal, just cable inside, it’s floppy. “I thought I could release it from its iconic shape and give it a rest from the stress and strain of holding that position all these years,” da Fonesca says. Gismondi liked the conceit so much he selected No Angle, No Poise—along with the work of Magee and 20 other students—to receive a $500 award for further development.

Not everyone in the class was so lucky. On the face of it, David Emblin’s Freeze Tasklight seems the most technically ambitious design of the bunch—it features three bounce-free hinges equipped with ultra-precise electromagnetic brakes of the sort used in industrial machines and photocopiers—but the designer was turned down by Artemide following the initial presentation, a decision his tutors suspect was due to the complex engineering (and doubtless high costs) involved in bringing it to the market. Emblin continues to refine the design anyway, using the college’s own rapid-prototyping facilities, in the hopes that another manufacturer will pick it up. And winning the D&AD Global Student Award for furniture in July (prize: a solo exhibition at sponsor Vitra’s London showroom) with a stool that’s a witty take on the wooden fence stiles you find in the British countryside was no small consolation.

At September’s opening of the Aram gallery show, the students finally heard which of the lights the Italian manufacturer will produce. Among them is Magee’s Flat Poster Light—now, in a stroke of marketing genius, amended to feature a photo of Vico Magistretti’s famous Eclisse table lamp for, you guessed it, Artemide.

Fiona Rattray is a freelance writer based in London.