For over 137 years, the humble incandescent lightbulb has been the gold standard for indoor lighting. The original electric lighting source has preserved its place in our lives not only for its functional value, but also its particularly captivating luminescence. Despite new lighting options on the market including halogen and LED bulbs, most energy efficient bulbs simply don't provide the same warmth and light quality of the original.
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To create a flawless LED light bulb that entices consumers to invest in energy efficient light bulbs, designers at the pioneering designer-bulb company Plumen found it important to ask: why is the incandescent lightbulb such a difficult thing to leave behind? For more than 5 years, their team has been working towards addressing this predicament, rolling out products like their wildly popular Plumen 001 in 2010 (we hosted the US preview for the product at Hand-Eye Supply) and then Kickstarting the Plumen 002. "There's something about something that burns," says Plumen Co-founder and Creative Director Nik Roope, "it's mesmerizing. Thinking about us as human beings, there's something essential about that relationship you have with fire and light... that's clearly the missing part of what we see when we look at LED products."
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Development of their new Plumen 003 lightbulb was, as Roope notes, "technology initiated, but not necessarily technology led." The 003 bulb has been marketed as the bulb that's designed to make you and your surroundings more beautiful. Although this might lead designers to consider technical and scientific innovations surrounding CRIs [Color Reproduction Index] or filament engineering, what might surprise you is that the innovation comes from a pure design approach to problem solving.
"One of the things we were playing with early on was just how if you take a directional light, which LED is, there's only so many ways that you can direct it around. One is optical, another is refraction and reflection. So we were just playing with all of those [options] with prototypes and models."
Many, many prototypes they might add—the team started off their explorations with a hefty amount of 3D sketches, moving on to laser cutting three dimensional shapes and then 3D printing elements of the design to see how all of them came together to truly soften the directional light. "I think with product design the tools that exist make it very easy to render and visualize, but when you're dealing with light...there is really no way of gauging what the effect will be without using it in reasonably similar materials to the final product," Roope mentions.
The final result is a light with an internal central column made of acrylic that holds a series of eye-catching metallic collars in place. Made in a series of parts that lock each metallic collar in place, all the the central optics help with providing structure to the piece as well as managing the light. The metal collars, made of aluminum, work to refract light from the central column into the metal surfaces, which then reflect the light outwards. The color of the anodized gold coating on the metal works to shift the white LED light to a warmer tone while the facets add texture to the light, making for a rich and flattering effect (hence the claim of the bulb making you look more beautiful).
Even after many tests and physical iterations, the light issue still presented some perplexing challenges. The gold collars inside of the bulb were originally tested as a smooth, relatively matte surface rather than their decorated final result; the original finish created a distracting line of light that reflected back on the metal surfaces. They started to play with concave shapes and dimples within the metal parts of the design, which they discovered "spread the light out and made it easier on the eyes." This design helped them avoid shadows because its complex series of angles allowed light to be refracted off the sides of the surface, creating a warm and even tone.
Prototypes for the internal metal collars in the 003 light bulb
Another benefit of the dimpling within the design was its decorative element, which naturally inspired the team to branch out from the norm. "That's the point where we brought in jewelry designer Marie Laure Giroux," says Roope, "her process was very different, but it comes together nicely." The intentional melding of industrial design and craft in this bulb was perhaps one of the most exciting and challenging aspects of the design outside of the rigorous prototyping stage. To achieve this complex shape for mass-manufacture required a different approach. After prototyping with a jewelry designer, they initially started working with a small unit from a company that specialized in perfume bottles and finally found a way to mass manufacture by collaborating with a factory that worked in the realm of metallic homewares.
Roope notes the manufacturing process was a struggle because they were looking for a process that was as economical as possible without losing that level of refined detail—this is perhaps one reason for its $170 price tag. But, as Roope highlights, he sees the invention of the bulb as a "logical progression;" it may not be the cheapest bulb on the market but they ultimately hope its presence in the market is for a somewhat higher purpose. "By creating a stunning, aspirational product you sort of change the psychology of what you're presenting people with. It's the same way Tesla isn't the most affordable car in the world but it becomes a symbol for how you can live responsibly," says Roope.
The next hope for Plumen's future lighting innovations? To create a lightbulb that finally eliminates any doubt of wanting to move into a more sustainable age. Roope says, "I'd really love to try and leapfrog concerns and get into a position where this is the most compelling bulb [over the incandescent]...where there isn't a kind of compromise." With the Plumen 003, their newest innovation might not be the universal solution, but they are well on their way.