Design, Build and Installations
Designer and builder
Case Study Construction facebook page

Si-Huis Vera Lighting System
Photographic-grade domestic and hospitality lighting

Every product has a story behind it. Our own product has a story with parallels to a famous story in the world of modernist design; I am a designer and builder, but I started first as a photographer; later, a graphic designer; and later than that, an animator. I like to photograph what I design and build, since it will be many people’s only exposure to my work, which is often the case for much of architecture and design. I have also made short educational films which have become popular worldwide. This combination of usually separate disciplines of architectural design, furniture, photography, graphic design, animation, and educational short films, is just one of the elements that makes our story so similar to another; one set in an early stage in the career of design icons, Charles and Ray Eames, described by the Industrial Designers Society of America as “the most influential designer[s] of the 20th Century.” Their maxim was, “Create the best, for the most, for the least.”

6070G floor lamp. 6 foot legs, 7 foot boom, glossy diffuser

Charles and Ray Eames, designed, built, photographed, and made short educational films seemingly unconnected with architecture. While the scale is different, there are further parallels, however frivolous: One of my films in 2010 was 5th most favorited educational youtube video (of all time) in Russia, where the Eames’ once exhibited their spectacle of American life at the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow, on behalf of the American government. I have another film about the origin-of-life that was first exhibited at Google NY and Chelsea Art Museum in Manhattan (Ray Eames first exhibited her paintings at the Riverside Museum in Manhattan in 1936). I too, like the Eames’, have made a film that was used to promote the culture of my home country (as the Eames did for the American National Exhibition), in my case, by the British Council, (a government funded body that exists primarily to promote British culture internationally). I too, like the Eames’, designed and built one special house which still gets mentioned in the national and local press several years after completion. I too, have lived and worked in Venice Beach. I too, am not a licensed architect.

6070G floor lamp. 6 foot legs, 7 foot boom, glossy diffuser

In 2011, I met Burton Landhuis, who produced a business plan along with funding for me to design and build furniture. “What kind of furniture do you think I should produce?” I asked him. He considered the question for a moment and replied, “Your kind of furniture.” I didn’t think at the time that I had a ‘kind’ of furniture, but when he said those words, it dawned on me that I had made a lot of furniture, including for my own home. Even so, making my own ‘kind’ of furniture up to that point, was a genuinely new idea to me. “Your name is Simon and my name is Landhuis. We’ll call the company Si-Huis.” Not yet aware of whether he already knew about the precursor to modernism, the Bauhaus movement, or whether it was a lucky or auspicious coincidence, I just said “Okay.” Up until this point I had considered Burton, to be possibly the most critical person I’d ever met; somebody who was exceptionally kind and polite, but also somebody that could find fault in almost anything you might think of. So when he told me in so many words that I could design furniture that was genuinely new and worthwhile, I believed him.

6070R floor lamp. 6 foot legs, 7 foot boom, parabolic reflector

I decided to design and build a floor lamp. A simple object, just like a cigarette-lighter or a pair of spectacles, which provide so much greater function than nature previously allowed. It’s consistently dark, half the time here on planet Earth. Even so, most consumers are prepared to buy lighting with little consideration of its lighting quality, and more consideration for its appearance. The objective I set out with, was to produce an affordable domestic lamp that would produce the same quality lighting as a photographic studio, so that beautiful lighting could be something we experience every day, and not just the briefest of moments, in photographs. I’ve always noticed the disparity between photographic and domestic lighting. Based on my experience as a photographer, I knew that even an empty room could be made to feel warm, inviting and secure, with light alone. Before we had buildings and homes, we had a fire to gather around to keep us warm and safe. I considered this to be one of the foundations of the human experience. I decided that the ideal lamp would provide the most clarity, the most comfort, and the most efficient use of light and energy possible.

6070R floor lamp. 6 foot legs, 7 foot boom, parabolic reflector

Good light, delights, soothes, stimulates, inspires, or uplifts the observer. It’s not just photographers and filmmakers that are aware of the power of light as a tool; animals use it; bars use it; the emergency services use it; traffic lights use it. The electric lamp is arguably one of the most underrated and neglected objects both in society at large and in the smaller world of design. Lamps, whether they are candles, oil lamps, or lightbulbs, are machines that rival the wheel in importance. Artificial light is the only indication of our civilization from space. Light, and lamps, as icons and symbols, are used heavily in religions and mythology to represent that which is inherently good and right; the light of God; Buddhist enlightenment; the Menorah candles of protection and safety; the Amnesty International candles of hope and vigilance; the light side of the force; the genie in the lamp; when characters have a great idea in a comic strip, they are drawn with an electric light bulb over their head. Captain Jean-Luc Picard had a personal relaxation light.  (Even far into the future, the lamp is an essential and relevant object.)

4050G floor lamp. 4 foot legs, 5 foot boom, glossy diffuser

If the Eames’ were alive today, I would like to ask the them what they thought about how their legacy has been treated; I’d like to ask them what they thought about the current price of an Eames’ Lounge chair, given that they believed in the concept of, “The best, for the most, for the least.” I would ask them what they thought about the fact that the pinnacle of today’s architecture and furniture in 2014, was designed in the middle of the previous century. I wonder if they would be proud of themselves, or a little disappointed in us. It is ironic, that the case study homes were designed to be pre-fabricated in order to be mass-producible (“for the most”) and yet after half a century, they are still the types of homes owned only by the wealthy and successful. Modernism, for the Eames’, was not yet the name of a halcyon bygone era, but a concept, based on the dictionary definition of the word. To honor the Eames’ legacy and philosophy, is to push forward, which means learning from, but also sometimes letting go of, the past. However, until somebody makes an improvement, the Eames’ unquestionably, still, have the finest chairs in the world.

4050M floor lamp. 4 foot legs, 5 foot boom, matte diffuser

As told in the film, “Eames: The Architect and the Painter,” Charles Eames once designed and built a chair in partnership with Eero Saarinen intended for mass-production, prior to the production of the now-famous Eames’ lounge chair. It was promoted as a mass-producible object, but was not yet in fact mass-producible due to the reality of the manufacturing process. The product was designed perfectly well, but the manufacturing process was not as perfectly designed as the object itself. We, too, produced an item, a floor lamp, that in fact was very difficult to reproduce, and manufacture. It took one person (me) one entire day to make one lamp, with many drill holes, screws, bolts, connectors, steel cables and anodized aluminum. It could survive a 30 mile-per-hour collision and support hundreds of lb’s of weight; arguably more strength than is required for a domestic floor lamp. I asked fabricators, who have sent their parts to Saturn as part of the Cassini probe, to reproduce the lamp, which resulted in the owner of the company berating the workers for not being able to reproduce the work of one man (me) in his workshop.

4050M floor lamp. 4 foot legs, 5 foot boom, matte diffuser

Along came my Ray. Only my Ray was called Vera. She looked at the floor lamp I had created and said to me, “I like it. But can you make one that students could afford to buy? One for a hundred bucks?” Within 60 seconds I had drawn a picture based on the lessons that I had learned over the previous two years of designing and building a few lamps. I knew that the fewer details and strokes of the pencil I made, the less the product would cost in money and time. I drew a lamp without screws, holes, bolts, nuts, cables, glue, paint or finishing. There were as few pieces as possible, and it would be held together by friction. The design resembled other simple, ancient devices: the stand looked like a teepee (an arguably quintessentially American architectural style), the diffuser looked like an ancient Japanese fishing net, and the boom, a tightrope walker’s balancing pole - a tool simpler even than a wheel. Two years after drawing the picture, Vera and I had our first child, Elena and lamps had become the family business.

4020M floor lamp. 4 foot legs, 2 foot boom, matte diffuser

Since the Eames’ left us, we’ve had postmodernism, the green movement, and a technological revolution. There are some new ideas that cannot be ignored. For our original floor lamp we used an theater-industry standard can lamp (there are multiple manufacturers of the same product, with slight variations) and for this lamp, we used an photography-industry standard studio lamp head with umbrella connector (also with multiple companies producing their own version). This would be in accord with the modern concept of “upcycling” (the natural evolution of “recycling”) as well as the “open source” movement (using an existing photographic standard that is public domain). It is also in accord with the Charles Eames’ maxim, “Innovate [only] as a last resort.” There’s no point in reinventing the lightbulb, or at least there’s no point in reinventing its standards. Standardizing means that practically anybody, anywhere, can get a lightbulb that fits their lamp, when it needs replacing. We are also currently restricted to the nature of the power supply for the same reason. Every plug fits every socket, on every electrical device in America.

4020R floor lamp. 4 foot legs, 2 foot boom, parabolic reflector

Our lamp is comprised of a few quickly reproduceable and assemble-able parts: eleven different 3D printed connectors per lamp; die-cut and scored polyester diffusers and/or black powder-coated aluminum parabolic reflector; aerospace-grade fiberglass rods; long-life ozone resistant rubber parts; black powder-coated stainless steel counterweights; and matte or glossy diffusers. The size of the lamps range from 2.5' to 8' height, with 6.5' clearance. The stand is not much thicker than the power cable itself; it is black, like the strings of a puppet. Studio lighting stands are generally black, to avoid undesired reflections (based on the premise that a lamp is supposed to illuminate the subject, and not itself). Both the stand and the diffusers are tensegrity structures. A sandbag is provided for high traffic areas (turning an already stable lamp into an impossible-to-knock-over lamp). To knock the lamp over requires sustained force; otherwise, quick, sharp and even heavy accidental-like impacts are totally absorbed and returned. In such an event, it is so light, that it glides safely and gently to the floor. The stand’s flexibility is what gives it stability. Like the wing of a jumbo jet, it bounces instead of breaks, it bends rather than falling over. The free-moving and self-balancing boom gives the lamp a dynamic center of gravity, just like a tightrope walker’s pole; when the lamp experiences force laterally, the boom remains balanced.

2020M floor/table/desk lamp. 2 foot legs, 2 foot boom, matte diffuser

In tests, if the lamp diffuser is crushed with hundreds of lb’s of weight (far more than any lamp would normally endure) it’s interesting to note that the first part to eventually fail is not the mylar, nor the plastic diffuser shaft, it is the fiberglass rods, which are very strong, and otherwise very difficult to break. There are no movable joints (except for the stock lamp head). All the parts are interchangeable, upgradeable and maintainable by the user, held together not with screws, nuts and bolts (except for the lamp head) but by friction, similar to that used in a seatbelt mechanism. The boom’s fulcrum ball and counterweight are user-adjustable, attached to the boom using four separately designed and 3D printed parts in combination with stock o-rings, which assemble in seconds. They are so firmly attached that most adults would not have the strength to physically move them, without disassembling the connectors in the correct order. The lamps look great in ‘flocks’; several of them can be joined together to make one large seamless super-light. They are extremely stackable, and 20 lamps can be lifted with one finger. Because they are so light, they encourage the user to treat the lamp as an object to be used, moved and engaged with, allowing for increased user-participation. The emitted light has no glare, and is captivating to look at, even when looking at the lamps directly. The quality of light provides maximum comfort when turned on high, while retaining maximum visibility and clarity when turned down low.

2020R floor/table/desk lamp. 2 foot legs, 2 foot boom, parabolic reflector

Few lamp producers, I’ll wager, are confident enough about their own lamps, to be able to photograph their own lamps, exclusively by the light of their own lamps. These lamps are efficient and functional machines, designed to produce the best light possible, for as little cost in time, energy and materials as possible. Any aesthetic qualities they may have are a consequence of the mechanical configuration required for their function, like a mechanical timepiece or a sports car engine, or perhaps in the case of these lamps, I like to think, more like the skeleton of an animal, perhaps a bird. I cannot think of a single furniture item that could change people’s lives for the better, more significantly, than these lamps. I believe it would contribute to the beautification, of dorm rooms, studio apartments, hospital rooms, waiting rooms, offices - anywhere and everywhere that currently needs a little help with lighting and atmosphere, all of which would contribute significantly to our well-being as a society.

Michael Simon Toon