Ravi Varma, the recipient of the four-month membership in the A/D/O workspace, supported by Futureworks, is a veteran industrial designer embarking on a new phase of his career: developing and producing a product entirely on his own (with a little help from his friends). With prior experience at electronics company Nixon in San Diego and boutique lighting producer Roll & Hill in Brooklyn, he had been in and out of production facilities and the process of developing concepts into working prototypes – but on a large commercial scale. 

With the Mesa lamp, he set out to develop a product from the ground-up: a mobile, dynamic battery-powered light that would be equally suitable for camping situations and outdoor dinner parties or any occasion for a compact, well-made movable light source. Having witnessed in his previous experience the maturation of technologies including batteries, LEDs, and machining, in the last couple of years he has set off on his dream of producing his first product from sketch to prototype to production. He spoke with us about the process.

What was the starting point for the Mesa?

I live in Greenpoint – we have a little back yard – astroturf. I built a picnic table out there, where we like to eat, and we also go camping a lot. So for those situations we have had lots of different lanterns – but the goal of the lantern doesn’t really match with a picnic table. It’s all based on that gas lantern shape – trying to cast a lot of light, basically, everywhere. But on a picnic table, where do you put it?

I think of that situation, versus the lighting in a restaurant. When I was working at Roll & Hill, I was working with hospitality lighting. When you’re building them, you start looking at them more: and I started paying attention to that space. You’re trying to light a space the right amount, a lot of times, there’s a light above you focused down. I considered ways to do that, but there was no good way to get an outdoor light to that height: do you clamp it on the table? So the first key idea was to flip it—from above your vision to below your line-of-sight.

I began testing that idea. It was still a clamp at that phase. Another effect from that restaurant concept was the notion that the light from above hits the table, and then illuminates everything around it – it gets rid of glare. That’s all you’re trying to do: it’s not about lighting up the trees or whatever else is around you. Just you and the what’s on the table.

I started building these 3D-printed prototypes with little aluminum legs and an LED strip I got from the trash, a nine-volt battery. We started taking that camping. At first I thought the four legs, that might be kind of weird, it would get in the way, so I started looking at other options, but in the end it was kind of nice: you could move it at any moment. And the fact that it was battery-driven: you could move it around, you could it fit in whatever space that feels natural: it’s not a permanent fixture.  So the next level is: this isn’t just a camping light, it’s a light for anywhere.

How long ago could you have made this light, conceivably? Where was the technology...?

There are two key parts there: the battery technology, and LEDs. I built the housing based around the size of a cell-phone battery, basically. So it’s about 70-80% the width of the phone. Recently the phones have gotten wider, but anyway - I looked at all these battery catalogues, to see what made sense; it ended up being two batteries in a row.

So that was the key parameter, in a sense, the size of the battery?

Yeah – so it started with the height of the battery, and with a leg that folds up. And it was related to the size of a laptop, because bags are based on that size. So it fits, in there, as a stick. If you look at things that start compact but try to get dense, you end up with weird shapes to try to pack. So I thought: just make it slim and it’s easier to find a place for it in what you already have. I started getting battery samples from Adafruit – the DIY electronics store in Manhattan – and just reading the label, and typing it into Google.

These are lithium-ion batteries?

Yeah. When I was in China for work I got to visit a battery factory. And I was in a conference room and I said, well what about this one? And they were like, Any size. Any size you need. Of course, they can do a custom battery for the right quantity. So that was a technology element that had matured to the point where it was available.

But to a certain point, people were avoiding it in the outdoor space before – it bumps the price up, with the charging circuitry. The other technological element that came of age was the LED itself. A lot of outdoor LEDs are aiming for efficiency: the bluer element is generally more efficient, and it’s cheaper, because one of the costs in making white LED light is the expensive phosphor element. The blue light is standard in outdoor lights, but in indoor lights they have been getting better and better in terms of color temperature.

Some of the TV manufacturers have really been pushing the industry forward, which has caused that stuff to drop in price a lot. So while it used to be for a high-end LED flashlight, it would be one, or five LEDS – for mine, I’m using forty. It gives you that perfect blended light, by just using more. The only other way to do that is distance, just having the light shine over a larger space – but I don’t have that space. It’s becoming more common nowadays, for indoor fixtures, to create that effect by using LEDs. But no one has been doing in outdoor. In large scale things, maybe there’s someone saying: well, we can’t really afford that. But at the same time, it’s like, two dollars.

I’m trying to understand these ways of becoming a manufacturer—by myself.

That’s the thing: I’m trying to understand these ways of becoming a manufacturer – by myself. One thing I learned was that, in the circuit board industry, everything scales down really well. It’s like fabrics – you think about a factory making clothes, but in reality there’s somebody stitching each one. And it’s really not that big a jump for them stitching something different every time.

There’s a lot of expertise and knowledge in making clothing that a lot of people, worldwide, have – and it’s much the same way in machining and circuit boards. And with Apple doing all these machined parts in Asia – that really changed the landscape. For Apple to switch from plastic to metal, that created all this capacity, and more available knowledge. There’s already investment in the machines and knowledge.

Working with machined metals, I think there’s a lot of opportunity to figure out what scale makes sense. I don’t know if I’ve figured it out yet, but it’s exciting because it doesn’t have the same hurdles as the plastics. Doing a Kickstarter was really about paying for the small plastic bits in it. The mold for tiny plastic part might be $7000, whereas a whole metal mold is $700.

This was your first experience with crowdfunding?

Yeah – I was working with my brother and my friend Al, who wrote the script for the video, making the website. Getting close to launching, that’s when I joined Futureworks. Then I was working with those guys, and with Kickstarter, it helped me realign certain expectations, and it helped me fix my planning.

As a concept, there could be a cheap version [of the Mesa], but I want to make the nice version.

You would prefer to own the nice version ...

Yes. Part of doing a Kickstarter and putting a product out there is to validate the price. I think, in person, when you touch it – it’s a single piece of metal, and it has a different sort of presence, even by touch. I’m trying, after Kickstarter, to get to retail where people can touch it, where it’s out there.

What comes next, what are you working on here in the Workspace?

I have lots of ideas for lighting concepts, but I told myself when I started this that I have to finish this first. But I am still thinking about other things, in the back of my mind. They’re all about being easy to buy, and use in your space. When I was working at Roll & Hill, you’re involving all these people, special projects, doing the wiring, and so many don’t get that opportunity: they’re more like, I’ll buy a table lamp. So what’s in between that scale? If you live in an apartment, you hit the wall-switch, and you have the ceiling lamp, and that it.

How do you create lighting in your space that’s more responsive to you? One of them is the Mesa, that you can walk around with. It’s sort of attuned to the outdoor, but it could work anywhere. Think of Bluetooth speakers. First you have boombox era, then the speaker dock, then it becomes just a grille: some of them are outdoor-oriented, but you use it wherever. The battery technology is there to provide that.

My other ideas are other branches in that realm. A wall-washer light, or a spotlight. The light reflecting off the wall will illuminate your space but you don’t look into the light source. It’s about two inches, kind of like a votive candle, with the light source moved all the way to the edge. You can never look directly into the light, because you never get that far over it – and it doesn’t need a diffuser, because the diffuser is the wall.

The other aspect is that the heatsink is the thing itself: it’s just a solid block of aluminum, and it gets milled out with that CNC pattern, and we just leave the pattern as it is. So it talks about its history, the way it’s made. And it leaves out the steps of me having to finish it. (laughs) It has this kind of artifact element to it.

The Workspace at A/D/O is a collaborative laboratory for developing new design solutions with cutting edge technology. Learn more and apply for membership. 

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