Award-winning product designer Stephen Blackman launches his first-ever product line featuring OLED technology.
enLIGHTenment Magazine: You have been creating sophisticated designs for lighting manufacturers for decades. What appeals to you most about emerging technology?
Stephen Blackman: I like to work with the technology of the light source. That approach is more complicated than what some designers do, which is just put decorative housings on top of the lamp. When you are working with LEDs, you have to worry about heat, photometrics, and how to drive it electrically. You have to be a thermal, optical, and electrical engineer. When it comes to design, form follows function. In lighting, that means the light fixture should relate to the form of the light source. That is how I have always approached my work as a designer, even though sometimes that makes the work more difficult – but the end result is better and more true to the technology.
EM: Is there one style or product that you are most known for?
SB: If pressed, I would have to say that the Elf sconce by Illuminating Experiences is one of my most iconic designs. The cylinder sconce has become a popular form, and I was among the first to really get that design going in terms of size and shape. Interestingly, Elf started with a halogen lamp inside, back when halogen was very new. Eventually the fixture was retrofitted with fluorescent, and now we are doing it with LEDs.
I have won six Lighting For Tomorrow (LFT) awards, including an LED pathway light and LED undercabinet light. One of my first LFT awards was for a decorative fixture called Salem, a well-priced fixture that features CFLs hidden inside faux wax candles. My LED path light for Kichler was one of the first of its kind, a well-engineered design that spread light very well and lasted a long time. My first award in the LED category was for an undercabinet light and then again later for a more refined LED undercabinet design.
EM: You have designed products using incandescent, halogen, xenon, and fluorescent. What makes LED so exciting?
SB: Back in the 1990s, I designed an LED emergency light. Around 2005, when I was working at American Fluorescent, I saw the potential of getting LEDs into residential fixtures, initially working on undercabinet lighting. Later, I turned my attention to LED path lights. LED technology is an exciting – but expensive – proposition, which makes it hard to get it into the residential market. Task situations, like a desk lamp, undercabinet, and path lights are natural applications for LEDs because they focus light on a specific area. These days, what gets me excited is the challenge of trying to create an LED chandelier! I want to answer the question, “What does an LED chandelier look like?” I have been working on that for awhile. In fact, LED chandeliers will be a key category for my new company BlackJack Lighting. The technology is there, I have lots of experience working with LEDs, and the price points are dropping. So I think now is the right time to create decorative LED fixtures.
EM: So what does an LED chandelier look like?
SB: It should not look like an incandescent chandelier. Its look, weight, and light should be different. If you approach it purely from the design side, a chandelier is nothing more than a sculpture hanging over a table. For Blackjack Lighting, chandeliers are the first place I want to work with LEDs because consumers will pay more for a sculpture over a table vs. a mainstream item like a hallway light, outdoor fixture, or bath vanity strip. To me, it makes sense for the chandelier category to get into LED because if the fixture is nice enough, people will be willing to spend more money to buy it. If you make the LED chandelier stand out from incandescent chandeliers, I think people will readily understand the price difference.
EM: What made you want to become a manufacturer?
SB: Some OEMs see you as a designer – and that is as far as it goes. I have been in the industry a long time and I understand what sells and why it sells. I feel I have been held back from dealing with the end-user, yet a good design process involves being in contact with end-users. I want to be involved in the whole process. Some people have referred to me as “the most famous designer nobody knows.” I feel like it is time to change all that.
In this country, designers are not really promoted like they are in Europe. I am very good at developing products that sell, that have value. Now I want others to know who designed those products. I think I have something to add to the product management area of business.
Others play it safe, but I want my company to try out new technology. I want Blackjack Lighting to be known as an early adapter. We are focusing on architects, interior designers, and specifiers looking for higher-end product: the kind of end-user who appreciates high design and high tech. At this stage of my career, I want to get away from designing only for price points and volume sales.
EM: What do you think the role of OLED is in the future?
SB: I am not sure that OLED is where the whole industry is going, but the technology will definitely become more important in certain product categories in the future. LEDs are great tiny “point sources.” OLEDs are low-glare “panel sources.” LEDs are a difficult light source for general illumination applications.
On the other hand, OLEDs are a great source to spread ambient light throughout the room. LEDs send light in one direction; they are not a diffused light. OLEDs like to do that – and they do it easily. For general illumination, OLEDs will become increasingly important. They don’t have a lot of heat, which makes them easier to work with than LEDs. OLEDs can go into shapes and be attached to materials that are difficult for LEDs because of thermal management issues. OLEDs run cool enough to use even inside plastic, which is a fantastic ability! And their thin profile allows you to create new shapes and forms not possible with fixtures illuminated with large, ungainly incandescent lamps.
EM: What can OLEDs accomplish that LEDs can’t?
SB: With their pleasant, non-glare lighting, OLEDs don’t even need a diffuser, which can eat up 10 to 15 percent of the light output from a fixture. It would be difficult to have an LED fixture without a diffuser. And in an application where optical control is important – like a streetlight – it would be impossible not to use a diffuser or optical lens.
LEDs are a point source and are easier to control compared to a large glowing panel like an OLED. In most residential lighting applications, the goal is to light the entire room. Well, OLEDs are perfect for that. They are a cool, thin, and low-glare light source that diffuses light throughout the room.
EM: The first product you have designed and debuted is an OLED task lamp. What other types of lighting will we see from Blackjack?
SB: Available in fall 2013, the Aradess table lamp is probably one of the only OLED table lamps in the world. We have an OLED pendant coming out in the fall, too. We also have an LED task light called Edge2 and The Original Over-Counter Light, which is our high design take on a familiar and utilitarian design.
In January 2014, Blackjack will introduce a series of LED chandeliers. We plan to design and produce outdoor OLED products next year. The technology is there, the efficiency is getting better, and the price point is coming down. Maybe not coming down fast enough – yet. All of the major suppliers believe OLEDs will follow the same path as LEDs in terms of efficiency going up and the cost coming down. OLEDs are about five to seven years behind LEDs.
All in all, our focus will be on decorative product; there are enough people doing functional things. What Blackjack is going to be is a cutting-edge, early adapter resource for high-end decorative fixtures.