Daniel Stromborg

From furniture designer to creator of the latest version of the Zumtobel Mellow Light, Daniel Stromborg is now hooked on lighting and we should all be thankful. Paul James caught up with the Gensler man on the London leg of his world tour to promote Zumtobel’s first ever global luminaire launch.

Catching up with Daniel Stromborg on the UK leg of his global tour promoting the worldwide launch of the new version of the Mellow Light from Zumtobel, it’s hard not to be impressed by the passion and drive the Gensler designer has for his debut lighting product. The sixth generation of Mellow Light is the first Zumtobel luminaire to be launched directly with an international platform and Stromborg is fully behind the concept.

His commitment to the product means he will be taking in China and Australia (as well as the US circuit) in quick succession to talk about the challenge of redesigning such an iconic product as the Mellow Light, the previous incarnation of which was created by the genius of James Irvine.

“Designers get involved in product design but then they can drag their feet to the product launches,” Stromborg says. “The process that they took part of is very much part of the story and it’s good to hear that story as part of the marketing strategy.”

Stromborg’s career is influenced by a crucial crossroads in his academic life. Having begun studying pre-med at the University of Montana, Stromborg decided it wasn’t for him. “I wanted to be a doctor at seventeen but it dawned on me that I would be studying until I was 30, which didn’t appeal, so I got a degree in literature and subsequently joined a climbing magazine (a hobby of Stromborg’s) in Aspen, Colorado. After putting together a gear guide for the magazine I realised that I was more interested in designing products than writing about them.”

From there he briefly studied Interior Architecture at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, before moving to Los Angeles to study Environmental Design at The ArtCenter College of Design.

After graduation he had stints with digital-imaging pioneer April Greiman and furniture designer Richard Holbrook, then Stromborg worked with designer Don Chadwick (“One of the most ubiquitous, anonymous designers we have today.”) where he was first introduced to Knoll when he worked as lead designer on Chadwick’s Spark Series. Stromborg left Chadwick’s studio to pursue his own projects with his studio, The Creative Common Good, and launched the Stromborg Table collection with Knoll in 2012.

Following an approach from a friend who worked for Gensler, Stromborg joined the firm in 2014 as the Southwest Region’s Director of Product Design after being attracted by the opportunities of working for a large company whilst being given the freedom to work on projects of his choice.

“Interestingly working for Gensler after working for myself has been liberating,” explains Stromborg. “I had gleaned a lot of information and experience from people like April and Don, which I used when working on my own to help develop my own style. But being in a much larger structure means the opportunities I have are wildly diverse, I’m not restricted in the scope of design I found myself in while on my own.”

He is now acting as a global Practice Area Leader for Gensler, having applied his insights and industry experience to inspire design teams to translate Gensler’s voice and vision into tangible products for workplace and lifestyle environments. Partnering with manufacturers, Stromborg and his team help create touch points that expand the experience for which clients rely upon Gensler.

Just a year after joining Gensler, Zumtobel invited Stromborg to the Year of Light celebration at their HQ in Dornbirn, Austria.

At that point the design of a new version of Mellow Light by Zumtobel’s in-house team was already in progress but they had reached a crossraods as to which direction the design should take.

Stromborg was then asked by Wolfgang Egger, Executive Vice President Global Sales North America, if he was interested in developing the Mellow Light further. Of course, the answer was a resounding “Yes!” despite the fact he had no experience in designing light fixtures.

“There were two things I wanted to build upon when I came to Gensler,” comments Stromborg. “One was to do more with the firm on a global scale because, although we are hugely known in the US, we are not so well known internationally. The other objective was to work on something I’d never attempted before. I love my furniture work but a chair is a chair at the end of the day and I was attracted by the thought of stepping out of my comfort zone into something more abstract. I had no idea it would be as complex as it was! The scale and precision that you’re dealing with is completely different to that of, for example, a tilt mechanism of a chair. Light is very much liquid and it is hard to control. And that appeals to me.”

Wasn’t he daunted by the task of redesigning such an iconic fixture?

“When I got involved, I looked at what Zumtobel had done thus far in order to get a feel for what direction might be the best way to head and we looked at this idea of heritage and progression. The Mellow Light 4 had historically done incredibly well and there was feedback that the end-user, as well as the sales team, loved it for a couple of reasons. Those reasons were compelling from a form standpoint, and because of them, I decided to lean more towards the heritage end of things. It became much more about an evolution of form, rather than doing something radically different. My analogy on this is the Porsche 911. The 911 has gone through more than 50 years of evolution at this point in time, and it’s a form factor that I would say almost everybody in the developed world is aware of. You can put two 911’s next to one another that were developed 50 years apart and you will understand that there is a common form language that’s evolved over time, each still bearing a certain resemblance to one another. So I asked the development team to look at what was successful in previous versions and use that form language to dictate what happens in the new Mellow Light.”

Eighteen months on from getting involved, the sixth generation of this office lighting icon sets new standards when it comes to adapting lighting to suit the specific needs of users, drawing on extensive Zumtobel knowledge about how light affects humans on a visual, biological and emotional level.

Immediately recognisable yet slimmer and more elegant, the form supports the state-of-the-art lighting technology that helps this design icon adapt perfectly to the constantly changing requirements of the contemporary office.

Both the look and the vision of Mellow Light are unmistakable, with these two aspects combining to deliver high quality light that is as close as possible to natural daylight. To achieve this difficult feat, Mellow Light has been extensively developed and is now available in two versions: Mellow Light evolution and Mellow Light infinity. Both versions are available with the ‘tunableWhite’ technology by Zumtobel, allowing the light intensity and colour temperature to be independently and seamlessly adjusted between 3000 and 6000K. Both versions can therefore be used for the implementation of the ‘Active Light’ concept developed by Zumtobel, which imitates the dynamics of daylight that are so important for humans.

Mellow Light infinity goes one step further, as the outer wings and the central segment can now be controlled independently of each other. In line with the results of a Zumtobel user study into perceived light quality in the office, which revealed that many people find the standard 500 lux insufficient, Mellow Light infinity enables the individual and flexible adaptation of the light to reflect different needs, preferences and situations. The two light wings create a pleasant basic brightness of 300-400 lux, which gives the room a welcoming atmosphere, while work surfaces can be perfectly illuminated with an additional 400 lux from the central segment.

Looking at the sleek lines of the Mellow Light, there is a familiarity with previous versions that Stromborg was keen to develop.

“One of the key components of the Mellow Light 4 was the idea of a third dimension that we wanted to keep. It had a narrow light engine compared to Mellow Light 5 designed by James Irvine, and the significant middle grill that was very popular. Even though people loved the grid, there were issues with it in terms of light performance, but we wanted to reference back to the grid with a very high performance looking crystal optic. Unfortunately we couldn’t go with that much of a small grid because of its effect on the performance, but you can see the tie in. Irvine had done an incredible job with what I refer to as layered patterning in the Mellow Light 5 because it breaks up a rather mundane big object. Another key takeaway from Irvine’s work was what I call the ‘Irvine Step’ (the small step between the wing and the actual light source). This is something that I really wanted to keep, as a kind of homage to Irvine and his development team. But with regards to the wings, we went more into the organic so that we were still satisfying the request of people that were asking for a more organic cross section. So this goes back to Mellow Light 4 and how there was more of that soft feel in terms of the reflector that was casting the characteristic mellow light onto the wings. We did address the progressive end by integrating the optics Zumtobel had applied in their original concept with very beautiful water clear, crystal lenses.”

Combining Mellow Light infinity with the Litecom lighting management system and the innovative ATIVO contrast sensor means that the light atmosphere can be automatically adjusted to reflect not only the amount of available daylight, but also the number of people present and their location in the room. ATIVO recognises the way a space is being used and automatically selects the appropriate lighting mood, paving the way for Activity Based Lighting.

The Mellow Light portfolio encompasses a comprehensive range of rectangular and square luminaires in a wide variety of designs for ceiling-recessed or surface-mounted installation. As a surface-mounted fitting, a series of optional colours helps the luminaire adapt to the individual needs of the interior architecture. While the white luminaire can be discreetly integrated into drywall ceilings, the silver version creates a flexible transition between the product and the exposed concrete. If highlights are required, additional versions in brown, black and naturally anodised aluminium can be specified.

So what was the biggest challenge in working with technical lighting for an ‘outsider designer’?

“The Zumtobel team were incredibly open to new ideas. The biggest challenge for me was the technical detail – literally working out how light works. Design and lighting is about emotion but high performance task lighting is also about science. High performance lighting has to be engineering driven. There were unavoidable technical issues that I wish we could have overcome but there were other solutions that the engineers developed such as improved light distribution from the recessed version. Designing decorative lighting is based on opinion, there’s no right or wrong. This isn’t the case with technical lighting, it’s based on performance and that’s where the design is most satisfying – how we designed the crystal optics, for example. Every designer has an ego but you have to tone it down for technical lighting. The key to being an ‘outside designer’ is to forgo the ego. I love the look of the Mellow Light but you can’t have a ceiling full of ‘It’ objects. They would be fighting with other and it would look horrible.”

So will there be more lighting products to come from Stromborg?

“Yes, I’m now designing more product for Zumtobel and I’ve just completed a product called REVO, a Direct/Indirect pendant for a Canadian manufacturer called Lumenwerx as well as ZEDGE, an LED step light for Targetti, which will be launched at Euroluce. I’ve definitely caught the lighting bug!”

Well hurrah for that! A continuing passion for, and bringing fesh ideas to, technical illumination from the furniture designer can only be a good thing for the lighting design profession.