Following the success of Zumtobel’s Ambitus in this year’s Red Dot Awards, arc speaks to its designer, Yorgo Lykouria, about his design approach and his attitudes towards light.
For many designers, be they lighting designers, interior designers, product designers or architects, their raison d’etre is to create beautiful, sculptural works of art. But as the old adage of ‘form follows function’ would denote, it’s essential that these works of art are not merely superfluous and serve a purpose too.
This is one of the core philosophies of designer, architect, film maker and writer Yorgo Lykouria. Founder and Creative Director of Rainlight Studio, Lykouria has built a career on the apparent contradiction of beautiful yet purposeful designs.
“Rainlight Studio was conceived on the idea of a ‘union of opposites’,” he told arc. “It’s about this idea that design and business have to come together somehow. We’re not artists creating something that somebody will like or not like, we’re working for industry, and we have to create something that has a purpose, has a sense of beauty that the market will recognise and that serves the needs of the people.
“At the same time, there’s an aspect to design that is purely esoteric and cultural, intellectual and poetic, beautiful and timeless that touches your soul.”
Referred to by many as an “Industrial Poet” for his contemporary, humanistic approach, which goes beyond the senses to engage a sense of wonder, Lykouria originally studied mechanical engineering, before completing a Master’s in Architecture at Dalhouise University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. “I wanted to be a car designer, but in the process of studying mechanical engineering I realised that I’m not cut out for physics. I’m fascinated by it intellectually, but I didn’t want to spend my life doing that,” he explained. “I switched to architecture, because I discovered that there was something in architecture that really appealed to me, this idea of doing something for society.
“You’re born into this world and the table is already set, the house is already built, and we live in it. And yet, things start to fall apart, they get boring or out of date or irrelevant, so the idea that we have to constantly refresh that for who we are as a society really fascinated me and I thrive on it.
“But in architecture I was always a bit of an outsider in a way, because even as an architect I thought about things in a different way than most; I was interested equally in philosophy and society and art, as much as how a building stands up and how a connection comes together.”
In 2002, Lykouria established his self-titled, London-based studio which he ran as a multidisciplinary practice for 12 years. From here spawned Rainlight. “Rainlight is very much the same entity, but Mark II – improved, newer, better, stronger, faster,” he said.
“The improvement is this idea of unity of business and culture. When I was running Lykouria, I was more insular in my approach to things, I was more focused on my language, my identity, my ethos, etc. Of course, that remains, but I found a way to connect to clients, to industry, to society in a much better way.
“It sounds like I was a monk or something, but in some ways, I was like that, in that I believed in this idea of design as a pure thing that we have to protect. I think what changed my thinking dramatically was taking a little break of a couple of years to write screenplays, to work on a novel and make short films. Being immersed in that culture taught me that the creator of the work is not the important part, it’s the work that matters. When you talk about stories, it’s the narrative that matters, not the storyteller.
“I became really immersed in the idea of narrative, because I realised that there’s a very human aspect to that. If you look at stories through all of time that still connect with us, that tells us something.”
As such, Lykouria explained that his typical design approach is to “not leave any fingerprints”, creating something that stands alone in its own right without being tied to any particular “signature style”. He continued: “What’s great about this is that it allows me to refresh who I am as a designer, to constantly grow and explore with every single project.
“It serves my own impulses as a designer, as a creator in a bigger way than having to get stuck with a sort of language or identity or fingerprint or whatever you want to call it. I’m free, and I can recreate that feeling for every project, which is also great for the work because every client deserves their own project.
“I don’t want to replicate things, and that’s hard for designers because we have certain fascinations. So, to start with a clean slate every time, a blank page, is terrifying.”
This idea of starting every project with a blank page feeds into Lykouria’s overall design approach, to the point that he doesn’t seek or take inspiration from any external sources. “The inspiration comes from within,” he said. “I don’t like the state of things in design where you see people go into Pinterest to get ideas or create mood boards – I think that is soul destroying because what you’re doing is denying yourself the opportunity to come up with an idea. The minute you flood your mind with forms, then that’s what you’re going to do, it’s preordained.
“‘Design begins with an open mind’ is something I’ve been saying for the last two decades. It’s about finding that state of mind where you have an open mind and allow ideas to come in. My process is to live life in a way that I’m constantly being fed, whether it’s art, music, film, books, other experiences. Everything feeds the imagination, and when you are really conscious and present, they infuse into your being and things come out when you need them.
“Even when I was a student in architecture school, I didn’t look at references or magazines, and there were projects where I was struggling with ideas because I was forcing myself to be alone. But by doing it over and over again, I became more fluent in that connection with that part of my subconscious and being able to draw things out of it. It’s creating a motorway between your consciousness and your subconsciousness. But you can only do that if you practice it.
“I really believe that design is a bit mystical or psychological – there’s something about it where it’s not just a method, it’s not just something you can talk about per se. It’s like when a potter makes a pot, or a musician writes a song, it’s intuition, you just have to be in the moment.”
Across his diverse portfolio of work, Lykouria’s approach could be classed by some as minimalism. However, he has a different term for it: “Instead of minimalism, I call it clarity, and this is the idea that you’re not doing things that are meaningless or superfluous in design – the things that you’re doing have real sharpness and attention.”
This belief came after the realisation that minimalism as an approach “is a complete dead end”. “The problem with it is that it has no identity,” he continued. “So when we’re talking about design and doing things for industry or companies for people or a project, it’s platonic forms. It doesn’t belong to anybody.
“For me, that created a kind of backbone to the process of design, which has this austerity in some way. I don’t like to do things that are decorative for instance; it can be beautiful, but it still has to have intention, that things in nature do. A flower can appear decorative, but every piece and every form and colour has a purpose.”
With a varied back catalogue of work spanning architecture and product design, Lykouria has a wealth of experience in multiple sectors, but despite this, he doesn’t feel that he has a particular specialism in one particular field. Instead he is able to draw from each sector on everything he does. “For me, every project is special, whether we’re doing a little stool to sit on, or whether we’re doing a light to light up a space, or a chair, every project is special and deserves a place.
“Carlo Scarpa, the architect/designer/poet once said that the architect has to have a triple mind, the mind of a thief. The idea of this is that you could look at a piece of architecture or design purely from an engineering viewpoint or a materials viewpoint or a construction viewpoint and nothing else, or you could look at it entirely from a formal point of view and try to interpret it as a poetic statement. All of these facets come in and when I’m in the midst of design, it’s really invigorating and also exhausting, and also very consuming because I find my mind constantly switching from one plane to another.
“I would say that our work steals moments of consciousness from people, because if you’re in a room that someone designed, or if you’re sitting on a chair that someone designed, that experience is impacting you. You’re not walking through the woods, for instance, it was created. And so, as the person who is making those experiences, you have an obligation to do something good for the people that use them to give you a sense of joy.”
One of the latest designs from Lykouria and Rainlight is the Ambitus, a lighting fixture developed by Zumtobel. The fixture, which won a Best of the Best award in the 2021 Red Dot Awards, is inspired by natural light sources such as the sun, and mimics the basic function of natural light to enhance spatiality for a more conscious experience.
In combination with a perforation on the underside, the lamp showcases a visually accentuated ring-like shape that creates an aesthetically pleasing effect to evoke various associations with natural light phenomena. At the same time, the round shape produces a harmonious light distribution, even when the luminaire is viewed from different angles.
Lykouria has had a longstanding appreciation for light, dating back to his architectural studies, describing it as “the primary element of architecture”. “When I did my thesis, I was exploring the immaterial aspect of architecture, so it looked at light and acoustics and the experience of space in a way that wasn’t really talked about in architecture. You couldn’t really define how one experiences a space, but you also couldn’t define how you design that. You can talk about where you want a column or a wall or the stairs, but nobody ever talked about the phenomenological aspects of architecture. That part fascinated me.
“For me, light is not a functional thing, I would say that it’s very strong poetry. It completely changes the experience of a space, it’s so important. Everyone needs to be aware, architects as much as clients, that lighting is the thing that makes and defines and interprets a space. Without light, there is no form, you don’t see things. You could take a simple box, a white cube, and light it in such a way that it suddenly becomes a beautiful space, because of the light.
“If you look at the work of Tadao Ando, if he were to just look at a concrete box, it’s always that shaft of light, that moment of where the light is that makes it splendid and beautiful. Light is everything, and that’s why I love theatre and concerts and film; cinema is all about light because any moment is curated and made perfect, and you can live in this poetic state all the time. I think that’s what light brings to things.”
Lykouria first worked with light around 20 years ago, partnering with Siteco on the production of a fluorescent light fixture. “I worked with a lighting technologist from Siteco who was a brilliant mind. I asked a lot of questions and challenged the whole ethos of the fluorescent light fixture, which all started to look the same. I wanted to do something minimal and streamlined, and we managed to create this beautifully elegant, simple fixture that no one had ever done, but it was at the end of the life of the fluorescent tube.”
The advancement of lighting technology, and the departure from fluorescent fixtures to LED was a guiding factor in Lykouria’s approach for the Ambitus. He explained: “The fluorescent tube was this wonderous, amazing thing that was a total departure from the filament lamp. It did great things and, in its time, for the 50s, 60s and 70s when we had modernism and very austere geometry and the gridded world of architecture, that linear geometry worked beautifully. When you look at these old masterpieces, every line is exactly where it should be, it’s perfection, and the lighting follows that structure as well, so when we look at a building at night, everything’s in the right place.
“Fast forward five decades where we’re not so disciplined about form, we’re challenging geometry or doing things that are really complex, whether they’re fractal geometric forms or whether they’re fluid geometries. Suddenly you wonder where there’s place for the florescent tube. I realised this as I was working on a tower project in Sharjah in the UAE, designing the interiors. The building was triangular at the base, and at the top, and it flips at the midpoint where it becomes a hexagon, so the geometry changed and at every level it was a different footprint.
“When we were trying to lay out a lighting grid that made sense, it was impossible because if you looked up at the building, if you had anything linear it wouldn’t work. So I realised that the only way to solve this was to do a circular point source of light. I tried to find one and it didn’t exist in the market. Even today with Zumtobel, when we did the market survey, we couldn’t find a single reference that was an office luminaire.
“The most challenging lighting fixture is the office luminaire – we’re using computer screens and you need no glare, so you need uplighting and increased control, there are a lot of technical demands. It’s not just creating a donut and lighting it – yes, you can do that, but it’s not a good office light. It’s not good light in any application.
“This was where my experience and background in engineering and architecture came together, I was adamant in this project that it had to be driven by technology and driven by a good technological basis of design.”
Further to this, a “strong, symbiotic relationship” with Zumtobel helped in developing the finer technical details. “It was a really great sparring match, and I wanted it that way,” Lykouria continued. “I said to them that I wanted an engineer to fall in love with it, I wanted a lighting designer to love it, I wanted an architect to love it; it had to have excellence as a design object in every possible sense, so you should be able to take it apart and wonder at how minimal and elegant it is.
“In the beginning, Zumtobel were very respectful of the design and they wanted to do what I wanted to do. I kept challenging and poking and pushing for more and more, and that engaged them more as engineers and designers to then bring more to the table and to share in the process – we became an integrated team, they were very hands on.”
Designed explicitly for the office environment, Lykouria is hopeful that the Ambitus will help to bring a new light, a new ambience to the workspace. “The worst kind of lighting is when you put a grid over a space and have uniform lighting that creates a mist of nothingness, where everything has the same intensity and it’s just bland. That’s why people hate offices and respond badly to this whole idea of the corporate office, because that’s just the machine, it’s not for people.
“My approach is to allow there to be some darker spaces, spaces with a certain colour of light. I love the idea of being in a space where you can have different experiences. This is part of what makes an office environment so stressful, you can have this bland sameness all through the day, nothing changes. Light is really important in that respect because you can create different atmospheres and emotional states so a person can move to different spaces.”
Following the success of the Ambitus, Lykouria has more plans to work with lighting, with a new fixture currently in progress with USAI. Beyond that, the world is his oyster.
“The exciting thing is that I don’t know what the future holds,” he said. “We’ve got several projects on the go right now. I would love to design things that move; whether that’s boats or planes, that’s something that I hope will be in my future.
“I just look forward to the next project, every project is an opportunity to grow and learn, to test your knowledge, test your experience, and for me it doesn’t end, it’s an ongoing thing. I hope that we can continue to grow Rainlight in this way, to grow the team and the culture and do more work that is relevant in the world.”