Becoming the light fixture in Silicon Valley

Becoming the light fixture in Silicon Valley

The beautiful pieces of RBW lighting, their attention to detail and craftsmanship have caught the attention of many globally, writes Tim Mckeough

Becoming the light fixture in Silicon Valley

When three wide-eyed graduates of Rhode Island School of Design introduced a rough-and-ready lighting and furniture collection in 2008, it would have been easy to write them off as attention-seeking pranksters. Their Excel floor lamp – named after the popular software programme – looked as though it were cobbled together from old broom handles, like a DIY sculpture. And then there was their firm’s name, which bordered on obnoxious: Rich Brilliant Willing, with the preppy-sounding monogram RBW.

Seven years later, the former classmates have proved they possess not only staying power, but enough talent to fuel rapid growth. The firm’s influence is arguably nowhere more visible than in the offices of Silicon Valley startups, where RBW lights have become de rigueur. The headquarters of Uber, Yelp, Fitbit, Beats, Zazzle and Nest, for instance, all glow from the signature lamps. The firm’s moniker is even forgivable once you realise it is merely a play on their names: Theo Richardson, 32; Charles Brill, 31; and Alex Williams, 32.

“When we started, we had a drill press and a certain tongue-in-cheek flavour and attitude,” Charles said after offering a tour of the firm’s new Flatiron district showroom, a Manhattan outpost for the Brooklyn-based operation.

Since then, Theo added, “We’ve refined our eye, along with the skills and systems necessary to create a polished product. We take some cues from minimalism, but we’re not making products that are devoid of character; they’re expressive, warm and simple.”

A wide range
Their latest products include the Crisp, a puck-shaped cast-glass ceiling lamp with a surface reminiscent of a rippled potato chip (an additional corrugated brass reflector is an option), and Queue, a modular linear pendant lamp with a stepped profile that could theoretically extend into infinity. With a portfolio of similarly intriguing pieces, Theo said, “We have been roughly doubling our sales every year for the last three years.”

In addition to RBW being a Silicon Valley favourite, prominent design firms like Rockwell Group, Meyer Davis and Yabu Pushelberg are installing its fixtures in upscale residential towers, hotels and restaurants. A range of international retailers, including the Conran Shop based in the Britain, is also ramping up sales abroad.

“Their pieces are beautiful and have this attention to detail and craftsmanship that you don’t get with a lot of major manufacturers,” said Denise Cherry, a principal of San Francisco interior design firm Studio O+A, which conceived the design for the offices of Uber, Yelp and Zazzle. “But they also have that extra level of innovation, technology and sustainability,” she noted, which makes the products a natural fit for tech companies.

Since 2012, RBW has exclusively used LEDs in its new lights (its older halogen models are in the process of being redesigned). And it puts an emphasis on making the technology easy to use.

But just because the company is working with the latest technology does not mean its designs are techie. Quite the contrary. RBW products maintain the soul of sculptural, incandescent fixtures with a hint of America’s industrial past, using handsome, time-tested materials such as handblown glass, perforated metal, and solid oak and walnut.

“What I like, and what the tech companies like, is the softness of their fixtures,” said Lucas Martin, a senior designer at Rapt Studio in San Francisco. “They almost look like they’re made by hand,” he added, in a sea of “cold, commercial LED fixtures.” As the lead designer for Fitbit’s offices, Lucas used RBW’s Radient sconces, which resemble floating circles of wood with concealed LEDs that illuminate the wall behind, to recreate the fitness company’s logo behind its reception desk.

If there is a handmade quality to RBW’s fixtures, it is because the firm’s team of 14 people assembles every lamp by hand using custom parts. The firm had tried licensing its products to manufacturers, as most lighting designers do, but found it more profitable to keep the manufacturing in-house. The move also allowed it to drastically cut lead times and offer quick customisation for special orders, which helps keep clients happy.

“We’ve built a long-term relationship with them,” said David Rockwell, founder of the New York design juggernaut Rockwell Group. His firm has developed numerous custom fixtures with RBW for luxury residential buildings in Manhattan, Miami and Washington, and for the Lincoln Center’s film centre. “I like that they’re able to create energy-efficient fixtures that don’t remind you of those remedial shoes people wear when they’re trying to be healthy,” David said. “There’s also something about their energy and can-do attitude.”

Indeed, when you talk with the partners, they come off as conscientious, hard workers ,willing to do just about anything to please their customers. But they also periodically light up with moments of unreserved ambition.

“We’re just trying to do one thing really, really well,” Theo said. “The point of our
fixtures is not that we love LEDs or technology. It’s just that we offer something better.”