A Q&A with Ron Henderson of Varaluz
Ron Henderson started Varaluz in 2006 primarily "to address things we thought our industry was shamefully ignoring" —namely the impact of design on the environment. Going beyond energy efficiency, Henderson's lights use recycled, reclaimed or sustainable materials in their manufacture. And it's clear from his stunning, sculptural pieces that there's no need to compromise quality for sustainability. We caught up with the Nevada-based founder/designer to learn more about his process and inspiration.
What do you love about lighting?
I am a huge fan of architecture and texture. But ultimately, lighting has the power to transform. It can bring out the beauty in stone or the shadowed drama of a texture. Conversely, bad lighting can kill the greatest of art. Once I realized the power of light itself, I came to love it. Especially when I realized I could contribute to the light itself being art - or at least a fun sculpture on your wall or ceiling or table.
How did you get started in lighting design and manufacturing?
Boredom. I was working in aerospace marketing during a downturn in the mid-'90s with nothing much to do. Then one day I met Harry Kallick of Kalco Lighting and he convinced me to jump industries. It has been my passion since.
Varaluz focuses on environmentally friendly design. What does that mean to you and how does it show up in your products?
I started Varaluz in 2006 to prove something: that our industry was on the verge of change and it was time for manufacturers to evolve. From the beginning, we chose to use recycled, reclaimed or sustainable materials and processes wherever possible. To this day, all of our glass is 100% recycled, our steel is at least 70% recycled, and most of our shell or other natural materials are either reclaimed trash—left over shells from crab harvesting, for example—or are sustainable, like fibers from banana palm fronds.
What's the process like of getting a piece like the Slatisfaction conceptualized, designed and produced?
I don't think we design so much as play. Occasionally you have that wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-with-an-amazing-fully-formed-design moment. I think you get two or three of those in a lifetime. The rest of the time we start playing with shapes, forms, materials and textures. Often we start from ideas or concepts like rollercoasters or space aliens or more mundane things like popular finishes in bathroom tile, and we keep playing until something sort of gels together into something we find attractive, interesting, fun and useful. In the case of Slatisfaction, I have been enamored lately (or maybe tormented is a better term if you knew my parent's sense of décor) with the '60s and '70s onion shapes...think of those free-floating mod fireplaces from that era. I just started playing with that shape and worked my love of dramatic silhouetting into the mix.
It sounds like inspiration comes all over. Any more examples?
There is a long list, but it's a crazy mix. Inspiration can come from a B-52s song, a shadow on a sidewalk, a bad pun, women's jewelry, an amazing visual or real texture, or great architecture-and/or anything in-between. Sometimes I invent design exercises just to see if impractical or disparate combinations can be achieved. We have a collection, Aizen, which came from one of these. The challenge was to mix contemporary, Asian, and rustic elements into a cohesive, and hopefully attractive, design. A couple of airport cocktails later, and one of our most lasting pieces was born.
What are some designers or lighting manufacturers that have influenced you the most?
I try not to be too influenced—something our industry is notorious for—but I have to share my admiration for most anything mid-century. Nelson's work with structure and George Kovacs work from the end of last century shapes me greatly. There are so many amazing European designers (almost anyone who has designed for Moooi, Flos or Eurofase). Tom Dixon has an amazing way with profiles and textures. Selfishly, I think we are in the middle of a design resurgence: there are many exciting 30- and 40-somethings, like Rich Brilliant Willing, Jonah Takagi and Luisa Robinson, that are making truly amazing and fun fixtures.
What's your favorite project that you've worked on?
There are many, but we recently were able to do a custom design for Skyline, a church in Southern California. They had a very large warehouse space and wanted a truly grand entrance piece that was both welcoming and celebratory. The piece features 33 custom pendants artistically and abstractly representative of the inspiring, yet humble, robed man many identify as Christ.
Can you describe your workspace a little bit? What's your space like?
Well, the walls are cluttered with scraps from magazines or photos or material swatches. It's kind of chaotic really. But my desk and work surfaces are pretty uncluttered. They have to be. And I have a waterproof sketch pad on the wall of my shower that gets frequent use—why is it that so many great ideas occur in the shower?
What upcoming projects are you most excited about?
We have some collections using reclaimed wood accents that I am pretty crazy about. They're at once reflective of some 70's influences and future-oriented. But I am always excited about everything I work on-I don't spend much time on an idea I'm not excited about. What's the point?