In search of better light
Apr 10, 2012
Tobias Grau in his office/studio. The entrepreneur and designer is in the middle of things in the former conference room, photo © Jörg Zimmermann, Stylepark

Tobias Grau's head office was designed by Bothe Richter Teherani and more or less hidden away in the second row of a business park in a small town near Hamburg. The relatively long journey to the city periphery, the search for a way in, is in some ways similar to getting to grips with Tobias Grau's creative approach. The Hamburg-born designer first presented his work, a lighting collection, in 1987 at the Cologne Furniture Fair, and has remained true to his approach of combining the latest technology with design ever since. Driven by a holistic way of thinking, in his designs Tobias Grau focuses less on the form and more on the light. His luminaires are sold by around 800 dealers in more than 50 countries today, in some cases on an integrated shop-in-shop basis. In Germany his company runs six brand stores. Jörg Zimmermann met Tobias Grau for a chat.

Jörg Zimmermann: Mr. Grau, why do you actually design luminaires?

Tobias Grau: Oh, I have to go back a long way for that one. I first studied business administration, then got interested in design at Parson School in New York, worked at Knoll International and then started designing interiors for stores and offices in Hamburg. Some of the jobs needed lighting and I made my first luminaire, which was integrated into a fitting. The low-voltage halogen technology was new at the time. You know, lighting always needs technology. A new technology brings with it new possibilities. I don't think it is or was possible to establish a company based solely on the development of a new form. And so I slid into this field.

If you started with low-voltage halogen technology, have you ever worked with traditional light bulbs?

Grau: No, and I can't say I'm sorry to see the end of the light bulb. They consume so much electricity. The form is attractive, and they produce wonderful light, but LEDs can do just as good a job nowadays. And they use much less energy and don't get so hot.

Before we go into the technical details, I'd like to ask you about design. How do you go about designing your luminaires?

Grau: I have been working as a designer for 25 years now and am increasingly realizing that it makes a difference whether you draw for your own collection or for a client. When I work for my own company my ideas come from a holistic approach. I always try to consider all aspects. The product is of course the focal point. Then comes the entire integrated thought processes right after, the business aspects, catalog presentation, trade fair presentation and of course all kinds of considerations down to positioning the product within the entire range. All this gives the process a huge consistency.

So the design process differs depending on the client?

Grau: You don't work better or worse for your own collection compared to freelance jobs; you simply take a different approach. There are only a few companies that work like us. In fashion there is or was sometimes an impresario in the companies and collections, for instance Giorgio Armani. The entire collection, the company, the products form around this person, this core. In this sense we work more like this kind of fashion company. The company's identity is defined by the fact that at a certain point I decided, I will make my products, my lights.

That sounds like a highly planned approach.

Grau: Naturally planning is important. I don't just work on one luminaire, but on six to 12 designs at once. And they are always at different stages, sometimes it's an idea, sometimes a sketch, sometimes it is an almost finished product. What I need to do is see the collection as a whole. In my head I'm already on the products for Euroluce 2013 in Milan.

How do your ideas and designs come about? Do you have a particular creative approach?

Grau: I don't really center my work on a desire to create new lamps. Rather, what I am looking for is to create better light. For me light is always linked to technological possibilities. I have just read the biography on Steve Jobs. What it describes is a victory march of design. This integrated idea can also be seen at Apple, but on a much larger scale. My company is small. But the idea of "doing your own thing" drives me forward. For me this justifies all the effort.

There will once again be numerous firms at Light+Building that simply merge other products. Probably successful in business terms, but terrible. It would be inconceivable for me. That is not how innovations are made. Design is only enjoyable when you beat your own path. You need to stop seeing dollar signs. If you make a good product, you will earn money from it.

What is your most successful product?

Grau: It is probably safe to say that the luminaire "Falling" is the biggest success. It's been on the market for three years. The LED technology enables the lamp's attractive, fluid form, although to be honest organic forms don't inspire me really. But that approach is perfect here. I always try to achieve a good dose of subtlety in my designs. I seek to reduce the design to its core so that a formal clarity emerges. Yet despite all the reduction, you need a certain emotionality. If you completely reduce the form, you have gone too far. You have to find a balance between a perhaps archetypal form and a personal statement, otherwise it becomes arbitrary. I start getting nervous when it becomes too individual.

What happens then?

Grau: I often have to shelve the designs for several weeks and think about whether an idea is feasible. Normally I draw my designs in sketchpads, then leave them, and then give them to the developers, who turn them into 3D images. So it often happens that we send pictures back and forth for weeks until a final decision is made.

Are there any designers you see as role models?

Grau: No, I don't have any role models when it comes to design. But I see similarities in other designers' approach. I work very independently and beat my own path. Ingo Maurer does the same thing, I have seen, on his unswerving course. We are similar there, but our works are naturally fundamentally different.

Let's take a look at technical developments. How are new technologies changing designs?

Grau: Of course, lighting technology influences the shape of luminaires. Take temperature, for instance. Light bulbs and halogen lamps reach 150 to 200 degrees. The form of the luminaire should prevent people touching the illuminant. LEDs probably reach only 50 to 60 degrees. And with these temperatures other forms are conceivable. Such as the small spherical lamp "Falling in love". Thanks to LED technology it can simply be left lying around – even children can touch it. In this way the technical possibilities and formal aspects fuse.

That said, we have only been able to create really good LED luminaires in the last two years. This was roughly when LEDs came out whose light quality was more or less the same as that of conventional light bulbs. This kind of light is always soft and has great color. LEDs are somewhat behind in terms of color rendering and the light is harder. You have to come up with a great many ideas to create a fantastic luminaire with LEDs. Yet in the home LEDs have seen such development in the last 12 months that, with the naked eye, private users wouldn't notice any difference between light from a light bulb and light from an LED.

Is office lighting seeing similar developments?

Grau: Office lighting presents different challenges. Energy efficiency has top priority. No light bulbs are used on principle, to save energy. Instead fluorescent tubes are used, which poses the problem of light quality. The color of fluorescent tubes is terrible.

But now the efficiency of LEDs has risen such that we can make LED luminaires that consume 20 percent less electricity and offer considerably better light quality. They are still expensive, but the saving potential is there and the quality of the light is significantly better.

If we could turn to the future for a minute. Will luminaires dematerialize, given that LEDs enable ever smaller forms?

Grau: No, people want to be able to touch luminaires, use them in certain places, such as above the dining table. I think we will have more, particularly smaller luminaires in future. At least in the home. Perhaps I am not so visionary here, and I know I am conservative in thinking that the field of lighting, from the candle to the light bulb and LED, is simply wonderful. People will try to make luminous walls and will be avant-garde in this field, but that's not for me.

Tobias Grau in his office/studio. The entrepreneur and designer is in the middle of things in the former conference room, photo © Jörg Zimmermann, Stylepark
Tobias Grau initially draws all designs, such as “MY Table”, in sketchpads photo © Jörg Zimmermann, Stylepark
The new LED luminaire “MY Table” undergoing an endurance test in the company’s own test lab, photo © Jörg Zimmermann, Stylepark
All luminaires go through a multiple-stage development process. After the 3D renderings, a wooden model of the luminaire “Falling Leaf” was made, photo © Jörg Zimmermann, Stylepark
The development department, with prototypes of “Falling Leaf”, photo © Jörg Zimmermann, Stylepark
The pendant lamps from the series “OH” with bodies made of bone china continue to use low-voltage halogen technology, photo © Jörg Zimmermann, Stylepark
The latest LED technology worked by hand. Here the production of efficient luminaires for the commercial sector, photo © Jörg Zimmermann, Stylepark
Modern LED technology includes the use of control system electronics, photo © Jörg Zimmermann, Stylepark