Label jogging ain’t my thing

Dietrich F. Brennenstuhl

Feb 25, 2014

Nimbus is based in Feuerbach, just outside Stuttgart and in the middle of a district where you can at a glance grasp the fundamental change that the industrial region on the banks of the River Neckar has experienced in recent decades. Here, a few detached houses along with their hedges and front gardens have survived from the immediate post-War period, and now seem like a few scattered idyllic isles on a model railway set – in the midst of industrial plant, the multistory glass showrooms of renowned carmakers, and “Mr. Wash”, a monumental, somewhat American carwash facility. Right next to the Nimbus entrance a billboard advertises “Jonny M.”, with six-pack abs this is the place for sweat-shop work-outs. At first glance you may be forgiven for not realizing that it is here that purist LED luminaires are developed, designed, and made.

That said, Nimbus luminaires are to be found not only in galleries, villas and executive offices, but also provide entire office buildings with dazzle-free working light. On request, Nimbus, founded in 1988 and today considered one of the trailblazers of LED technology, also turns out customized one-offs destined for specific projects and to meet individual architectural needs. Himself an architect by training, Dietrich F. Brennenstuhl has a good idea which tailor-made solutions will most convince the profession. Between 10 and 15 percent of Nimbus’ annual turnover is now attributable to such one-offs. And it bears remembering that the light generated by LEDs has all sorts of other qualities too, as the lighting elements themselves are getting ever smaller.

Thomas Wagner: Mr. Brennenstuhl, does light have a meaning for you over and above the physical, technical side to it? The metaphysics of light plays a great role in Christianity, for example. And after all your company is called “Nimbus”?

Dietrich F. Brennenstuhl: Well, it’s important not to take things too far. I consciously started concerning myself more with light while still a student. Back then I noticed that in my architectural studies there was absolutely no mention of light. We didn’t go any further than discussing, as regards the time of the Ancient Greeks, what possible avenues there were for light to enter buildings through window areas or how artificial light could be deliberately deployed indoors. Back then, 30 years ago, that was all that was taught. Although light is crucial for human survival.

How do you judge the relationship between the material shape of the luminaire and the light itself? What does the fact that the luminaire, which produces the light and emits it in a given space, has ever less of a physical presence? Light that simply appears, as if by magic?

Brennenstuhl: Now and again, such thoughts have been voiced as regards LEDs. If you imagine a conventional light bulb and next to it a minute, tiny LED element that glows away and when the sum total of such elements generates a whole lot of light, then it’s a very powerful and in a way poetic or magical effect.

How do you think the formal vocabulary of your LED luminaires will change?

Brennenstuhl: I would say that it will be determined by the development of LEDs going forwards and the technological possibilities behind them. Take the countersunk unit. It is now a typical sign of a Nimbus luminaire. But at some point it may become unnecessary. And it could also be that we then use it as a typical Nimbus design element by way of a hologram, meaning it only has a limited or perhaps no function at all, but is still in evidence. Perhaps it will persist for a time and then disappear. I would say that the design, at least of luminaires, is strongly aligned to technological progress. LEDs are now far smaller than they were just five or six years ago. Back then they were sized 5x5mm, whereas now you can get them with 1mm sides. As a result, the countersunk unit now looks completely different. As a manufacturer or designer you always want to have made a classic. In my opinion, the odds of doing so with a highly reduced lighting element, of creating something timeless, are pretty good.

When you look back at design history, is there one particular luminaire that you rate highest?

Brennenstuhl: Do you know Christian Dell’s table lamp for Kaiser? Now that’s a marvelous classic in my book!

Any other favorites?

Brennenstuhl: As stated, I’ve always thought Ingo Maurer magnificent. If only because of his poetic thrust. Otherwise I’ve never really heeded designs by other people.

If you could choose a contemporary designer – whom would you most like to work with? Whom would you ask?

Brennenstuhl: In our canteen there’s a statement by Picasso in large letters hung on one wall: “I do not seek. I find.” Meaning today I don’t have to seek out a Konstantin Grcic. I really like Konstantin Grcic’s stuff and perhaps at some point we’ll end up developing something together. But I could equally well imagine that a completely unknown designer (Rupert Kopp, who designed the Roxxane luminaire, was someone I had previously not heard of) approaches us and it’s a match in heaven, and marvelous things result. I find the idea of adorning yourself with big-hitting names problematic. Label jogging ain’t for me. It doesn’t suit us. To be perfectly honest, I don’t so much yearn for designers as for architects. No doubt because I am myself an architect. A designer starts with the product and then thinks of the room, assuming he thinks of it at all. An architect always starts with the room and then looks at the product. This difference in approach can be as interesting as it can be exciting. Which is why I like working with architects; I have a good rapport as regards both architecture and light with Stefan Behnisch, for example, and find discussions with him very inspiring and fruitful. Where is light needed in a building? How can a light source be meaningfully deployed?

So now I have to ask you who your favorite architects are?

Brennenstuhl: Well then I’d say Tadao Ando.

Japanese architecture in general or specifically that of Tadao Ando?

Brennenstuhl: Specifically that of Tadao Ando. I have been following his work for decades now and feel he still produces highly expressive architecture. I’ve already mentioned Stefan Behnisch. I like not only how he approaches architecture but also how he factored “sustainability” into his designs at a time when others didn’t even know how to spell the word. And as regards buildings, well I love those created by Le Corbusier, such as his “Notre Dame de Haut” chapel in Ronchamp. That has to do with memories of my childhood. My father was an architect, too, and of course herded us round all the great buildings, in part against our will. But sometimes you have to do that with kids, don’t you. When I was in Mugello recently, to ride my motor bike on the racetrack there and it rained, I headed with an architect friend of mine for Florence, where we spent hours gob-smacked in the cathedral, gazing at every detail and asking ourselves “How did they do that?” I’m utterly fascinated by such buildings.

And what about artists?

Brennenstuhl: It’s not as if I go to a museum in search of inspiration. One gathers information incidentally, sucks things up like a sponge. My wife and I like going to the ballet or the opera, to watch contemporary choreographies or pieces. I love the stage sets and the productions and sometimes weeks later I remember individual images that I took in at the time. In this way, energies are unleashed that possibly stimulate me in my daily work.

My question was not meant functionally. Everyone has his or her preferences. What do you think of artists who work with light?

Brennenstuhl: I would mention James Turrell in this context. Nature is more important to my mind.


Brennenstuhl: Yes, nature. For me it’s a really important factor. In the end what counts is a mixture of design, architecture, art, and nature.

What projects are you currently working on?

Brennenstuhl: What’s really exciting at the moment is to find and maintain the right positioning in the market. Imagine it like this: When we entered the field of “LED” eight years ago, we had a USP. Hardly anyone knew about LEDs and it wasn’t easy to deploy a largely untested lighting source in buildings. Which is why it was good to realize a major project together with Stefan Behnisch and, in the case of Unilever, meet people who trusted the new technology and were confident in our brand – and risked using LEDs throughout the building. Anyone willing back then to accept the new technology could hardly get round coming to Nimbus. Today, there are alternatives. Some are on occasion cheaper, but whether they are definitely more beautiful, qualitatively better or more efficient does not always top the list when outfitting an entire building. Our challenge is to find the right position for Nimbus in this changed scenario.

So the kind of challenge has changed?

Brennenstuhl: Yes, it’s changed. It was obvious that we wouldn’t be able to maintain our position as first mover for long. Which is why today we no longer run after every large project. If the opportunity arises, we’ll gladly take part. Otherwise our focus now is more on representative areas, such as lobbies, entrance halls and executive office suites, where our technological edge comes to bear. As regards light controls, we are still out in front with our highly intelligent switch systems for luminaires. Another field which we lost sight of in recent years for capacity reasons but are currently expanding, is that of customized luminaires.

Meaning what exactly?

Brennenstuhl: Architects are forever wanting to reinvent the wheel. With the architecture and within the architecture. Meaning they don’t want luminaires off the shelf, but want to design the luminaires themselves and create something special. We have for some time now been working to make use of LED technology in such a way that by relying on a kind of modular system or kit different formal versions can be produced relatively easily.

Does that mean that you offer a kind of customizing for architectural luminaires?

Brennenstuhl: Exactly. Coupled with our know-how and our flexibility we have very good opportunities to be in a prime position to appeal to architects accordingly. Large corporations tend to have difficulties in this regard. For example, at present we’re realizing a large project at Rheinenergie in Cologne that we only got because for the executive suites an LED lighting ring with 11 meter in diameter had been planned. Faced with this task, rivals caved in. By contrast, we said: We’ll do it, we’ll manage it! And we thus won the overall job, for both the customized luminaires and the basic luminaires.
We have about 250 projects permanently on the go in the company, both small ones and large ones. Above all in the European market. Our main sales market remains Germany. It accounts for about 55 percent of sales, and the rest is booked in Europe, for example in Switzerland, Austria, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Our most important market overseas to date is Australia, where conventional light bulbs were banned early on leading to a swift move into the new technology. We’ve also taken a first step into China, but, as is evidently often the case, it’s been turgid. When you do things like that it’s important to make certain you don’t just do it to sound off about it and say that you are present in this or that place. You need different certifications for all the various countries. And caution is in order given product liability issues, too. After all, one of the main challenges in our daily work is not to spread ourselves too thin.

In Part 1 of the conversation with Dietrich F. Brennenstuhl read about what the Nimbus CEO believes are the advantages of LEDs, what prejudices they still face, and why at the end what counts is the interaction of architecture and light.