Shady business

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 February, 2008, 12:00am

There's a fair chance that few churches will be ordering lamps from Sandro Tothill. His lighting company, Luzifer, with its devilish little logo, isn't popular with those of a religious disposition. 'We've had a few negative comments from some Christians,' says Tothill, an Australian now based in Valencia, Spain. 'But most people actually like the name.'

Far from having satanic origins, the name Luzifer is a clever combination of luz (Spanish for 'light') and fer ('to make', in Valencian). Tothill has been 'making light' for the past 14 years, after forming the firm with his wife.

These days, Luzifer lamps appear in stylish spaces such as the Metropol Hotel in Barcelona, the Sony Centre in Berlin and, more recently, the Meridian Hotel in Hong Kong. The lamps are also used in a host of domestic applications.

It's been a long journey for Tothill, 41, whose interest in design was fostered during his childhood. He remembers curling up under the table with his Italian mother's Domus and Abitare magazines. 'Even as a kid I loved the look of modern Italian furniture, bright fabrics, that whole look of futurism that we would now refer to as 70s retro,' he says.

In 1985 he went to Italy to 'discover his roots', eventually settling in Valencia where he met his wife and business partner, artist Marivi Calvo.

Then came the moment that was to change their lives. They chanced upon a catalogue of timber veneers, which they intended to use on their kitchen cabinets. Fortuitously they had the veneers laid out on a lightbox and someone switched it on. 'Suddenly they just came to life,' Tothill says. 'The effect of the light shining through these amazing veneers was simply stunning ... we knew we were on to something.'

The first lamps were simple, upright tubes that Calvo designed. The labour-intensive process involved a coating of fibreglass applied to the veneer, which was then rolled into a tube while damp. After it had dried, the lamp was hand-sanded and the frame fitted.

In their initial enthusiasm, they made 300 lamps and put them in a local gallery. Only six sold before they rented a little shopfront on a busy street where they sold almost the whole lot.

They then hired a stand at the Madrid Gift Fair to sell the remaining lamps and enjoyed their first big break when a buyer for a local hotel project saw the lamps and ordered 700.

The lamps invoke architectural forms through light and shadow, design, structure and finish. The warm, ambient lighting the lamps emit owes much to the quality veneers from Italy and Valencia. The wild patterns are the result of reconstructed veneers made from the wood of poplar trees. The slices are dyed different colours and re-pressed to produce checks, stripes, and zig-zags. Then there are the natural veneers that, Tothill says, are becoming more popular. Every Luzifer lamp is assembled by hand.

Tothill says his lamps are gaining attention as designers around the world abandon minimalism and return to texture and colour.

'In Europe everyone is into colour and there's a lot of pistachio green, red and burnt orange,' he says. 'That 1970s aesthetic is very popular right across Europe.'

Luzifer now sells in 20 countries including Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain, Greece, Finland, Singapore, and Australia - not bad for what started out as a cottage industry.

But Tothill isn't resting on his laurels. 'We at Luzifer want to be the veneer lighting kings. We are the only people crazy enough to produce wood veneer lighting and take it to its limits.

'I still believe that veneer is the best light diffusion material available,' he says.

See the Luzifer website at www.luziferlamps.com