Cordless lighting: why its future may not be as bright as designers imagined – though Philippe Starck is still a believer
A lamp you can take anywhere, a cordless light hanging from a metal surface thanks to a powerful magnet – they sound attractive, until you recall how convenient wall sockets are and how bad for the environment batteries still are
Nothing adds ambience to an interior quite like the layered lighting effects of floor and table lamps. On the flip side, there’s nothing like tripping over cords to kill the mood.
In his lighting designs, Philippe Starck feels a yearning to disconnect from the cords that bind. “Mankind searches for freedom,” he muses. “The more we liberate ourselves from objects surrounding us, the freer we feel.”
Another aspiration of the French design luminary, he says, is dematerialisation: doing more with less. “One less electrical plug is already going in that direction,” he says.
While the future for cordless lamps remains bright, some designers now concede the concept has its limitations.
A partnership with Italian lighting company Flos unleashed Starck’s experimentation with cordless lighting, and brought the world Bon Jour Unplugged, an LED table lamp powered by a rechargeable battery. The lamp, introduced three years ago, has a charging port in its base and a battery life of six hours – a time span Starck believes is enough for domestic use.
Another early innovator, Spanish lighting brand Marset, had earlier come up with FollowMe, a portable table lamp. Since then the brand has introduced three more cordless collections, including the larger, more powerful FollowMe Plus, and the (seemingly) gravity-defying Bicoca, both released last year. Made of polycarbonate, the Bicoca has an overlay of basic geometric figures and a shade that can be tilted to direct the light. A powerful magnet can be affixed underneath, allowing the lamp to stick to metal surfaces.
Flos followed Starck’s Bon Jour Unplugged with Bellhop, with a battery life of up to 24 hours depending on the intensity of the light, and there have been others, including Japanese designer Ryu Kozeki’s Bottled, for Ambientec, a leader in innovative cordless lighting,
Kozeki is among designers who see the pros and cons of cordless lighting. A cordless design would never be suitable for a chandelier, because of the risk of it falling, and also the problem of battery life, Kozeki says. Desk lights and table lamps, though, are better if they come without a cable so they can be used anytime, anywhere, and recharged easily, he says. “For that reason, you can find a lot of small cordless lamps on the market.”
James Bartlett, head of product development at Innermost in Hong Kong, agrees about the relatively slow pace of cordless lamp adoption.
“I expect it will be a large feature of the future of decorative residential lighting, but I believe the vast majority of lighting in the world will still be mains-connected in some way,” he says. “There are too many restrictions to cordless lighting at this stage – safety being the main one. For instance, imagine you were working on a machine in a factory and the battery ran out, or were exiting a building in an emergency and the fire escape lights were not on.”
Environmental impact is another concern. Mains power is still much more environment-friendly than batteries – even the rechargeable kind, which still have a limited lifespan.
“Batteries are full of horrendous chemicals that have to be disposed of safely,” says Bartlett. “Until we can find more effective ways of making batteries, then we shouldn’t really be creating more battery-powered things for the world.”
For that reason, Innermost has yet to produce an own-brand cordless lamp – although one is under development.
“The technology involved is moving at such a rapid rate, with rechargeable batteries as well as LEDs, we want to be sure we design responsibly and continue to produce products that last,” Bartlett says. “We don’t want to make novelty lights that end up in landfill in a year because they stop working. “However, our OEM [original equipment manufacture] business has been involved in manufacturing a number of cordless items for other large design brands.”
Apart from the environmental impact of its products, Innermost strives to ensure the light produced is enough for the task at hand.
“You have to get the balance right between battery power, light output, longevity and price,” Bartlett says. “Most importantly, as these lamps use batteries, we need to ensure the components are fully separable for correct recycling or disposal.”
While reluctant to give away too much, Innermost says it’s in outdoor lighting that the company sees the greatest potential for cordless design. With portability, as in Marset’s FollowMe, you can “pick up a lamp and take it to the terrace, the garden or the beach, and sit around like a campfire to continue the vibe after dark”, says Bartlett.
Inside small flats, where power sockets are usually within reach, he says the need is less obvious.
And would the novelty wear off? “Absolutely,” Bartlett says. “That’s one of the reasons we don’t believe cordless to be the future of lighting. People will charge their phones every night but I’m not sure they’d be happy plugging a [lamp] battery in when they had the option of flicking a switch on the wall.”
Maybe we will not have to do even that much at some point in the future. Starck agrees that today mains electricity and batteries are the easiest and least costly ways to power lighting.
“But tomorrow morning you will have solar battery, tomorrow night you will have hydrogen battery, the day after tomorrow you will have organic battery, and the day after tomorrow night you will have riskless nano atomic fusion battery,” he says. “Afterwards, I don’t know.”