For over a century, our light bulbs have looked much like Thomas Edison’s original. Even as we replaced those internal filaments, which burned so hot they glowed in a vacuum, with the tiny semiconductors of LED bulbs, which transform electrons into visible protons, the shapes and forms of our new lights were still modeled after the old light bulb. While the technology inside lighting grew more efficient, manufacturers worked hard to keep light bulbs as we knew them exactly the same. They wanted their products to feel familiar to buyers, not different.
Designer Samuel Wilkinson has been bucking this trend for almost a decade. In 2010, he designed the twisting Plumen 001 bulb–a groundbreaking LED light that looped inside itself–the design of which earned it a place in the MoMA’s permanent collection. And this week, he at Milan Design Week to debut his next act: a series of working prototypes for the new brand Beem that transform boring LEDs into spindly sculptures of light.
“We want to try and change the expectation of what you consider to be a lightbulb,” says Wilkinson. “There are certain norms–most bulbs go downwards, etc–that we wanted to throw out of the window and try to create a fresh look.”
The inaugural Beem designs are certainly fresh: Some bend into curves and U shapes, almost like neon-rendered emoji smiles. Others make it looks as if a trail of light is dancing around a central ceramic point, like the orbit of a moon around a planet. And in the most ambitious design, Wilkinson drills through the light tube with a wooden rod, like a lamp with no lampshade necessary. Yet as wild as these designs are, many are still compatible with the same old screw-in bulb sockets we have in our homes.
So how is Beem pulling off all of these crazy shapes? Originally, I thought that Wilkeson must be taking a single LED light and diffusing it through a long tube, but he said that’s not the case at all. Instead, he’s using a new style of micro LEDs that are semi-flexible. He places them throughout a silicon outer tube, which creates that neon sign look.
Ironically, Beem’s micro LEDs are the same technology that’s currently being used in a lot of LED incandescent copycat bulbs produced by major manufacturers. “We have been taking bulbs apart and trying to put them back together in unique ways,” says Wilkinson. That’s terribly unspecific, but Beem–a relatively small, studio lighting startup–is playing its technical innovations close to the chest until it announces its first wave of buyable products in a few months.
“Milan is our first showing, a soft launch to show you the type of products that are coming, as well as our outlook,” says Wilkinson. “We need a few more months for testing, but as we were super excited with new developments, we wanted to expose them to the design world as soon as the right opportunity came up.”