What Should a Light Fixture Look Like in the LED Era?

The Barro Lamp, designed by Caterina Moretti for Graypants, starts an important discussion.

Caterina Moretti and Armando Pedro admire the Barro
Caterina Moretti and Armando Pedro admire the Barro.

Andrés Alejos

Seattle and Amsterdam-based studio Graypants introduced a new pendant light, the Barro, designed by Caterina Moretti. Graypants tells Treehugger, "What stands out about Barro is that it was made entirely by hand, from clay pulled directly from the earth of Oaxaca, colored only with the power of heat and smoke. Barro applies a traditional technique to achieve a modern form, and in this way, it is quite surprising. Barro is a sleek fixture perfect for a modern home, kitchen, or dining room."

What stands out for me is how this fits in the modern, quick-changing world of lighting in the LED era or with our definitions of sustainable design.

A dozen years or so ago, Treehugger design writers would converge every year at New York Design Week and the International Contemporary Furniture Fair—which wasn't just furniture—to find the latest in great green modern design. Graypants, founded by Jonathan Junker and Seth Grizzle, was a stalwart at the time. They designed their marvelous Scraplights out of corrugated cardboard left over from making their cardboard chairs. The fixtures were big and round, but I worried about mixing cardboard with hot incandescent lightbulbs.

Roest Lamp
Roest Lamp.


Then, when LEDs arrived, they developed the ROEST—a tubular 2.3-inch diameter pendant "with Dutch designer VanJoost to expand on their curiosities and explorations into the world of lighting." It is a different kind of fixture because, fundamentally, LEDs are a different kind of light.

I have long complained that "it’s crazy that we have new LED bulbs screwing into a 110-year-old base designed to carry 300 watts at 120 volts, for bulbs that run on low voltage direct current at 10 watts." But soon, we had lighting fixtures designed around the LEDs that are built into the fixtures and powered by low-voltage direct current.

Caterina with Barros
Caterina Moretti with Barros.

Andrés Alejos

Now we have the Barro fixture. Where does this fit in the continuum? Graypants provides a detailed explanation of how it is made.

pouring clay into mold
Pouring slip into mold.

Andrés Alejos

The company states: "Barro is created using an ancient, region-specific process. It begins with gathering earth from the surrounding areas to make the clay. Water is added to slake the clay and create slip, which is then poured into handmade plaster molds. The clay pieces are each hand burnished before firing with the help of a smooth stone, to achieve an iridescent color and smooth feel."

Fixtures sitting in kiln
Fixtures sitting in kiln.

Andrés Alejos

"Once the pieces are ready to be fired, they are placed in a special two-vent kiln stoked continuously for nine hours," adds Graypants. "Here, a process known as reduction of atmosphere takes place: during firing, at a specific moment, the vents are closed to reduce oxygen, generating a chemical reaction that infuses a deep black color in the natural color of the clay, creating the Charcoal Clay finish. The clay technique dates back to pre-Hispanic times in Mexico and tells the story of the empirical knowledge of those who came before, and their journey exploring and communicating with nature."

Blowing glass dome
Making the glass dome.

Andrés Alejos

A locally blown glass dome is added, which "envelops and protects it in a symbolic and metaphoric manner, as a display case of sorts, exhibiting the treasures within it."

glass and clay together

Andrés Alejos

So we now have this big chunk of clay and glass, with a standard E26 socket and a recommended 15-watt maximum LED bulb, which is a shame. Stick a 150-watt incandescent in there and it could probably heat a Passivhaus with all that thermal mass.

Caterina Moretti and Amando Pedro with molds
Caterina Moretti and Amando Pedro with molds.

Andrés Alejos

This brings us back to the nature of lighting in the LED world. Does it make sense to invest so much energy and mass in a pendant light that is holding such a teensy cool light source? We put the question to Graypants and Seth Grizzle, Graypants founder and CEO, tells Treehugger:

"As technology pushes lighting, it has become thin and small–and that's the opposite place craft tends to go. Technology works from the inside out, beginning with the lighting source, and Graypants tends to work from the outside in. We start from the technique, the material, and then we work our way in to the lighting source. For us, Barro is about bringing craft to lighting, like we've always done with Scraplights, and we love that this is a new, natural material for us to work with." 
Barro light in Bedroom

Adam Joseph Wells

Perhaps as an architect with a technological bent, I have been trained to work from the inside out, and as artists, Graypants works from the outside in. I keep wanting to see exciting and novel uses of LEDs, and Graypants wants to build a gorgeous light fixture made of traditional materials by talented craftspeople. They have certainly succeeded at that.

I have thought that the most sustainable way of dealing with LEDs is to get rid of the base and the removable bulb and make them all one device. The LED lasts forever so we shouldn't be limited by tradition and the century-old Edison 26 socket. But if anything dies, the whole fixture is garbage.

Graypants envisions a future where people make beautiful things that can last forever and that separates the technology, which can change overnight, from the object itself. They might be right.