Verlichtingsontwerper Romy Kühne

We recently spoke at length with lighting designer Romy Kühne at coffee bar Unfolded in Rotterdam. Although she also designs tableware, unusual, mostly metal lighting fixtures are her specialty. We talked about what and who inspires her, what sustainability really is and her dream project.

You have a unique and distinct design style. Where do you get your inspiration?

As an architecture enthusiast, I am fascinated by structural work in buildings, the underlying structure and materials that can stand the test of time. Old industrial buildings especially appeal to me because of the raw detail work that goes into them.

I get excited when I see how something is made and how the making process is also used decoratively. This is often seen in machinery, bridges and older buildings, where, for example, steel beams are used decoratively and the rivets and welds are not only functional but also decorative. I also have a fondness for geometric structures and patterns, which are often found in architecture, such as load-bearing structures in canopies, vaults and roofs.

I also find my inspiration in creating three-dimensional forms from two-dimensional materials. I see it as a challenge to turn flat sheets into a puzzle and create a three-dimensional form. In doing so, I draw inspiration from folding techniques such as origami and joining methods that allow me to join multiple flat elements together. This often results in angular, geometric designs inherent to the technique or craft used to make them.

In short, my inspiration as a lighting designer comes from the material itself, the making process and the craft. Although geometric design is a fascination of mine and forms a distinct signature in my work, it is not the only guiding factor for me.

How do you view sustainability in the interior design industry?

How I view sustainability in our industry? Oy, are you sure you want to ask me this question? I do believe that our views on this are similar and fear that this is not a popular opinion at the moment. I think the term is used too often and vainly.

In principle, you can ask what is against sustainability, but my interpretation of sustainability differs from what is currently prevalent in the interior design industry. Terms like “cradle to cradle,” “upcycled design,” “recyclable,” “zero-footprint” and “circular design” sound wonderful and represent a fantastic vision regarding disposable products that quickly end up in the waste stream. However, I believe this is not what we want to create in the interior design industry, and it possibly even goes against what “design” should be.

I think designers should work to design and produce products that people love and want to keep. Our focus should not be on what we do with products when they end up in the waste stream, but on how we can make products high quality, aesthetically pleasing and sustainable so that people don’t feel the need to replace or throw them away. We certainly need to work on making the material chain and production as a whole more sustainable. Fortunately, this is already being worked hard on.

As designers, we need to be aware of the carbon footprint of our designs, but sometimes something that may not seem so “sustainable” to produce at first can end up being more sustainable. Which is more sustainable? A trendy lamp made from paper pulp or recycled PET bottles (which is sometimes even produced in a polluting aluminum mold in a faraway country) and lasts only 1 or 2 years, or a steel lamp that you chose because you like it and is made of a material that will stand the test of time?

As a lighting designer, this does strike a nerve with me. Unfortunately, I find that in our interior design industry there is often an emphasis on “going with the trends,” which often means new rather than good. And now “sustainability” is the trend. I now see brands offering the option of leasing designer furniture for 5 years. After that, you can automatically get a new piece of furniture. And they process the old product in a circular way. That sounds wonderful, but if you are already saying that my product only needs to last 5 years, is it really designed sustainably or do you have a profitable revenue model above all?

To me, sustainability in the interior design industry is currently more of a selling point and focused on “consuming more,” with no vision. The challenge as a designer is to create beautiful products of high quality, with solid materials, produced close to home and with personal attention.

What would be your ultimate dream project as a lighting designer? Or what would you most like to want to design again?

My dream is to design and produce custom decorative lighting for houses of worship such as churches, mosques or synagogues. Although I am not religious myself, I always get impressed by the architecture and atmosphere in these buildings. They fill me with a sense of humility and enchantment. The scale, materialization, spaciousness and air space created in these buildings, along with the acoustics and especially the light, which is so special in a church. There is often abundant natural light, flood light and colorful nuances through any stained glass windows. The lamps hung in these spaces may be real eye-catchers. For example, chandeliers with multiple arms and levels, unique hangings and attention to craftsmanship. It fascinates me as a lighting designer and seems like a wonderful challenge to take on!

What other designers do you admire most and why?

It’s actually quite a difficult question for me. I appreciate the vision and craftsmanship of many designers, but I especially admire the “makers” and people with a broad vision. This is why a list of architects and craftsmen/makers comes to mind rather than a list of designers.

An architect with a vision that I think is great is Adolf Loos. I also think his buildings are beautifully designed. They use beautiful materials and there is a focus on the functionality and intuitive experience of the space, without excessive decorations and ornaments. He has a good sense of proportions, aesthetics and light as an important element in interior design. After visiting his “Villa Müller” in Prague, I was really impressed. Not everything was beautiful, but it was all so well thought out and crafted. In that way, I still find very beautiful again.

Le Corbusier is also someone I really admire, although he has a very different vision. I love the idea of “integral design” used by architects of that era. It’s not just about designing a building or product. It is about shaping an atmosphere, a vision, a way of life. This includes ensuring that the environment matches the building, the building seamlessly matches the interior and the furniture it contains matches that interior again, with the lighting on the ceiling and the placement of the windows on the lighting. It is a total concept.

This is how I would prefer to design as a lighting designer. Not just design individual lamps or products. But products that are tailored to the space, the building and the person entering that space. In a personal way and taking into account all the elements. Unfortunately, in this day and age, this is difficult with regulations, requirements and budgets. These often clash with the concept of “beautiful” and make it almost impossible to create such a project. I certainly don’t claim to possess all these qualities either, but I admire them greatly. And while it may be unachievable, it is the ultimate aspiration and dream as a lighting designer.

Besides architects, I also greatly admire the “makers” of crafts. For a while I had the opportunity to learn from Peter Slegers, a master of fel technique from Beek en Donk. I fell in love with the technique and the passion he puts into his work. Throughout my career, I have encountered many of these “makers” who do magical things with materials. Within my own field, I admire Piet Hein Eek and Floris Hovers. In the field of lighting, I think VANTOT studio (Esther Jongsma and Sam van Gurp) is very strong. In artistic light installations, I admire Studio Drift (Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta).