by Saxon Henry
This past March, we introduced you to Casper and Ay Lin Heinen, co-owners of Ay Illuminate, as we brought their light fixtures into our Ethos Collection. We were seriously impressed with their commitment to social responsibility and sustainability then, and we’ve become even more impressed since, as Ay Lin and the company’s other principal designer Nelson Sepulveda continue to make positive impacts in struggling communities in a number of countries around the globe—creating a world of possibilities for people who need a leg-up.
Saluting the Ay Illuminate Commitment
These visionaries compare the process of bringing cohesion to their lighting collections to “weeding a garden to create room for the flowers to blossom.” And what continues to proliferate for the Dutch company is a serious sense of soulful style. Ay Lin calls their stylistic point of view “a mix of high quality handiwork, natural sources and contemporary designs.” To pull it off, she says, they are “in a constant process of consolidation.”
They make keeping it simple look easy but it’s far from it. “Truth is,” she notes, “you have to feel your way through that blurry phase.” One of the reasons they stay in a state of flux is the fact that they never rest on their laurels, choosing instead to seek out new communities where struggling men and women could benefit from the opportunity to make a living.
Always New Possibilities at Maison & Objet
During Maison & Objet in 2015, a collaboration with Afghani weavers debuted, the result of Sepulveda’s recognition of the quality of their textiles: “Afghanistan has a place in the fair each year with the focus of local handcrafts,” Ay Lin explained. “One year it was a company that produced shawls. Nelson grabbed the people, bringing them to our booth, and we started taking the cotton shades off the fixtures and dressing the lights with the shawls. It took another year to play with the designs but the result is beautiful silk-cashmere shades for the Z series of pendants produced by a few women who have a lot of experience. The great thing is that they are so proud because they make something useful and beautiful.”
The debuts during Maison & Objet this year sprang from collaborations with Philippine artisans and craftspeople in Bangladesh. In the Philippines, Ay Lin and Nelson work with a group of young handcrafters in a small village about three hours from Manila to create natural handmade paper shades that are made of Mulberry bark for the Z1 Black Bamboo PC pendants.
“The bark is stripped off of branches and dried,” Ay Lin explains. “Once the bark is cleaned with spatulas to remove the hard, dark portions, we cook it for three hours with ash and acoustic soda. Then we rinse it and put the raw material into a pulping machine.” After the mixture becomes a pulp, it goes through a special process they use to make it into a fabric-like material. “The wonderful thing about being able to give these young people work in their village is that it keeps them from having to go to Manila to find employment,” Ay Lin adds. “They are able to stay in their own homes with their families, which is so important in their culture.”
In Bangladesh, it’s scraps of mainly jeans and t-shirts that are shredded into pieces and hand spun into an entirely new fabric that makes the company’s newly introduced repurposed cotton shades on the Z1 Black Bamboo RUC pendant. These are not bleached or dyed so the colors that are achieved are a natural result of the particular scraps that are used to create each one. These are incredible examples of how seriously Ay Illuminate considers empowering individuals who benefit so greatly, even when the road is a complicated one.
“Afghanistan is not an easy place to work,” Casper explains. “Since the Americans left, transportation has been quite a struggle because it’s not safe. Now companies like DHL have left, so we have to ship through Germany, which sometimes means we have challenges with stock.” Given that the women who weave the shades are mothers and grandmothers, they have set-backs, especially during the country’s tough winters when the kids are often sick. “On the best days,” he adds, “the difficulties will add three weeks to the lead-time so we build it into our delivery model.”
The other country that presents them quite the challenge is Africa, or Swaziland to be specific, where their sisal shades are made through a program that helps women in remote villages earn a living. “It takes one woman a week to knit one of these shades,” Ay Lin explains. “A group of them will come together from their villages to work—first traveling to the fields where the sisal reeds are grown and handpicking the material; then twisting it on their thighs to soften it, beginning the knitting only when the fibers have reached the level of pliability that will create the perfect weave—it’s a long process that takes quite some time.”
Patience as a Natural Resource
As we’ve watched their products grow in popularity at a fast clip, we’ve realized how patience is one of the company’s greatest natural resources. This has translated naturally to the designers and architects who tap their lighting for their projects, as they easily make the decision to accept what can be longer lead times because the quality of the product is excellent and the lives of the artisans who create them are improved.
There is one more socially responsible piece to the Ay Illuminate puzzle: once the pieces of the fixtures are finished, they are brought to the Netherlands to have the electrical parts installed, which are made in a Dutch cooperative where disabled people are given tasks that help them earn a living. We look forward to seeing how this company continues to break new ground, both in terms of product design and social responsibility as their popularity in the North American marketplace continues to take hold. I thought I would share this video I took during the Maison & Objet fair in 2015 so you can see how magically simple their formula for stunning lighting is:
Be sure to visit our Ethos Collection to see all of the curated products we have brought together within the because they have either a resonant spirit born of time-honored craftsmanship or a pride of place, or are made of materials infused with a natural essence of earthiness. We’ll be entering the Z1 Black Bamboo PC in Architizer’s A+ Awards (along with Northern’s Dahl pendant and Karman’s Notredame Wall fixture) so we hope you’ll vote for one or all of them if you agree we’ve identified three fabulous designs!
Tagged under: Architizer, artists, contemporary design, craftsmanship, design fairs, design process, designer profiles, designers, earth, electric lighting, fashion for light bulbs, German, lighting design, lighting designers, Maison & Objet, nature, style, traditional craft, video