Designer Tom Rossau
GT: How did you come into the world of lighting?
TR: Step-by-step, I guess you would say. When I was traveling throughout Europe on my motorcycle, I was making my own leather clothes for the rides. I was an avid cyclist for five years so that amounted to a good number of designs. In 1997, I grew tired of always being on the move so I opened a shop in Copenhagen selling my clothing designs. I needed lighting and furniture for the store so I decided I’d try my hand at creating both. This is quite representative of my point of view in most areas of my life—if I can make it, I’d rather do so instead of buying it.
Designing the lighting for the shop was quite satisfying so I kept at it—investigating new ideas and working one product at a time until I figured out how the materials worked, and whether the designs would actually work in production or not. One of my greatest pleasures is to sit and fiddle about with a prototype. I’m never more absorbed than when I’m doing that.
GT: Why lighting over furniture?
TR: Lighting rose to the top because once you have figured out the prototype, you’re not that far from actually having it in production, which is not the case with furniture—it could be years before a large piece is realized because the machinery needed to make furniture versus lighting is daylight and dark. This creates a huge appeal for producing lighting in my eyes, as I could move quickly from prototype to product—sometimes weeks and, in a few instances, days between final design and the first production run.
It’s such a remarkable thing to have a three-dimensional shape develop from a flat piece of material. I never tire of seeing the fixtures morph into what they have the potential to be.
GT: Any surprises along the way?
TR: I work mainly with two-dimensional material to create three-dimensional forms so most of the material I use comes in sheets that I bend and shape. It’s such a remarkable thing to have a three-dimensional shape develop from a flat piece of material. I never tire of seeing the fixtures morph into what they have the potential to be.
There are always surprises, of course, and there comes a point when it is time to decide whether to go deeper or chuck it into the bin. The latter never brings an easy moment but it does sometimes come down to that.
GT: Are you trained as an industrial designer because you certainly sound like one?
TR: No, I’m self-taught. I guess my outlook has always been that I find great value in trying to create something simple but something essentially different from anything else on the market. I have a very low-tech approach to the design market: I investigate in real time and there are many times I hit a dead-end but I also know that the investigation is never wasted because the education it brings me will inform another design down the road.
The most inspiring part of the process is when it becomes obvious that I’m onto something, and it can show itself in a variety of ways. This naïve approach to what I do has a lot of value.
GT: Though you are not taking off on your motorcycle as much as you used to, you do still ride, don’t you?
TR: Yes, but it’s a seasonal thing because of the weather here in Denmark. Winter this far north is obviously not conducive to being exposed to the elements so we have about six months of hospitable climate each year. I took a trip to the Alps with a group I bike with several weeks ago. In this flat, tiny country we live in, you have to travel about 600 to 700 miles to get to inspiring scenery!
GT: When you are riding, do you find that ideas come to you?
TR: There is a sort of meditation that occurs when you’re whizzing along—just sitting there with the landscape rolling by. It is definitely a free space for me but I wouldn’t say I get design ideas when I’m on the road. Oddly enough, the place I find I have the most creative moments are the ten minutes before a movie begins when I go to the cinema! Seeing the advertisements and the trailers just somehow opens my mind up in a way that doesn’t happen in any other situation. Unfortunately, I don’t get to go as often as I’d like!
GT: How long have you been manufacturing lighting?
TR: I opened the shop in 1997 and was selling fixtures from there from the get-go but I didn’t start selling to the retail market until 2006 when I exhibited at a trade fair for the first time and found interested dealers for my products.
GT: How would you describe the biggest changes since you started selling your designs in a serious way?
TR: My investigations of materials have brought about the most changes, I think. I’ve made lights from aluminum and harder plastics rather quickly, moving into plastic foils that could change shapes. I was always determined to do the same with wood veneer but the pieces wouldn’t stay together—each time I tried it, the prototypes would rip themselves apart. Then I hit upon the designs for the TR 4, TR 5 and TR7, and that opened up a whole new trajectory for designing in wood that made me very happy.
One of my favorite moments was when the TR7 came together in 2007. It was an incredible feeling to see this flat collection of strips become voluptuous when I twisted it into shape! That moment of puffing it up for the first time, turning it into a shape like a beautiful female body, was incredible. I gained an entirely new appreciation for the fact there is no way to understand the relationship between the flat and the three-dimensional shape until you’ve gone all the way through the process.
Another thrilling moment I had was when I came up with the idea for the Pencil Lamp. It was such a simple idea and I couldn’t believe the incredible number of colors I could get pencils in until I started looking for them. Seeing this design come together was remarkable, particularly when the light shone between the pencils for the first time—it astounded me!
GT: Is there anything you would want Global Trends’ readers to know that I haven’t asked?
TR: I would like them to know I’m a naïve little boy who likes to play with things but who finds himself trapped in a 44-year-old body! I hope the playfulness in my designs come through but, that said, we take production very seriously. That’s the time when seriousness is our main outlook. During the creative/design phase, though, you won’t find an ounce of it in sight!
Bottom line, so to speak, I believe it’s imperative to be as geeky and freaky as you want to be when designing because it’s better to try and fail than to not have pushed into new territory to begin with.
Also, I think it’s essential for people to realize that we are a little company and our emphasis is on proper handmade. There are only six of us altogether—four of whom man the daily production—and we care passionately about what we do every single day. It’s actually quite a good feeling for me that my people value what we do so greatly that they devote more of themselves to the effort than I would have ever imagined before seeing it for myself.
In my role, I am involved in making sure quality is maintained but it’s such an easy effort because they take it all so seriously. Because they are physically building the lights, they know every detail of the designs as clearly as I do. What’s great to watch is when they come to me with alternate solutions to something that we didn’t even know could be improved. This is why I have maintained my production facilities in Copenhagen—to ship the work to China would deprive me of having my beautiful lights around me all the time and of having relationships with such wonderful devoted people who create the highest quality I could have ever imagined.
GT: Is growth in numbers ever on your mind or are you happy with the status quo?
TR: We’ve been making lights for 12 years now but, as you saw in Milan, there is still plenty of room for new ideas—that’s where my emphasis on growth lies. We are continually coming up with new products, releasing new fixtures as we perfect the ideas. The TR17, for instance, is a desk light that involves magnets and gravity. I think designing into new territory like this is really cool and as long as we are creating, we are growing in the strongest, most viable way.
The biggest ongoing challenge, of course, is that the business is going so well that I am often caught up in the running of it to keep it moving in the right direction, which leaves less space for creativity. That’s the delicate balance I am always managing.
Oh, and I think your readers might want to know that I blow a kiss into every box I see in the shipping department when I am around—it’s our way of saying we’re sending our lights out into the world with love!