In this interview series, Shop Talk, we chat with friends and collaborators of Rich Brilliant Willing on the ideas, discoveries, and inspirations that drive their design process.
Pictured: Palindrome 4 in Warm Bronze / Photography by Federica Carlet at 70 Pine by Lyric
From the rays of morning sunlight to the glow of lamps on our studio desks, lighting colors all aspects of each day, regulating our circadian rhythms and setting the tenor of our mood during moments of work, rest, and play. As designers and manufacturers of light, our work often takes us into a range of spaces and projects—as well as into the company of fantastic collaborators who, like the team here at Rich Brilliant Willing, share our belief in the power of light to create atmosphere.
We recently teamed with the hospitality startup Lyric to outfit its first New York City property at 70 Pine, with 132 suites across four floors in a historic Art Deco building in Lower Manhattan. Irene Yu, senior manager of interior design at Lyric, tells us how the company is rethinking hospitality with concept-driven design—taking aim at the sweet spot between a boutique hotel and an Airbnb—and discusses the inspirations and challenges of working within a landmark structure.
When did you join Lyric, and how would you describe the company’s approach to hospitality and design?
I joined Lyric as the senior manager of interior design about a year and a half ago. We’re a technology-enabled hospitality company that designs and operates spaces that combine and deliver local style and service like a boutique hotel, partnered with the versatility and comfort of living in an apartment. We believe we’re creating a new hospitality category that’s really responding to a lot of interesting macro trends, and our guests are really creative people—they’re connected and really value design, and of course care about experiences. They want an actual home on the road, not a hotel on the road, and design is foundational to providing that: I would say that’s the biggest differentiator for us. We believe it’s really important to have concept-driven design because it really adds to this sense of place—it provides a platform for people to connect.
How did 70 Pine’s rich history and distinct Art Deco architecture bear upon your overall design concept?
Art Deco is a design period marked by a lot of luxurious elements. If you go into the lobby at 70 Pine, it’s marble on marble, layered with decorative motifs; it’s a really grand display of luxury that’s stood the test of time. For us, it was important to not only research these historic details, but also understand the people who actually occupied the building. The first tenant was the Cities Services Company, a big utilities electricity provider for New York and several cities in the U.S. Many of the building’s decorative motifs tie into that by evoking power, industry, and electricity.
Pictured: Pastille Disc in Breccia / Photography by Federica Carlet at 70 Pine by Lyric
When we were developing the concept for this location, it became clear to us that it was all about understanding how Cities Services harnessed and delivered power for the residents of New York—and then, translating that to provide a place where people can come harness their own internal energy, and turn that into actionable power and disperse it out there into the world. Copper also came up as a big inspiration point for our material and color palette. Copper is used to conduct electricity, and not only does it symbolize connectivity, it’s a symbol of New York; beneath her layers of beautiful green and turquoise patina, the Statue of Liberty is made of copper.
Pictured: Palindrome 6 in Warm Bronze / Photography by Federica Carlet at 70 Pine by Lyric
What were some of the challenges of working within a landmark structure?
The 70 Pine Building Lobby is historically landmarked and provided a lot of context and fertile ground for our concept. While our spaces were not historically landmarked, we were limited to what we could do and did not engage in any hard construction. The project mostly consisted of finish upgrades, furniture, lighting, paint, wallcovering, and we created some beautiful custom millwork in our Loft Space, but we didn’t really do any wall-wiring in the suites. And because the spaces were an office conversion from way back when, you have these super long apartments that can feel sort of cave-like without the right amount of lighting, so we really needed to come up with a portable lighting solution that worked with all the existing electrical outlet locations. Cue RBW.
How did these constraints, as well as your overarching design concept for 70 Pine, lead you to working with RBW?
I’ve had RBW bookmarked for quite some time, and when it came time to line up our vendors for this project, it was the perfect opportunity. It was so fun working with the team. The RBW team was really willing to work with us on these design constraints to come up with a creative solution, and together we landed on a custom plug-in version of the Pastille sconce for each of our suites. That willingness was great, and they brought a personal relationship and human aspect to the project which was awesome; I love working with Liz, the director of sales. The amount of color and finish options RBW offers is also incredible—not a lot of companies have that range of capabilities—and there’s a quality to their lighting that’s really warm, consistent, and distinct.
For the lobby space, I wanted to include a copper fixture with a more patinated, colorful matte finish, and RBW had just come out with a new finish called Brecchia that ended up being perfect for us. We used that finish with the Palindrome fixture, which we felt also spoke to this formal language and vernacular of industry and electricity, but in a modern way that felt fresh and dynamic. We also have projection art in the lobby, and the modular design of Palindrome gave us the flexibility to install in a visually exciting way, without impeding on the projector throw—it ended up working perfectly.
Lighting is this beautiful and complex medium, but it’s also an object that brings gravitas into a space. When it’s done right, it really affects the guest experience and can be powerfully transformative.
More broadly, what role does light play for you, as an architect and interior designer?
Lighting is a multifaceted but nebulous tool. I was always taught, when you design with light, to first think about your floor plan and imagine it as this dark room. Then, you start spotlighting the important features and layering in different kinds of light, understanding where your overhead and task lighting is occurring, and of course, thinking about function: We do pride ourselves in providing guests with actual workspace at Lyric, and making sure there is enough lighting for our guests is really important.
I think lighting is the hardest thing to get right: When you do, I think it’s very, very clear that you’ve got it right, but when it’s wrong, it can be incredibly unforgiving. It’s completely foundational to designing spaces: Lighting can reveal all the weak points of not only the design of the space, but of every design decision you’ve made. As a medium, you have to think about so many things: color, the amount of light, whether it’s setting the right mood or tone, how vibrant you need or want the space to be, which textures you want to bring out, and the finish that’s best for achieving that… the list goes on. Lighting is this beautiful and complex medium, but it’s also an object that brings gravitas into a space. When it’s done right, it really affects the guest experience and can be powerfully transformative.
- Irene Yu
In the final month of 2019, we gathered the team for our annual holiday party. Amidst the atmospheric glow of a candlelit space, accomplishments were celebrated, team members toasted to the end of the year and danced until the lights came on.
At RBW, we believe in the power of light to create atmosphere and this is the team behind it.
We could not have reached our 10-year milestone if it was not for the support of our loyal and supportive design partners. As a thank you, we invited our top supporters on a dive bar crawl to revisit some of our former watering holes on a nostalgic walk down memory lane.
We started off at Loreley Beer Garden, a beer garden in the style of Kolsch halls in Cologne that were blocks away from our first studio in a basement in Lower East Side, NY. Ten years ago, the three founders—Theo Richardson, Charles Brill, and Alex Williams, would sit at this beer hall drinking Kolsch while sketching out product ideas on coasters. The “Rich Brilliant Willing” name was also born in the Lower East Side around cofounder Charles' kitchen table.
It was a fun night filled with beers, laughs, and nostalgia. Thank you all for 10 great years and cheers to what the future has in store for RBW for the next 10.
In this new interview series, Shop Talk, we chat with friends and collaborators of Rich Brilliant Willing about the ideas, discoveries, and inspirations that drive their design process.
Photography by Alison Christiana
Videography by Bone & Gold
Here at Rich Brilliant Willing, it’s no secret that we believe in the power of light to create atmosphere, whether at home or in a professional setting. In workplace environments, the right combination of lighting can set the tone and mood of energy and motivation, create a powerful design statement, or soften an office setting into a more intimate and humanist space.
But lighting is just one element of a designed environment—and our products shine brightest in the company of great collaborators. We recently teamed with SERA Architects, Absolute Resource, and ELCOR Electric to integrate Enlighted senors into our Queue pendant with custom sensor technology to monitor energy use, occupancy, and daylighting for a large-scale tech campus in California.
Carissa Mylin, a senior associate at SERA Architects, shares her thinking behind this extensive project and tells us why well-designed workspaces can make or break the creation of a great idea.
As an architectural designer, how do you perceive light? What role does it play in your approach to interiors?
Our main focus for interiors is to harness natural daylight and use it to the best extent possible: to create unfiltered moments of delight and a connection to the outdoors, all with the control necessary for working environments. When we introduce lighting into an interior, we do it with a great degree of intention and ask ourselves, What is the mood or atmosphere we’re trying to create? How can we strategically introduce light to support a person in, or transport a person into that space?
Light is the lens through which people experience space, so it’s extremely important to get the design of it right. My mark of success for lighting design is that people don’t notice the lighting. It feels right, it helps them relax, focus, or support whatever emotion or experience we’re trying to achieve in a space. People solve some of the world’s biggest problems at work. It’s so important for us as designers to provide these warm and human-scale spaces—lighting plays such a huge part in that.
Tell us a bit about the scale and nature of the tech campus.
The project is comprised of two corporate office buildings connected by a unique outdoor space and café to create a mini-campus that supports the needs and choices of individuals and teams. A big component of this was the amenity spaces included on the campus. Users have their pick of places to work in, in addition to standard office spaces—across both buildings, there are several dozen lounge spaces, daylight courtyards, botanical libraries, cozy nooks to tuck into, and bustling cafes rich in detail.
What set Queue apart from the other linear lighting luminaires you had been considering for the project?
We wanted the primary, open-office spaces to be an extension of those more hospitality-driven spaces, and make it be a place people wanted to go to—instead of an afterthought with the same set of status quo, corporate details. The Queue fixture was a critical component in helping us layer in the richness, warmth, and human-scale details that make these open-office spaces a desirable place for users to go to.
This project also had more unique lighting types than any project that I’ve ever worked on; the clients are monitoring not just energy, but occupancy, and daylighting. We had the unique opportunity of working with the RBW team to take the very well-designed Queue fixture, which comes in a variety of different sizes and lengths, and further customize it with proprietary sensor technology. We were also able to work with the RBW team on finding different ways to align the fixtures and arrange them throughout the space to make them the most efficient that they could be.
How did you first get connected with us?
I first learned of the team through my local rep, Absolute Resource, a group I’ve been working with for 14 years. I don’t recall exactly when I first met Theo, Charles, or Alex, but I do remember realizing that it was the first time ever that I’d had the opportunity to meet the people who were designing and manufacturing the lighting products I was specifying. Most of my experiences with lighting manufacturers are very disconnected from the project. It’s amazing to partner with people who are equally as invested in the success of the project as you are, down to the smallest detail. They want it to be good and they want it to be right.
It’s amazing to partner with people who are equally as invested in the success of the project as you are, down to the smallest detail. They want it to be good and they want it to be right.
What was the most surprising or memorable part of working on this project?
We had an exceptional client who really cares about design. We were given a lot of creative license, and were challenged to innovate and incorporate unique elements into the design. It was challenging in the most rewarding sense and ultimately resulted in a design that was better than what we could have reached without our client’s creative disruption. And I’m using ‘disruption’ here in a positive way; figuring out how to incorporate some of the requests allowed us to really stretch outside of the design box.
This project was a true collaboration, and having that kind of connection with your client as well your design partners resulted in a project that feels amazing—and was also really fun to execute.
Named to reference its sewn textile construction—the shade body is “all sewn,” offering a slight double entendre—AllSew, a homophone of “also,” connotes an additive quality, as well, suggesting its intended use in a tiled configuration of multiple units.
The large, illuminated volumes of AllSew recall classic Akari paper lanterns, reinterpreted and updated for high-performance needs and everyday use. Intricate details and functional considerations belie its simple form: The interior framework is made from thin, gently pliable rods engineered for strength under tension, and ease of assembly. Compressed for shipping, the shade material retains wrinkles when expanded, adding a warmth of textural richness and lending a diffuse glow. Sailcloth fabric was selected for its extreme durability and luminous quality.
A variety of developments in the nature of the workplace have driven office design away from the bland, unchanging landscapes of the past. One example is choice-based seating, which essentially allows employees to find their own ideal work environment instead of being attached to a particular desk or workstation. Another is the highly competitive co-working space market: these short or long-term leased office environments are often loaded with shared amenities like informal work lounges and social areas.
Pictured: Akoya 22 in Camping World Offices by Eastlake Studio / Photography by Hall + Merrick Photographers
Choice-based seating is a concept that’s now mainstream. This might be implemented in a literal way, where no one has an assigned seat or desk. More commonly, end users may have an assigned workstation but also have the freedom to work in a variety of less formal environments, like work lounges, huddle rooms, “scrums”, coffee bars, etc. For some of our clients, such spaces might occupy a third or more of a typical “workplace” floor. The proliferation of these less formal workspaces has opened the door for a greater variety of architectural lighting and certainly for more decorative lighting.
Huddle Rooms, for example, are a relatively new space type. These are basically the more “chill” younger siblings of the small conference rooms of old. Furnishings can be a table and chairs, but in some cases can easily be a sofa and a couple of club chairs. These rooms elicit a sense of informality and creativity but still require lots of functionality to support team collaboration, such as videoconferencing, marker boards, etc. The lighting in these rooms has to support a wide range of visual tasks.
Decorative lighting is a go-to design element to help create the look and feel of rooms like this, but often isn’t able to provide enough ambient light for more demanding visual tasks. Mixing a decorative luminaire with supporting “performance” lighting can work in some cases, but that approach inherently adds cost.
The humble phone room is another space type that has proliferated in choice-based seating environments. There are often dozens of these small single-occupant rooms per workplace floor, acting as quiet refuges for both calls and heads-down work. Here, decorative lighting can contribute to creating focus and reinforce a sense of privacy but may not have the best light output or distribution to support the full range of visual tasks that might be needed (for example, videoconferencing). Again, adding other layers of light in these spaces can solve the lighting problem but may be cost-prohibitive. How many fixtures is a client willing to pay for to light a 50-square-foot room?
Pictured: AllSew 48 Square / Photography by Federica Carlet
What’s really needed for cases like these is a special category of decorative lighting: performance decorative. These are decorative fixtures with light outputs much closer to that of general lighting with shielded or diffused light sources to reduce glare and possibly other useful features, like acoustical absorption, separately controlled direct and indirect light, full-range dimming, and color-changing capabilities. In other words, these fixtures can’t just look great; they must be robust, adaptable, and help solve a variety of design problems.
Pictured: Akoya 14 in WeWork Culver City by WeWork / Photography by WeWork
In the co-working market, there’s a huge need for owner/operators to distinguish their product from the competition, and the product their selling is not just a furnished office space; it’s an experience. These environments often have very hospitality-like qualities, but they are still workspaces so lighting fixtures that are decorative but with performance features are often a necessity.
Tenants who are attracted to co-working are often drawn in by the networking and social possibilities. The coffee pantry in a space like this might transform into a bourbon-tasting bar every Wednesday at 6 PM. A warm-dimming capability in the decorative pendants above the island countertop would really help set the mood for this type of special event.
Decorative lighting used to just be what the name implies; it was decoration! It was often utilized as just the jewelry of interior space. There’s a great need, and therefore a great opportunity, for lighting manufacturers to step up to this new challenge: continue to give us beautiful lighting objects that support the aesthetic needs of our spaces, but also help us support the increasing functional needs of our clients by incorporating more performance features.
- Gary Bouthillette, AIA, LC
Gary Bouthillette, AIA, LC, is Senior Director of Lighting Design at IA Interior Architects, with 24 years of experience in lighting and design. He has provided design solutions for major organizations and Fortune 500 companies spanning an extensive range of industries, including technology, finance, entertainment, law, education, and energy.
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The result is easy-to-achieve, tailored light levels for any setting—no matter the project requirements or budget—furthering your ability to create award-winning atmosphere unique to each of your projects.
You can find compatibility for specific collections in the graphics below:
In this new interview series, Shop Talk, we chat with friends and collaborators of Rich Brilliant Willing about the ideas, discoveries, and inspirations that drive their design process. For our first installment, we feature the architect behind our recent studio expansion at Industry City.
Photography by Dean Kaufman
As we continue to celebrate our ten-year milestone—yes, ten!—the excitement can be felt in our new and improved workspace, which we recently expanded and revamped this spring to meet the demands of a growing team. To help us along with the transformation, we collaborated with local architect and designer Neil Logan to refine our sixth-floor loft space at Industry City, which combines a purpose-designed factory and design studio under one roof.
We were lucky to work together: Neil has worked with more than a handful of legends, from Toshiko Mori, Edward Larrabee Barnes, Philippe Starck, and Andrée Putman; to brands like Herman Miller and Maharam; and artists including Rirkrit Tiravanija and R.H. Quaytman. Neil’s precise work is rigorous as it is elegantly minimal, and as a hands-on independent architect and designer, we felt his creative ethos resonated with our own.
We recently caught up with Neil to get to know him a little better, and discuss his design process and thinking behind our new workspace.
Tell us about your studio. When did you first start your own practice?
I started my office in the early ’90s, after having worked for some larger offices and smaller offices, some interior people, some famous people—and then kind of slowly went on my own.
For my first solo project, I was lucky to have a project with Art and Commerce, a company that represented photographers and people in the fashion business, mostly, and advertising. And then that led to many other contacts and other projects; I also have several clients who are prominent artists, for example. I find that I tend to work well with people in the visual and creative fields.
Was redesigning our studio your first time working in Industry City?
To be frank, I had only been to Industry City one time prior to working with RBW! And I was quite impressed to learn how the team assembles all of their fixtures themselves and at that location—that was very surprising and impressive, to see these high-quality, design conscious products being made, well marketed, and presented all in one space. These days, most companies farm out that kind of manufacturing work, or you assume they’re made by robots, or something [laughs].
"That was very surprising and impressive, to see these high-quality, design conscious products being made, well marketed, and presented all in one space."
It’s an actively industrial space, both historically and the way we use it today. What were your initial thoughts about how you might redesign our workspace within that context?
In a building of that type, where the existing structure is so prominent, so strong and dominant, it’s important to organize your space with the structure, as opposed to fight against it. When we started the project, there was a concrete block wall dividing the existing space with the additional one, and once we removed that, a lot of the interior divisions were really the result of using the columns and beams as markers.
The biggest challenge, for us, was figuring out how to arrange all of the different workstations and distinct needs for our team within that grid—while still keeping us together, social and collaborative in one space.
There were three main different functions to address, as I saw it. The assembly, which could be quite noisy at times; and the studio and office areas, for quieter, more focused desk work. Then, a mix of meeting rooms, private offices, and shared spaces—which, in a big, open space like that, is a challenge to make without breaking it up into too many little rooms.
Our studio and workshop at Industry City now spans the entire floor, structured by three large bays partitioned by a grid of columns and beams that are original to the building.
So instead, we introduced this big box of smaller rooms, and then had a bunch of ideas of how to animate those areas that we were building out. The modular rooms and sliding doors brought a lot of sheet rock and blank surfaces into the space. With the added structural repetition of the building columns and beams, our approach was to use color to break up the monotony and act as a visual marker. The colors also help distinguish each of the spaces from one another, allowing for a kind of wayfinding.
Neil chose tones from Polychromie Architecturale, Le Corbusier’s swatch of architecturally significant paint hues, to visually punctuate each of the different rooms and stations with a cohesive pop of color.
What were some of the other major spatial interventions and design changes you felt were needed?
The other thing I noticed, after visiting a couple of times, was that the assembly and workshop areas at the center of the studio were rather very dark. But there was a giant skylight right in the middle of the space! So we opened those up, and that was a great way to balance all of the natural light coming in through the windows on either side of the building.
Let there be light: Activating skylights at the center of our floor-through space brightened up our communal areas.
One of the best things about what you’ve done with our space—and furniture—is how it supports and promotes collaboration among the RBW team.
I was happy that the team decided to have custom furniture for their special needs, rather than going and just buying things off the shelf, because then the whole thing can be more tailored to their setup. In the case of the conference room, they wanted to have these high tables, which is slightly unusual. The idea is that they would have shorter and more informal meetings, and people would be encouraged to stand up or perch on strong stools while discussing or reviewing products together. And then in the kitchen and pantry area, we designed and had fabricated open and exposed stainless steel countertops—kind of like an industrial restaurant supply—and added a more conventional but very large table, so everyone could casually sit together as they prepare and eat lunch or take a break.
I think the way that RBW works is very special and admirable, because it shows less of an interest in separating out the different kind of tasks—and even the different work cultures that may exist between the people in the assembly or stock department, with those in design or accounting, and so forth—and trying to mix and integrate them all together.
Our group meetings tend to happen standing, while workshopping and reviewing prototypes and models, so Neil custom-designed a set of counter-height tables with stools.
The menu explored the different ways in which food can be aged—from pickling and curing to dehydrating. Each dish played with various elements of preservation and how these processes lend a sense of durability to otherwise fragile produce. A tasting of three wines from 2009, all showing freshness and vitality despite their age, echoed the timelessness of good design. The 10 year celebration included a preview of RBW's latest collection, AllSew, a modular scalable pendant inspired by the luminosity of lanterns and the lightweight, collapsible efficiency of kites.
Rich Brilliant Willing has turned 10 years old this year and we celebrated during NYCxDesign Week at the newly opened Sister City Rooftop. Sister City is just a few blocks away from RBW’s birthplace, a humble basement on Chrystie street which acted as an incubator for our very first product ideas. A few years down the line and we now have worked on a hotel building lit almost entirely with RBW fixtures. Our newest sconce Dimple is in every guest room in the 200-room hotel, resulting from a two year collaboration with Sister City. There’s nothing like a New York City rooftop to make you feel like the sky is truly the limit.