“ We basically take the old adage “they just don’t make ‘em like they used to”, and try to turn it on it’s head. That principle allows us to create things the way our grandparents would have done it, by using good quality, materials, processing them in a very hands on robust way and building them to last, rather than to make a sale”
INTERVIEW: RICK DE LA RAY
From what I have gathered, you did not plan on starting a lighting business. What sparked off the initial idea for the two of you?
We both travel quite extensively and often admired similar light bulbs overseas, but were disappointed that we couldn’t find anything like that in South Africa. As ‘creatives’ who wanted to develop our own ideas, we were also growing increasingly frustrated with the very poor quality and limited selection of lighting components that were available through the established lighting industry in this country. It seemed like a great opportunity to shake things up a bit.
How long has the company been running for now and did you expect all the interest it has received so far?
We started about two and a half years ago, and in fact Ploy spent the first year doing full-time research, sourcing, testing and certifying our initial products before we were ready to launch in February 2013. At the time we would go to braais and people would lean over and ask what we’re up to? We’d try to explain to them that we were getting into the light bulb business and we could often feel the awkward silence as they tried to work out how or why we would have any interest in something like that. We honestly had no idea if anyone else would find value in our products, and we often joked that worst case scenario if it didn’t work out we’d have beautiful light bulbs for the rest of our lives.
Where did you meet or did you know each other from before you started the venture?
We met in Bangkok (Ploy’s home city) in 2009. I had spent 9 months there, and it was during that time that I met Ploy who never ceased to amaze with her knowledge of all the best that Bangkok’s hidden subcultures had to offer. In fact, it was at one of her favourite bars ‘The Iron Fairies’ that we first began to discuss the possibility of developing our own range of Edison style vintage bulbs. Ploy moved to Cape Town the following year, and has been here ever since.
How long did it take to set up the initial running of the company, what has been the most challenging part of the process so far?
Well, that first year was crucial and a real ‘make or break’ time for us. We started off with no idea of what we were getting ourselves into, and had so much to learn. The most challenging aspects initially were finding suppliers that had the ability to deliver high quality products as well as learning how to maneuver through all the red tape and regulation. Something we just never anticipated was how heavily regulated electrical components are, specifically in this country, and how many small technical details needed to be resolved in order to ensure that our products would be safe, as well as comply with local law. Almost all of the products we import have to be customised in one way or another in order to comply with local standards.
You chose to return to the traditional production processes, materials and values to manufacture the bulbs and the accessories. How did you go about finding the resources that could still produce what you were looking for?
Well, this is at the core of what drives our value system, and while on the surface it may seem admirable, those goals are not easily achieved in a world where almost every single aspect of production has been transformed by capitalism to exploit value at every turn. For example, we love the look and feel of Bakelite, a very early form of ‘plastic’ that was once the stuff that all telephones, radios and such were made of. Today, the Bakelite is generally seen as a less desirable material by modern industry. Without getting too technical, a component in Bakelite can easily take 10 times longer to cure than its plastic cousin. It’s also more brittle which in modern industrial terms translates to – expensive. So the strengths of this material, such as its fantastic heat resilience and silky traditional finish are usually overlooked by the faster, cheaper more flexible characteristics of plastic, which easily seduces the corporate ‘bean counters’. So, while we always try to work with local manufacturers first, we are often disappointed to learn that those machines, materials and skills have simply been lost in this country to the onslaught of a capitalist mentality that “cheap trumps quality”. In those cases, we look to international suppliers that have managed to retain those more traditional skills and production methods.
When you look at how the market is pushing for consumers to use more energy-saving light bulbs – how compatible are your products with these demands?
It’s always been a difficult problem for us to solve. We have to acknowledge that the appeal of an older technology often carries with it an environmental impact. Our Edison style bulbs cannot compete with modern energy saving bulbs, and we approach this with a few points in mind. The first is that the market for these specialist types of bulbs really is very small in a global context. They are decorative rather than functional, and at 40 watts ever so slightly better than the 60 and 100 watt bulbs that we all grew up with. But even so, we also realise that this planet cannot continue to function irresponsibly for much longer. For this reason, we are actively looking into various options for gradually replacing our range with an energy saving equivalent. A current concern is the chemical impact of new energy-saving bulbs and it’s difficult to know which of the two is the least undesirable. While they will never be the same as the old fashioned ones, we believe we’re very close to offering an alternative that will offer a similar appeal in terms of bulb shape, and warm yellow light that we’ve all fallen in love with.
What is the lifespan of your bulbs compared to the average bulb you buy at the supermarket?
The lifespan of our current range of bulbs is about 3 000 hours which is very similar to an incandescent bulb that one might purchase at a supermarket. In the near future we hope to offer an energy-saving equivalent that will last up to 25 000 hours. We’re really excited about it!
Even though your production is still quite limited at the moment, how competitive do you find it compared to mass-produced light bulbs?
It’s a very different type of product, and we’re not really interested in competing directly with mass-market products. We find value in offering products that have a soul, and the response from those who are fortunate enough to purchase at that level appreciate what we offer and the way we run our business. One thing that has been an eye-opener for us is the ruthless and cutthroat manner in which some of the more established mass-market industry players conduct their business. We have struggled to relate to their value systems, and generally don’t feel that they build a better society. Rather, big business’ primary goal is to seemingly just take, take and take some more. On the rare occasions when something is given back it usually tends to be a PR facade under the guise of goodwill.
You were inspired by the original light designs of Thomas Edison – what process did you follow to plan the new shapes and designs for your range and how much do you still stick to the original Edison concept?
Edison’s original bulbs had a carbon filament that is not an ideal material to master these days, especially for the longevity of the bulb. One of the biggest differences with our bulbs is that they have a Tungsten filament. From an aesthetic point of view our bulbs aren’t always original – there’s only so much one can do with a bulb. But we have looked at what’s available and made some small adjustments to make some of the designs our own. We find ourselves skirting the edge between traditional designs and values and often crossing over to more contemporary styles and application.
Besides the bulbs, you also had to focus on the fittings and cabling – did you go the same route as with the bulbs by focusing on the vintage heritage of the products?
Yes, for all our products we follow a very similar conceptual approach on our way to creating or sourcing the end product. We basically take the old adage, “they just don’t make ’em like they used to” and try to turn it on its head. That principle allows us to create things the way our grandparents would have done it, by using good quality materials, processing them in a very ‘hands on’ and robust way, building them to last rather than to make a sale. That being said, we also take advantage of modern technologies such as 3D scanning, 3D printing, CNC cutting, etc.
The woven-cord cables are very visually pleasing – did you stick to what the original old woven colour combinations were or did you choose your own combinations for your range?
Original woven cords were covered in cotton sleeves. That was more functional than anything else, and ironically not always that safe from an electrical point of view. Today, we add the sleeve for aesthetic reasons and create it from fabric that is much safer. There are literally hundreds of colour variations, but for now we’ve focused on offering a range of 48 varieties. Much like our bulbs, we split them into two ranges: one echoes a retro style with twisted cord and neutral colours, while the other is bold with bright colours that are clearly more contemporary. We are torn between living in a beautiful future or an inspiring past. Our cord colours reflect that somewhat schizophrenic state of mind.
Even your packaging design has lent itself to the vintage aesthetic behind the company’s identification. Where does the influence for the design stem from and who executed the final design work for the artwork?
I am the one tasked with most of the design challenges while Ploy heads up the business end. I’ve always had a soft spot for packaging, from the past. There’s a clear Art Deco element, although I try not to focus too heavily on that. I like the idea of creating old-fashioned packaging that’s made new. In other words, we specifically stay away from adding ‘fake’ aged effects to our packaging and products. We try to create a visual style that is as it would have been on the day it was made 100 years ago, rather than something that looks like it has been sitting on a shelf for 100 years and is now all old, wrinkled, worn out, etc. You’ll notice, even our lamp fittings for example, may carry a traditional style but are sold as new rather than some kind of ‘Disney Land faux-antique’. In the old days they would have done their best to achieve slick packaging, and were limited only by the technology. I try to echo that approach in order to evoke a similar sense of romance.
Even when it came to the priming of the packaging itself, you went with an old letterpress – who is doing the printing for you guys?
We have a great relationship with Anton from The Letterpress Company. They have worked closely with us to ensure that our packaging also has a soul. We’re quite demanding when it comes to how we present our work, and they have been sensitive to our needs as they accommodate all our expectations. We couldn’t have found a better partner when it comes to sharing our values.
Both of you are skilled in different areas – how much has both of your separate experiences helped to evolve the concept of your product?
We work closely with many individual designers in Cape Town, and sometimes wonder how they do it. Our biggest strength is easily our diverse set of skills. There is no way we could manage without each other – it’s that simple. Ploy drives the business from a functional point of view and I offer guidance on the creative side. We also have a fair amount of overlap, but for the most part our strengths in those very different areas make us a winning team. The fact that we can mostly focus on the areas we love and not have to get too involved with the areas we’re weak in, gives us strength to stay focused and move forward swiftly.
Are you both working on the company full-time now or do you still do other work in your personal capacities?
We both work at Hoi P’loy full-time. Although, I also own a small animation studio in Woodstock that I use as a base. The 3D animation business also allows us to cross-pollinate talent and equipment from time to time, such as using the studio’s 3D printer/scanner in order to prototype new products. Other than that there really isn’t much time in the day for much else.
Where can the products be purchased from, do you have a distributor or do you have to order through your online site?
Most of our products can be purchased through our site and customers are also able to visit our studio by appointment. Beyond that, we have some great partners who stock a wide range of our products. In Joburg they can be found at MØDERNIST and in Cape Town STABLE carries quite an extensive range of our products.
Have you received any international interest, are any other companies out there providing similar concepts?
We regularly ship our products overseas, and as we grow we look forward to exploring more of that potential. We keep our eyes open and have definitely seen a handful of people attempting similar things in other countries. What we’ve found is that each one tends to focus on a particular aesthetic and then grow their business around that. We think it’s great that in this day and age tools like the internet and access to technology are allowing more and more independent producers showing the big guys that they have the ability to transform the status quo.
How do you see the company evolving in the future?
We differ from many of the bigger lighting corporations out there in that our primary goal is not profit. It’s a hard concept for many of them (and their shareholders) to grasp, but it’s true. Obviously we’re in business and we hope to make a profit, but that is not our sole driving force. While it may sound rather cheesy, we strive to offer high quality products and excellent service. We are not prepared to sacrifice either of those for the sake of a higher profit margin. Our goal is to move forward and hopefully gather enough resources to gradually transform a world that has been hi-jacked by a corporate culture that increasingly eats away at our faith in mankind. Wow – that’s a rather intense perspective. But, it’s how we feel. We’d love to have the ability to keep growing and developing new things, all the while addressing some of the warped business practices that have begun to surround us in our day-to-day lives.
INFO – HOI P’LOY