Richard Clarkson

Tell us about your childhood.
I grew up on a farm in New Zealand and I think that there is a creative element in all areas of my life. My dad often created little inventions to make his job, a farmer, easier; that innovation really inspired me growing up.

What did you study in school?
Industrial design at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. The program was very sort of traditional but more based on the abstract. It was more semantics, but then I had the chance to go to New York for my Masters in Products of Design at SVA. It’s an arts school and I was in a design program, but I ended up doing an art project for my thesis. I’ve always been switching gears between the process and methodology.

What classes were most memorable and enjoyable?
One of the very first classes: Becky Stern’s making class. That’s where the original cloud came from. That [class] was based on teaching us skills that designers should have, like coding. We had little 4-week projects and one was to create a plush night light. That was around the time of Hurricane Sandy, so I thought it would be interesting to do a soft cuddly cloud that would light up with lightning. I wanted to make it a little more special.

Tell us more about the Cloud. What special features have you implemented?
I’ve treated it as an opportunity to develop my own skill set, to learn a new set of code and delve into a new field. It’s really a sort of slow progression rather than a “Oh, this is what it is.” It was a more slow evolutionary process. The way the Cloud works is it has three modes. The first is motion detection and it senses people walking under it or making motion. Eventually, it has a big thunder storm. The next mode is a music reactive mode, so you can stream music through any Bluetooth device. It flashes to the beat of the music, as a microphone picks up the layers of the song. The colors change a little too when it flashes, based on the medium or high pitched colors. The last mode is the lamp mode. It’s like a fairy light, a twinkle-twinkle mode as I call it. It allows the lights to fade in and out, like a gentle night light.

That’s really fun! It’s something that both adults and kids can appreciate.
Exactly. I almost forgot to mention: you can even trigger a big thunderstorm!

What was most difficult about creating Cloud?
The biggest challenge was learning the coding language to make the cloud do what I wanted it to do. It was difficult to get the code sets to work together. Quite often, one thing wouldn’t work with another thing. You have to spend a lot fo time massaging each code. There were a lot of late nights.

Would you consider your work minimalist?
I’ve heard a lot of people say that. I’m constantly inspired by Dieter Rams and Charles Eames, a lot of really amazing designers that often do the best with the least for the most. It’s the idea that you can achieve wonderful things with simple concepts and ideas. Apple does that really well with their reductive aesthetic. It allows the true function of the object to be the beautiful element. I like the minimalist aesthetic, but it’s something that evolves from the brief or project. I don’t set out to be minimalist.

Blossom utilizes 3D printing. Was this your first experience using this technique?
I have prior experience but in different ways. What was exciting [about Blossom] was that it was one of the first, if not the first, inflatable print. It was a new type of technology within the 3D world. We used digital materials with Connex printers that printed two different materials at the same time and even mixed them together. That was particularly exciting. We ended up electroplating that and finishing it with a brass coating.

Why flowers?
If I look back at the earlier sketches, it went from being a globjula blob to a flower format. It was something both beautiful and closely related to something that opens up. It turned out that the form of blossom was very condusive to inflating and separating and opening. That made the design process more intuitive. I was really pleased with Blossom. We started getting into a program called Grasshopper, a graphical interface for genetic algorithm work. The idea was that you could plug in two blossoms to create a whole series of other blossoms, just based on their genetic code.

And another piece that caught my attention was the Cradle piece, I understand that this was largely directed by safety for autistic children. Why did you choose to design for that specific demographic?
That was done in my undergrad with a few other students of mine. The brief was to solve a problem. We did some research and discovered Rhythmic Movement Disorder was often associated with autism. We wanted a piece that might assist or ease someone with that condition. We found that this semi-enclosed space, the Cradle, that almost wraps around you can help someone keep calm. Also, the actual act of rocking, when it was assisted by someone else or a furniture piece, could also help avoid over-stimulation or over-stressing. It didn’t reach the point where we could fully test it and get it certified, but it was a nice way to bring awareness to RMD and initiate conversation.

Why wood for the Cradle?
As far as our design backgrounds, we are largely wood-based with most of our products. We don’t have much access to plastics or more sophisticated materials. Metal can be very heavy and since it was a encapsulating piece, we wanted a light-weight product with a natural feel. We cast and bent all the plywood; that was another learning process in itself.

In terms of design, who do you turn to for inspiration?
I’m renowned for sifting Tumblr [via my own blog]. It’s very image based and I use it for inspiration. One of my favorite companies is Ideo, one of the biggest design firms in the world. We had the chance to have a class in their space in New York through school, which was incredible. When we first did a furniture project, they showed us a Charles Eames lounger, and that’s when I realized furniture and industrial design is what I want to be doing. I’ve always tried to do something a little special with each of my products and projects in terms of bringing a different way of looking at it.

Right now, you’re New York-based. What are your favorite restaurants around town?
Pies’n’Thighs – it’s a place in Williamsburg. It just blew my mind because coming from New Zealand, I’d never tried anything like the southern food they serve.

Tell us about the major cultural differences you noticed between New York versus New Zealand.
Everything! [Laughs]  Especially coming from a small farm in a rural area, I was expecting New York to be a big scary place. That said, it’s funny how fast you feel like a New Yorker. I was giving directions to people on the third day that I was here.

Where is the best place to grab coffee?
I’m one of the few that doesn’t drink coffee, tea, or energy drinks. I like the smell of roasting coffee but I never tried to get into it.

Same here! I’ve never tried coffee in my life. What about concerts you would love to see live?
There’s an Ed Sheeran concert that I’m hoping to catch soon.

What’s the best movie that you’ve seen in the past year?
Ender’s Game – I saw it twice and I rarely do that. I wasn’t expecting anything from the film because I didn’t read the book, but I came out very inspired.

What are some New York bucket list items you hope to check off?
It’s such a long list. I want to see the Jeff Koons exhibit at the Whitney. I still haven’t gone to many museums yet. I want to visit the Statue of Liberty too.

And in your own words, what is beauty?
A perfect and imperfect harmonious contradiction.


For more of Rich’s work, check out his website.