Lighting Engines

Our fourth and final studio project for the semester is to make a lamp, a simple object that emits gentle light. Equipped with wires, two AA batteries, three LED lights, and a mercury tilt switch, we were sent on our way. This final project provides us with an opportunity to learn about electrical technology, improve our paper craftsmanship, and develop our understandings of designed form.

Samantha C Ho
Nov 29, 2016 · 8 min read
fig. 1

Even while the assignment was being explained, I had already begun thinking about a lamp that physically transformed between its on and off state. It would have been easy to embellish my lamp in a way that would crowd-please, but there would be nothing compelling about the designed form whatsoever. Knowing that I tend to get messy when using glue, I set a goal to use as little of it as possible; that way I could concentrate on streamlining a form and maintaining a clean craftsmanship.

fig. 2
fig. 3

I had always found comfort in origami and knowing that I wanted to make something transformable, I started my thought process with a simple two joint fold (fig. 2–3). It was an easy way to get ideas flowing.

fig. 4

I thought I could make an expandable feature that I could exist between two panels, expanding it would turn on the lamp. This idea is similar to that of an origami-inspired housing project that I had explored earlier last year, but never actually executed. Using what I learned about origami joints, I came up with several mechanisms (fig. 2–4)

fig. 5

Inspired by how successful the folding proved to be, I wondered how a more mechanical and mathematical approach would fare. After some calculating and tinkering , I came up with the collapsible sphere pictured on the left (fig. 5).

fig. 6

After the sphere, I visited a scissor/accordion mechanism, just to see what I could do with it. What was nice about the scissor mechanism is that I could achieve vertical height rather easily with little force. The main problem I ran into was the pivot points, so I ended up just gluing push pins in place (fig. 6).

fig. 7

At this point I understood and prototyped more mechanisms than I would need, the issue being that none of them were lamps! This called for concern as deadlines continued to creep up and I had only explored the interaction between different types of paper and collapsible motion. In an effort to finally design a lamp, I revisited my collapsible sphere and began thinking about how I would fit a bulb and battery inside it. My original thought was to place a cube or some sort of geometric feature within the sphere and find out some way to make the parts fit and collapse together (fig.7). When I realized that there was no reasonable way to make what I had dreamt up, I moved on and continued thinking.

fig. 8
sketchbook explorations

Looking at the mechanisms I had successfully created, I decided to try to do something with my scissor/accordion mechanism. I was interested in what I could do with under and back lighting so with the scissor mechanism I was able to create a “shutter” system. I was hoping to use the reflected light of each layer to direct the indirect light of the bulb. I was hoping the projected light would maintain the form of the lamp itself, but I did not come up with a good enough solution to the exposed bulb.

My first iteration (fig. 8) uses a modified version of the scissor mechanism seen in fig. 6. The shutters themselves are longer and have greater surface area. to serve the purpose of reflected light. I attached the mercury switch to the bottom of the base shutter so when the lamp is expanded, it turns on and off when contracted. The joints are still being held together by push pins and the top lid was a fast and temporary solution that stayed together long enough to present at one of our informal critiques.

fig. 8

Exiting our critique and armed with constructive feedback, I was eager to modify the design. I figured the top of the lamp could be simplified to an overhanging shutter. It was helpful to me to draw each individual component out so I could write alterations directly on the vector (fig. 9)

fig. 9

My next iteration is based roughly on the same concept with a couple alterations in the length of the leg and the shutter(fig. 10). This time I replaced the pushpins with aluminum tubes that I could crimp right out of the hole. This looked better, but a few of the holes wouldn’t stay in contact with the aluminum after a couple trials. The lamp itself works the same way with its vertical motion: the tilting of the shutter tilts the mercury switch to complete the circuit.

fig. 10

At this point I felt comfortable with the mechanism of this potential lamp, but it still didn’t feel like a lamp at all. Looking at it, I was just dissatisfied by how little of it was “designed” and how its most attractive feature was its mechanism, not its design. Also it reminded me too much of a Christmas tree and that just upset me more.

Despite not liking the Christmas tree, I was open to experimenting further with the mechanism. I wondered how the mechanism would perform if I moved away from linear motion and tried to incorporate it three dimensionally. I began thinking about horizontal motion generated by vertical motion, as seen in fig. 11. Taking it a step further, I arranged the mechanism perpendicularly with one another. With this iteration I thought the off state could be a cube and the on state, an exploded cube. The walls would separate from the form via scissor mechanism in all four directions.

fig. 11–13

As seen in fig. 13, I experimented with how different radii would affect the scissor mechanism in hopes of exercising some control over the angle at which the walls exploded from the form. Unfortunately, I miscalculated and the scissor mechanism didn’t quite work as expected. I’m sure with a bit more time and consideration I could’ve thought up a way for this to work better, but it had reached a point in the project that the idea needed to be put to rest.

After leaving my scissor mechanism, I was a bit lost as I had committed so much time and thought to that concept. Being the way that I am, I returned to my comfort zone, origami. Liking the motion of my first origami fold (fig 2–3), I was prompted to think about flexibility and how to break through the rigidity of the paper. I eventually landed on tessellation, exploring different patterns and scoring techniques (fig. 14).

fig. 14
fig. 15–16

After some experimenting, triangular tessellation was the winner in terms of flexibility and ease of production. Then came the decision between scoring and gluing onto a matrix, of which I chose the latter because scoring has proven less than reliable after alot of use. I then proceeded to glue each cardstock triangle down onto a translucent fiber paper to ensure that wear on the joints would be less of an issue (fig 15–16).

Despite the process being a bit painstaking, the completion of the tessellation on the side panel was incredibly satisfying. The amount of flexibility I wanted to achieve was perfect and I was glad it was sturdy enough to be a workable material.

fig. 17

I ended up creating a flexible “fabric” sheath that encircled a translucent cylinder that when the string atop was pulled, it illuminates the entire machine. The main focus is definitely on the sheath itself, made up of a right triangle tessellation that serves as guides for the sheath to fold along. While origami inspired, the lamp utilizes the interaction between rigidity and flexibility to dictate its shape.

My final piece was nowhere near where I thought I would end up at the beginning of the project, thankfully for the better. I am glad I iterated as many mechanisms as I did because it helped me understand how to work with paper as a material, which mechanisms are appropriate and which affect the paper’s “happiness.” A criticism I often receive is that I focus too much producing a mechanism rather than designing an object. I’m glad that with this project, I was finally able to break free of that affliction. There was a noticeable shift in attention within my project from mechanism to design, a shift I did not necessarily have in projects beforehand. For a long time during this project, I was battling with my lamp: happy with my mechanism, but unhappy with the way it looked. It took alot for me to step away from my engineering background, but I am so much more satisfied with my finished design.

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