By Martin Krautter
The light-emitting diode has gained universal acceptance as a light source. Yet it’s only 10 years since LEDs were first used to illuminate entire buildings. Nimbus, a Stuttgart company founded 30 years ago, was right at the forefront. Its boss became the personification of the LED revolution.
As I make my way to Nimbus in an industrial park in Stuttgart’s Feuerbach district, I’m more than a bit curious. This will be my first face-to-face meeting with an entrepreneur who’s considered the German LED pioneer. The tenor of much of the reporting about him would seem to suggest that his laid-back manner, coupled with spectacular hobbies like flying and motorcycle racing, has made a lasting impression on many of my fellow journalists.
But the moment he greets me, any concerns I might have had about the atmosphere of the interview being too testosterone-charged are dispelled. True, he’s not wearing a suit and tie, but there’s nothing loud about him either. Although Dietrich F. Brennenstuhl certainly looks youthful, the 59-year-old radiates the kind of equanimity that only comes with three decades of entrepreneurship – with its share of highs and lows, to be sure, but ultimately with a great deal of success. You sense it as Brennenstuhl gives you a tour of the premises: the atmosphere is as bustling and well-organised as a beehive. He takes his time, listens patiently, answers quietly and chooses his words carefully.
Between showing us around and the interview, he finds time to take part in a ritual that enjoys legendary status at the firm: a joint breakfast break attended by the entire Nimbus staff. Over coffee and slices of bread and jam, I clarify a few final points: do we have to talk about the motorbikes? Brennenstuhl grins, evidently amused. No, we don’t have to. Right then, here we go.
Mr Brennenstuhl, the Nimbus brand turns 30 this year. It only actually entered the limelight a good 10 years ago – as an LED pioneer. The lighting industry knew the technology was coming, but nobody dared break cover – and then this guy from Stuttgart just came out of the woods and went for it.
Dietrich Brennenstuhl: That sounds pretty good!
What was it that motivated you?
First and foremost, I had great faith in LED technology, in the potential of a light source that converts electricity into light so much more efficiently than a conventional bulb. I was immediately fascinated by the way light came out of a piece of plastic without generating any perceptible heat. When the first white LEDs came out, we got hold of some samples from Taiwan. That was around 2004, and we were working with Behnisch Architekten on the lighting of the “house within a house” they were building for the chamber of commerce in Hamburg: four storeys with transparent floors – and the lighting was supposed to enhance the transparency. We started off planning the design around fluorescent tubes, but when I showed Stefan Behnisch the LED samples, he said: “If you can pull it off, I’m game!”
But there was nothing that could serve as an example on the market at the time.
It was totally uncharted territory. Together with lighting designer Ulrike Brandi from Hamburg, we calculated that we’d need one-byone- metre panels with 400 LEDs each to produce 300 to 500 lux per square metre. We built prototypes and got the go-ahead from the architects and clients. And then, once production of the 360 elements got underway, it turned into a total catastrophe – the project almost fell through.
As long as the quality is right, I don’t feel the need for every product to be my own creation. Even the way we got started with LEDs was the result of successful teamwork.”Dietrich F. Brennenstuhl
So it wasn’t a lone effort, it was a joint development that derived its momentum from a concrete architectural project?
Momentum is a good way to put it. In the case of an inhouse development you can postpone things if you have to, but a construction project always comes with fixed deadlines. Everything was settled, we just had to deliver. But we hadn’t got the production of the electronics sorted: new suppliers and dubious experts as “consultants” led to quality problems. Once we’d solved them, it emerged that all the LED drivers in the building’s wiring were causing problems with overshoots. It was a moment of triumph for all the naysayers, obstructionists and sceptics who’d been saying it wouldn’t work right from the start. The client was unnerved too, but luckily Behnisch gave us his full support. We had a really tough few weeks; we worked day and night and ended up removing and reinstalling the luminaires several times. In the end, everything was fine – and has been ever since: we’ve gone 12 years with no problems to speak of.
A turning point for Nimbus – and the start of a new era?
When this phase started we had a staff of 50; by 2013, the workforce had grown to 160. In 2006, we were the only firm far and wide focusing on LEDs, so we had the market to ourselves for a while. Our projects got a lot of coverage in the media and the brand raised its profile. We were able to win contracts that would have gone to bigger, better connected and cheaper competitors under normal circumstances. It was obvious that this phase would eventually come to an end and we’d have to find a new niche for ourselves sooner or later.
Because your competitors followed your lead …
That was apparent as far back as 2010. By 2013, LEDs had conquered the market once and for all and massive price pressure set in. But we see ourselves as a premium manufacturer and don’t want to make mass-market products. However, that means we need to position ourselves accordingly with the right products and marketing. That’s a lot easier to achieve in the consumer segment with luminaires like Roxxane than it is in the contract business, where you’re competing with major manufacturers. Nowadays providing the lighting for an entire office building is the exception rather than the rule.
An LED pioneer
Besides being an LED pioneer, the brand is also known for the characteristic design of its luminaires. You’re an architect and designed the first LED luminaires yourself. In the meantime, you’re increasingly handing the design side of things over to internal teams or external designers. Is that hard for you?
As long as the quality is right, I don’t feel the need for every product to be my own creation. Even the way we got started with LEDs was the result of successful teamwork. With ourroom acoustics brand Rosso, we used an almost playful approach to progress from a stainless steel curtain rod to a complex acoustics solution. I get a great deal of pleasure out of coming up with the crucial ideas. And if the day should come when I can no longer do that, I’d be better off withdrawing from day-to-day business and just sitting on the supervisory board. Take the Winglet luminaire, for example: I see it as my baby. Although it was designed by Rupert Kopp, the product would never have come about if I hadn’t been so pushy about fitting it with rechargeable batteries. Design is always a joint effort.
Your most productive collaboration is the one with Rupert Kopp. He’s not a star designer who’s all over the media. So how did you become aware of him?
A lot of designers send us their ideas, as did Rupert Kopp. They were lying around and caught my eye because whoever did them evidently knew a thing or two about technology. The design already featured the friction hinges that were later used for Roxxane, but the lamp head was conventional and not meant for LEDs. Even so, it looked as if it could work, and we happened to be in the process of thinking about how we could make a Nimbus desk lamp stand out from all the countless other models on the market. So I got in touch with Rupert Kopp and I think it’s fair to say it was a pleasant surprise for both sides. Kopp lives in Berlin but comes from Stuttgart. We soon sensed the chemistry was right. So we set to work on the project and managed to achieve the family resemblance we wanted by designing the head as an LED panel with the characteristic conical indentations. At the end of the day, the beginning of our collaboration was a big, happy coincidence.
Product designers take things as their starting point and look into the space, whereas architects take the space as their starting point and look at the product, at the table, at its impact on the room. It’s an interesting interplay of perspectives, a collaboration that everybody benefits from.”Dietrich F. Brennenstuhl
The relationship between designers and architects isn’t always a case of love, peace and harmony, for instance when architects claim to be the better designers. Do prejudices like that play a role?
It’s an interesting question, and one I’ve discussed with lots of different people. I think the difference lies in how the two professions see things: product designers take things as their starting point and look into the space, whereas architects take the space as their starting point and look at the product, at the table, at its impact on the room. It’s an interesting interplay of perspectives, a collaboration that everybody benefits from.
You’re not just the idea-giver at Nimbus, you’re quite happy to give a face to the company in advertising shots and the media as well. To what extent is the identity of the Nimbus brand tied up with your own?
In the long term, the brand and company have to be independent from me. There have been phases where I was very much in the limelight and others where the focus was on our employees, for instance in the form of testimonials in ads. That definitely gave the corporate culture a boost. Now that the LED hype is dying down and we have to earn our status as an innovation leader on different levels, I think it’s right for my face to stand for that too. But it would be irresponsible for me to play too important a role, either internally or externally. Luckily, Nimbus has an experienced management team of longstanding employees who work very well together.
Let’s talk about your corporate design. For a long time, maximum purity and maximum consistency were considered the be-all and end-all. But at Nimbus, it seems as if there’s room for spontaneity as well. How do you manage to anchor this openness in the corporate culture?
By credibly conveying to the staff that their boss has an open ear for them, that I listen and don’t just dismiss ideas out of hand. And by setting an example that disruption is OK sometimes. Take the luminaire we did with Karim Rashid – it wasn’t so much strategic planning as a gut feeling, and it was a very polarising break with our usual design. But our employees can see that totally different approaches are possible too. You have to keep a very open mind if you want to take in lots of ideas.
We’re sitting in the Nimbus Mock-Up, a loft-like space that oozes character – and is anything but sleek and perfect.
If we’d wanted to create a perfect, exquisitely decorated showroom, it would have been years before we could have afforded these 1,500 sq m of space. So we worked with what we had and used simple means to set up a creative playground, which in turn gave rise to new ideas and inspiration. We would have missed out on all sorts of fascinating encounters and great events with architects if we’d procrastinated.
Would it be accurate to describe that as a startup mentality?
You’re right, that’s exactly what I want for the company. Right now, we’re thinking about reshuffling the development department and deliberately positioning one team as a startup. They wouldn’t have anything to do with the dayto- day business; they’d be freethinkers who can just go for it. You have to prevent the processes from becoming too entrenched.
Let’s talk about your new product developments: at the Light+Building show last April, rechargeable batteries were a major theme.
True, but we’re still the only company with a decent cordless floor lamp, right?
Yes, everyone else was mainly showing reading and table lamps or big globes for the garden.
There’s nothing comparable to the Roxxane Leggera with its 800 lumens or the Winglet with its group control options. They were both innovations that the market wasn’t expecting. You have to make the market sit up and pay attention – and the competition inevitably benefits from that as well. Right now, the main thing is to focus on the crucial aspects and use the impetus to supply the market with the corresponding products.
What struck me about Nimbus: it was the first time you were showing luminaires with optics for directional lighting or wall-washing. Have the possibilities of acrylic panels with conical indentations been exhausted?
That lighting technology still has its uses, because conical indentations without additional optics or filters get the maximum efficiency out of the LEDs. On the other hand, the LEDs themselves have become a lot more efficient over the last 12 years. That means I need fewer LEDs or can sacrifice 5% efficiency if the diffuser or optics deliver other benefits. We developed the new Q4 and Q1 luminaires in collaboration with engineering company Bartenbach. They have totally different beam characteristics than our classic lighting technology. Rather than being aware of the luminaire as an illuminated surface, you only see the light on the surface it’s directed at. That’s a paradigm shift for us, and I find it a lot more interesting than, say, omitting the conical indentations and emitting diffuse light just to create a new look. The new products bring me one step closer to my dream: I don’t just want our products to be in museums, I want them to illuminate museums!
First published in the designreport edition 04/2018. Article picture: Dietrich F. Brennenstuhl, © René Müller.
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