In 2001, the designer Ed Carpenter showed his Pigeon light as part of the graduation show presentation at the Royal College of Art’s (RCA) Design Products MA. A vacuum-formed, pigeon-shaped shell of acrylic, backlit by a concealed lightbulb, the lamp attached to the wall by a clothes peg that served as the bird’s foot. If positioned as a desk lamp, the flex of the chord looped through this peg, forming a base for the bird to stand on. “Charming, but not perfect,” says Carpenter. The cable stand, he notes, could begin to list after a few hours.
Developed as part of an RCA student project in which he looked at the relationship of souvenirs to cities, the Pigeon light was Carpenter’s breakout product. Following on from its success in the graduation show, the design was picked up by retailer Thorsten van Elten, who produced the lamp in a range of candy colours. The lamp continued in production until the mid-2010s, when van Elten discontinued the design.
Now, however, the lamp has returned – picked up by Very Good & Proper, the London-based design manufacturer that Carpenter founded with his design partner André Klauser in 2008. Aided by designers Frank Winter and Jean-Baptiste Guesne, Carpenter has revisited his student design and updated the project for the 2020s. What began life as a self-produced lamp knocked together in the workshops of the RCA is now a fully-fledged piece of industrial design.
Some changes are obvious. The peg has been replaced with a wooden stand and dedicated wall fitting, while the coloured perspex has been jettisoned in favour of injection-moulded monochrome polycarbonate. Other refinements are subtler, designed to improve ease of manufacture and assembly. “I wanted to make it a better product,” notes Carpenter.
The Pigeon lamp launched this week on VG&P’s online store. To mark the light’s return, and to explore the redesign process that it has gone through, Disegno spoke to Carpenter about the Pigeon’s origins and his plans for its future. An edited version of the conversation follows below.
Disegno When did it become an option to look at producing the lamp with VG&P?
Ed Carpenter I originally launched it in my Royal College graduation show and a couple of years after that I showed it to [the design retailer] Thorsten van Elten who took it on. He stopped selling it about five years ago and gave me the leftover stock and since then I’ve had it on the back-burner. I started thinking about if I was to do this now, how would I do it differently. Obviously I wouldn’t be making it myself in the Royal College workshop, so I wanted it to be a bit more of an industrial design, for want of a better word, and something a bit more sophisticated. About two years ago I thought we could do it with VG&P – if I was going to go to this effort of getting it back up and running, why not? One of the reasons we set up VG&P was because of the frustrations of opportunities and lack of control you have when working with companies as a designer. It made so much more sense to do it ourselves.
Disegno Was it strange to revisit your work after so many years? You’re not the same designer as you were then; it must be interesting to return and make changes while still wanting to respect the original design.
Ed The original design was so analogue – nothing done on the computer. I didn’t even draw it so much as sculpt it from clay and then refine the shape before vacuum-forming over the top of it. The form evolved in a very organic way and I never had any data on the product. In a sense it was quite interesting to actually look at it again and understand what elements I wanted to keep. Obviously the shell was the most important, which we had to send off to get digitally scanned, but everything else was up for grabs in my mind. The other one had been a bit of a labour of love – hands on and very much in the spirit of the time when it was made. I wanted to retain an element of the humour and quirkiness, but give it a more of a contemporary nuance.
Disegno Did you have any aversion about losing the clothes peg? It was rudimentary, but charming.
Ed That’s a little bit what I was hinting at. When I made the original design Michael Marriott was teaching at the RCA and Tord Boontje was doing his Rough and Ready stuff – the spirit of that period was in this kind of readymade, designer/maker work. So the clothes peg came about because I had a presentation the next day and needed to come up with a solution in one afternoon. I ran into John Lewis and bought the nicest clothes peg I could find. It ended up staying into the final production, but the industrial designer in me always felt that it wasn’t the perfect solution, even though people liked it and there was a charm to it. It actually caused a lot of problems because, believe it or not, not every clothes peg is made the same. We had to find the source of these superior quality clothes pegs, because I couldn’t just keep buying them from John Lewis. It actually limited the scaleability and wasn’t very practical.
Disegno Is that rationalisation of the design where most of the work on the new version has gone into?
Ed Yes, and how it’s assembled. The original plastic was an acrylic, whereas this is made from a polycarbonate. It’s better quality so you can clip bits together without the material sheering or snapping. All these little things added up to a better product, but weren’t available to me with the original. I couldn’t invest in the tooling required back then and I didn’t have the experience I have now. I didn’t want this to be a pastiche of the original – what’s the point of remaking a clothes peg if it’s not the right solution? – so I decided that this could be a different project and felt able to make all these subtle changes.
Disegno One obvious change is the palette. You’ve moved from quite vibrant colours to monochrome.
Ed With the original we were limited to the colour palette of ICI Perspex, the original manufacturers of acrylic. Now, because the new ones are injection-moulded, we have to be limited in colour unless they take off enormously. I wanted this version to be about the form and the simplicity of the product, although It’s not to say we won’t do editions in the future with different colours and finishes.
Disegno You’ve previously said that the design appeals to two different camps aesthetically: on the one hand it’s quite a funny and almost kitsch object, but on the other it has a relatively pared down, sleek shape. The black and white palette seem to play to that second camp.
Ed It’s so funny the different people it appeals to. When I first started selling them I was really chuffed at other designers wanting them, but at the same time my granny liked it. I knew then that it had appeal and it’s a real crossover piece. The original brief for the RCA project this grew from was “Inside Out” and it was about looking at cities in a different way. For some reason, I ended up looking at souvenirs – what they mean and how they represent a city. When I was commuting to the Royal College I’d get the tube and walk through Hyde Park and I’d notice that pigeons were practically the only wild animal that you’d see. I was interested in those kitsch animal figurines you could buy, but they always seemed to relate to the countryside, whereas I thought we needed to celebrate something urban. So it kind of came about through that. It’s definitely got that British, kitsch, tongue in cheek quality about it, but I also wanted it to be a serious product and to design it properly. It wasn’t just about the kitsch – it was a bit more than that.
Disegno It’s interesting that you originally presented the design for a graduate show. Today, it would feel more unusual for a student to present a piece of traditional, commercial product design in that setting – graduate work is often far more speculative or research-based.
Ed I think you’re right. When we graduated in 2001, we were one of the first years that [the head of Design Products] Ron Arad had taught for both years [after taking over the department in 1998]. Ron had that industry-of-one, designer/maker idea in mind – everyone felt they could do it themselves and we all had that instilled in us. Students were there to promote themselves as designers and it was about products – products you could make and products you could control. That’s not to say there weren’t lots of research projects – there were – but there was still a big gang of us who were working in that traditional sense of being a designer/maker. People got picked up from the show back in the day by companies like Cappellini and you always had that hope. I happened to have this product and Tord Boontje convinced me to make a batch for the show. We had that instilled in us and, as a result, a lot of entrepreneurial designers were coming out of the school back then. The spirit of that has perhaps somewhat drifted in the last few years.