The founding of Amsterdam-based art and design workshop Studio Drift is as storybook a tale as any that you could hope to find in the design world. Partners Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta met while they were enrolled at Design Academy Eindhoven in 1999, became friends, began to collaborate, fell in love, and established their company in 2005. Since then, the couple has experienced something of a meteoric rise to prominence. Their art installations, which always incorporate light, have garnered praise around the world in exhibitions at such cultural institutions and events as London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, the Museum of Art and Design in New York, the Salone del Mobile during Milan Design Week, and Luminale during Light+Building in Frankfurt this past April. These shows have led to a number of commissions for private residences, offices, and hotels, where the duo has had the opportunity to customize its concepts to interact best with the spaces.
Studio Drift now numbers seven full-time employees, augmented by a body of 30-odd freelancers, but the strength of the company’s output lies solidly in the combination of its founding partners’ interests. “Lonneke has always been into nature on a micro scale: looking at how plants function, looking in between the grass in the garden to see what’s happening, what kind of life is evolving,” Nauta says. “As a boy, I was always interested in science fiction, not so much in the sense of laser fights, but in the technology behind it. It’s a predecessor of technological revolutions. These [differing interests] work well together. We decided to keep both the stuff we are fascinated the most about and go from there, and see where it leads. As a result, our work has always been about nature and technology morphing together.”
A perfect example of this melding of the natural world with cutting-edge technology is the piece that first garnered Studio Drift recognition: Fragile Future. Winner of the “Light of the Future” prize from the German Design Council in 2008, the Moët Hennessy–Pavilion of Art and Design London Prize 2010, and now in the permanent collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, Fragile Future is composed of a three-dimensional orthogonal framework of delicate phosphor bronze tubes supporting a constellation of LEDs that are covered in dandelion seeds. Studio Drift harvests dandelions by hand and painstakingly glues their seeds to the LEDs. “We use real dandelion seeds because they have a beautiful quality of diffusing the hard bright LED light,” Nauta says. This precise handiwork is combined with industrial processes, such as laser cutting and bending the metal. Each 8-inch-by-8-inch-by-4-inch module consists of three LEDs, and each installation contains between three and 100 modules.
Another Studio Drift work that is currently gaining momentum is Flylight. Originally commissioned in 2007, the piece was shown outside of the Netherlands for the first time in 2011 at the Salone del Mobile in Milan. It is currently being customized for private houses and public spaces in Europe and the Middle East. Flylight was inspired by flocks of birds and the patterns they make as they twist through the sky, interacting with one another. The installation is composed of as many as 180 hand-blown glass tubes suspended from cables and outfitted with halogen lamps. The tubes also house ultrasonic sensors that measure the distance between themselves and viewers, transmitting this information to a computer program that drives the electronics controlling the lights. Each tube responds individually to the movement of people in the room, and the overall installation is programmed not to repeat selected patterns, making it truly interactive.
“For us, the interesting part is the free will of the flock,” Nauta says. “Does the group attack the viewers one by one, or will it split up and flee?” Studio Drift produced Flylight in collaboration with the mechanical engineers, industrial designers, and nanotechnology specialists Klaas van der Molen and Luuk van Laake—a fact that reiterates the firm’s commitment to working at the forefront of technology.
With the shear range of media available to artists today, it is remarkable that Studio Drift works so consistently with light. Yet to Nauta, this physical phenomenon, so essential to life itself, is what makes the work endlessly fascinating. “Light works so different in different space,” he says. “We just did a show in Eindhoven with our piece Shylight. Even though I worked on it for a long time, seeing it again in a new way made me so happy.” Inspired by the movement of flowers as they open and close to attract and repel pollen-gathering insects, Shylight consists of an LED lamp enclosed in a cocoon of silk fabric with an aluminum and polished stainless steel structure. Exposed mechanics at the top of the hanging lantern control its movement, ratcheting the translucent veil open until the point when the system pops out of gear and the “petals” drift slowly closed under the influence of gravity.
Studio Drift is currently working on another project that will involve moving parts. Though Nauta could say little about it at press time, he did confirm that it will also employ light. “When the sun shines, everybody is happy. It’s pure energy,” he says. “There is endless possibility of what you can do with light.”