In the fall of 2008, when the market crash had many firms reeling, things were falling into place for three young designers in New York. Recent graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design with BFAs in furniture design, Theo Richardson, Charles Brill, and Alex Williams were sharing studio space in an East Village basement. That setup, says Williams, who now heads the firm’s sales, “quickly jelled into a more cohesive, collaborative effort to develop product ideas.” It wasn’t long before one of those ideas stuck.
During a small show at Kiosk in Soho for New York Design Week in the spring of 2008, the three, who now work under a cheeky riff on their last names—Rich Brilliant Willing (RBW)—launched their first product, Excel. Named for the Microsoft spreadsheet software, with a large drum shade extending from a minimalist metallic arm, the floor lamp was a hit. Among those interested in the luminaire was clothing retailer Urban Outfitters, which specified a small number of the fixture for its stores. “We got this big check to do this project and we didn’t even have a business banking account to deposit it in,” says Brill, the studio’s operations director. By 2009, RBW was officially in business.
Fast forward to today. The trio is fresh off opening a cozy-yet-chic showroom in Manhattan’s Flatiron district and is balancing time between it and a bustling workshop in Brooklyn, N.Y. Meanwhile, their products illuminate top-tier hotels across the country and the offices of startups like Fitbit, Uber, and Yelp, whose recent high-profile commissions have pushed RBW into the spotlight.
What’s made RBW so successful so quickly isn’t just that it makes a good product. It’s that it can mass-produce a high-end industrial aesthetic to meet client demands for a fixture that looks like a one-off—even though it’s not.
RBW didn’t get to this point overnight. Rather, the company’s growth is driven by hard work and a level of business acumen that seems counter to its relative youth. You might not expect such business savvy from a few new-to-the-scene 30-somethings who dare to suggest that they are, indeed, rich, brilliant, and willing. But you’d be mistaken. Being new means they’re small, being small has helped them stay nimble, and being nimble is allowing them to get ahead.
Launching in a down market forced RBW to grow up lean. One way they’ve accomplished this is by manufacturing most fixtures in-house. Though the studio initially crafted both furniture and lighting products, it shifted to making only luminaires in 2011 and a year later went all LED. “Lighting has always been where our best ideas are,” Richardson says. RBW wanted to find a specialty, and was intrigued by the potential impact of LEDs. “Engineers make it work, designers make it desirable,” Richardson says. “We consider ourselves bridging the roles of design and engineering.”
Today, about one-third of RBW’s luminaires are at least part custom, and modifications to existing products often result in new fixtures altogether. One example is Queue (shown above), a linear LED pendant whose look rethinks conventional suspended workplace lighting. Previously, customers would specify the pendant version of RBW’s Branch luminaire—whose minimalist, perforated metallic diffuser shields an LED strip—in extended lengths of up to 40 feet. “We felt Branch could be optimized to better serve architectural linear systems,” Williams says.
Palindrome, a modular suspension luminaire whose steel armature and diffusers can be arranged in nearly any form a client desires, is perhaps the best example of an RBW product that addresses mass-customization at scale. “We’re trying to find products that transform—that are almost customized,” Richardson says.
This approach benefits from the co-locating of design and fabrication at RBW’s 3,000-square-foot Brooklyn studio. When visited on a rainy October morning, a small cadre of team members are working at desktops clustered near the ground-level space’s storefront windows. Throughout the rest of the studio, assembly stations and stacks of finished orders shape a labyrinthine path. Prototypes are suspended from the ceiling, tools are fixed to boards based on the products they’ll be used to assemble, spare parts fill bins and hang from the walls, and space heaters ward off the chill. The cold outside can’t damper the warm buzz of activity within.
The team meets twice per day, in the morning to run through production and again in the evening to go over what worked and what didn’t. One fixture whose design has benefited from its proximity to the work bench, Branch, underwent more than 26 revisions “over things that no one would really notice but would make it easier to assemble,” Williams says.
For all their streamlining, however, RBW is anxious to expand. That’s causing the studio to look outward—new markets, more space, and even production partners to fabricate the simpler fixtures. “Certain products involve so few parts that there isn’t really much left to produce in-house,” Richardson says.
The opening this past spring of the showroom in Manhattan has given them room to breathe. It’s also afforded the partners a sleeker front for meeting clients and displaying products. “For the first time, we have a space that is dedicated to our customers and presents our brand in a strategic way,” says Williams, who now runs the sales team out of the showroom. “It’s changed the way we communicate with our clients.”
Many of RBW’s most important clients have been with them from the beginning, but the opportunity to work with so many, particularly across the hospitality and commercial office sectors, has forced the company to be discerning about the jobs it accepts. “It’s been a long, complicated process of figuring out how to approach that and where the boundaries lie,” Williams says. “Is [the fixture] something we’re going to be proud calling an RBW product? Is it going to be profitable? Is it something we can repeat in the future? Saying ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to opportunities like that has been challenging at times.”
One sign that RBW has narrowed its focus to target professional lighting designers is its plan to attend the 2016 LEDucation trade show in New York this spring. Over the past few years, RBW has showed at the larger and more diverse trade shows such as the NeoCon commercial interiors fair in Chicago, Boutique Design New York, and Dwell on Design. And RBW’s sales team calls on professional lighting designers directly. The company’s long-term goals include becoming a go-to supplier for top hotel chains, as well as establishing a direct sales force and a physical presence in key markets beyond New York—San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and London, in addition to new business abroad.
When asked what niche they aim to fill in the high-end lighting design market, the three give an answer that is perhaps intentionally abstract: to bring simplicity, technology, and creativity to interiors through their luminaires. “We hope to be considered as a well-rounded decorative lighting brand that offers a wide range of solutions that address the needs of specific applications … something for everyone,” Williams says before he catches himself. “Not everyone,” he finishes. But with their subtle industrial touch, streamlined forms, and incorporation of LEDs, that their products will continue to gain broader appeal isn’t such a stretch.