Toby Barratt Takes Inspiration from Nature for Lighting Designs
December 5, 2011 - 9:52pm
Toby Barratt explains how he and the team at Propellor Design forage for ideas.
Propellor Design's Mycologic light was inspired by a study of mushrooms and "the Earth's biological Internet" of organisms.


Toby Barratt: There is nothing quite as satisfying as having an idea, fighting through all of the obstacles between you and its realization and then seeing it come to life. I’m also motivated to make things that last — we call it the Antiques Roadshow factor. Is this design good enough, is it crafted well enough that it will long outlast me? Longevity is a salve in our disposable age. My partners and I want to make objects that add to the material culture, while stepping as lightly as possible on the environment.

Inspiration is everywhere. So many of our designs begin with a simple observation of a natural phenomenon.  I am also a huge consumer of podcasts. Design, philosophy, politics, cooking, history, art — learning new things and finding connections between things is creative fuel for me.

We model all of our designs on the computer before we begin physical prototyping. Building prototypes and iterating ideas in the woodshop is indispensable to solving problems. Lately, when I have a new design that I am working on, I will make a blog. It’s a great way to pull together sketches, pertinent information from the Internet, photos, video, etc.

My partners Pamela [Goddard] and Nik [Rust] and I work on every project together. Working together takes us places creatively that we wouldn’t think of going alone. We also like to collaborate with our clients. Whether it is working with a museum on the design of an exhibition or with an architect to design the perfect lighting fixture for an interior, we thrive on the exchange of ideas.

A couple of summers past, we dragged a log from an Okanagan walnut tree back to our studio, where it sat in a corner waiting for a purpose to present itself. Six months later, to our surprise, a beautiful cluster of slender, cream-colored mushrooms began to emerge from the side of the log. Intrigued by their resilience and tenacity, we began to investigate how mushrooms grow and propagate. We learned that, in the world’s forests, just below the surface of the ground, the largest organisms on Earth thrive on the forest’s debris, turning waste into nutrients and soil. Trillions of kilometers of networked filaments known as mycelia (an organism of which mushrooms are the fruit) act as channels for the multi-directional transmission of nutrients and information between plants and trees — what renowned mycologist Paul Stamets calls “the Earth’s biological Internet.” 

Our Mycologic light is abstracted from the branching characteristics of mycelial networks. What interests us is how this branching form occurs everywhere — in nature as well as in built and digital environments. Ultimately it implies life, growth and — by extension — information.

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