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photo: John Chapman tablecloth by Rachel Wingfield
words David Taylor

A Bournemouth firm is collaborating with young designers to produce breathtakingly beautiful electroluminescent products.

Strange things are happening in Bournemouth. A British manufacturer, working at the cutting edge of technology, has brought in talented young British designers to produce a range of breathtaking new products.

If you thought this only happened in Italy, you should meet Richard Kirk, the managing director of Elumin8, a company with a factory in Ferndown, near Bournemouth in Dorset. The company produces electroluminescent materials - a technology that is about to revolutionise lighting design.

Electroluminescent (EL) lights are paper-thin, low-energy, and flexible and can be screenprinted on to large-scale surfaces. Emitting a pale-blue glow, they have the potential to transform advertising billboards into flashing, eye-catching animations, to create low-level lighting in jet aircraft and car interiors, and provide a fascinating tool for young designers like Sam Buxton and Rachel Wingfield to use and explore.

"EL is really moving into the design arena," says Wingfield, who designed the beautiful, shimmering EL window blind called Digital Dawn, which is produced by Elumin8. "People are saying it's going to replace LED technology." Kirk agrees, and reckons that EL lamps will be everywhere by Christmas this year.

Simple EL technology has been used for a few years to illuminate mobile phone screens and computer keyboards, but, as Kirk says: "There's a huge difference between that at a couple of square centimetres and what we do - it's the difference between petrol cars and diesel cars." Elumin8 has spent millions of pounds improving EL technology to the point where it can be programmed to provide an animated display - the new generation of billboards will, for example, feature cars with headlights that flash on and off, along with ad copy that glows or flashes.

More crucially, Kirk's team has been developing new inks, chemical formulations and circuitry to bring down the price, and improve the performance and reduce the bulk of EL systems.

EL has a number of advantages over traditional lighting technology. EL lamps are vibration-proof and non-catastrophic - they do not suddenly fail - meaning they are often favoured for instrumentation panels. And they are much more efficient than normal light bulbs, which are around eight per cent efficient - most of the bulb's energy is given off as heat. EL lamps are 85 per cent efficient. Current EL technology, however, has a limited lifespan: the panels start to fade after a couple of years and need replacing, although this should improve.

Elumin8's technology has already been used in interior signage for Safeway and the new Superdrug store in Birmingham, plus in shimmering advertising posters for clients like Bombay Sapphire at airports and Budweiser in clubs.

But the most interesting applications are resulting from collaborations with designers. Designer Sam Buxton, who is working with Kirk on a number of projects under the name of Surface Intelligent Objects, or SIOS, feels that the technology holds exciting possibilities, now that it has got to the stage where it is becoming affordable: "I've been working with it since 1998 at the Royal College, when I came across it via one of my teachers - electric light paper, they called it. My thing is to use it not as a light source, or as its common use as a keyboard backlighter. I think it's beautiful unencased and I've been using its thinness to apply it to the surface of a table."

That table is interactive insofar as it detects pressure, and lights up. Wingfield has also produced a pressure-sensitive product - a reactive tablecloth that lights up beneath objects placed on it.

Buxton has also designed an EL wall clock with abstract panels that light up to mark the passing minutes and hours. "EL is a very interesting and newly affordable material," adds Buxton. "Flat, flexible light surprises people, but has seen little use in the higher design end that we occupy. In fact, I have been surprised by the lack of imaginative applications from many of these manufacturers.

"Like any material, however interesting, the design and application is the important factor - we will see wider use of EL in the future, but only if designers understand the material and come up with genuinely innovative ideas. In my case, I'm more interested in the combination of illumination and information-giving [sequencing displays] than illumination for lighting decoration alone."

Kirk himself has a creative background. As a painter, he enjoyed the patronage of former Nina Ricci president Gilles Fuchs, the Parisian equivalent of Charles Saatchi. In 1996, Kirk moved to London and he got a job in production at advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty where he glimpsed for the first time the "huge potential" of EL, when a friend of a client showed him some. He resigned and tracked down the firm with access to this technology, the SPS Group, which has a turnover of £10 million, and which is now the parent company of Elumin8, which has a turnover of £1 million.

So Elumin8 looks like a rare British success story. And yet Kirk admits he is "paranoid" about some of the exposure Wingfield is getting for her work with his technology. At a year-long touring British Council show in China, Wingfield is set to exhibit pillows with large-scale EL wires woven into them, which make them glow from within. But Kirk is worried that Chinese firms might simply set about replicating the technology involved. "I spoke to someone at the British Council and said, 'Could you name me a single Chinese company who has worked with a British designer?' They couldn't."

Thus, Kirk argues, what the British Council is doing is adversely affecting British manufacturers and he admits it is a bone of contention between artist and manufacturer. "I think they'll be opening up technology for them to mimic and copy, without any great benefit to UK plc."

In fact, Elumin8 would like to manufacture more widely in China, and then sell back to the European market, armed with some sizeable orders and thus economies of scale for items like those that Wingfield produces. "But my feeling is that the Chinese will just do it first - we're handing it to them without having a fair crack of the whip, and it's our government that's doing this. It just hasn't been thought through."

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