Just off the autoroute that links the French naval city of Toulon to its glamorous neighbours Cannes and Saint Tropez is an unremarkable industrial estate that lies baking in the Mediterranean sun. But in one of these drab units is a manufacturing facility that is instigating a quiet revolution in lighting. Indeed, it has excited Piero Gandini, president of Italian manufacturer Flos, to such an extent that he demanded Philippe Starck head straight there when he landed in the area for a holiday.
"We are a technology company," says Bruno Dussert-Vidalet, somewhat modestly, of Blackbody, the company he founded in 2007 with Alessandro Dolcetta. "We focus on organic LEDs [OLEDs] and have a small interest in laser technology, but without our clients we would be nothing." This is perhaps under-selling exactly what it is that Blackbody does. In a warehouse space with a team of 27 employees, the company is at the niche end of a market that could fundamentally change our relationship with light.
OLED is seen as the future of light sources. The technology is still in its infancy and the process of manufacturing is highly complex – it is one of two nanotechnologies available on the consumer market, the other being self cleaning glass. The properties of OLED, compared with LED or traditional filament light sources, provide a plethora of opportunities across a number of fields. For starters, it is a cold light source – its elements do not heat up when it is on. It does not dazzle – you can stare into the light source with bare eyes. It is thin – it can produce 2,000 kelvins of light from a 2mm thick panel. It is patternable, energy efficient, recyclable, light and water resistant. These properties have found Blackbody clients in the aviation, automotive, medical, product design and military sectors – its research and development helping companies to integrate the technology into their operations. "We see ourselves as a pedagogical company," Dussert-Vidalet says. "We are helping the market learn to use the product.'
Upon entering the Blackbody facility, everything seems to be normal. Banks of desk space are scattered with the debris of the young workforce – mugs, dying plants, tangled headphones and scribbled notes. But through a double door towards the back lies a warehouse with a bright white, humming room at the centre. The freestanding 600sq m box held up with an external steel frame is bound with cabling, pipes and exhaust vents, appearing like a prop from a Stanley Kubrik film. Through the sporadic windows, figures in blue body suits scurry about performing tasks, dipping in and out of sight – a battalion of haz-mat clad oomph loompas with PhDs arranging molecules.
"We call it the Beaubourg," says Dussert-Vidalet with a grin. High-tech is probably the most appropriate classification for this battered, bastardised medical Portacabin. Contained within is the plant that is used to produce the OLEDs. The environment must be kept as clean as possible, hence the constant hum of the ventilation system. A single piece of dust could ruin the atomic arrangement of the OLED before it is encased in either acrylic or glass. The air in this sterile environment is replaced every seven minutes, the humidity is just high enough to stop the staff getting nosebleeds and specially trained contractors clean the facility for around six hours a day. It is currently capable of producing 6,000sq m of OLED panes per year.
Creating an OLED begins with high-quality glass being cleaned with water taken from the city mains and passed through a purification process within the Blackbody facility. The dried glass is then transferred to a vacuum chamber fabricated from 40mm steel plates – the thickness of the plates stops the machine collapsing on itself when the air is sucked out and stops any penetration of impurities except for hydrogen, the smallest particle. Even within the "Beaubourg", the presence of hydrogen still means that the plant has to be shut down and cleaned every six months. From the vacuum chamber the glass is passed along nitrogen-filled chambers, where it is checked and prepared for the layers of molecules that make up the OLED to be applied. "We are essentially doing sophisticated screen printing," Dussert-Vidalet says. "The technology may be more advanced, but the principles remain the same."
OLEDs are built up in layers, with one material at a time applied to the glass in a process of evaporation. First, a very thin layer of pure aluminium is attached; the aluminium is heated until gaseous, when it rises through the vacuum to stick to the glass. This first layer must be invisible to the naked eye but plentiful enough to act as a cathode through which the electrical current will pass. What follows is the application of 22 different layers of material at a thickness of a molecule at a time – this takes up to around half an hour. Once each layer of material has been attached, a final, thicker layer of aluminium is attached to act as the anode. The current passes through the organic matter between the two aluminium layers, stimulating the photons and producing light.
What is perhaps most surprising about the orchestration of this process, which works with almost unfathomable depths of material, is that so much of it is done by people. Blackbody's staff are as hands-on as they can be, lifting and sliding the delicate materials through each machine – retaining control of the process. "We are not scientists," Dussert-Vidalet says. "We are technological craftsmen – we do not invent techniques, we are just optimising them with the application of technology."
This ethos extends beyond the sealed environment. Blackbody encourages staff to come up with new applications for the technology and hack existing equipment to improve the process. Nothing is sacred and everything is questioned. As such, in the rooms dotted around the outside of the sterile production space, there can be found a ladies face and breast tanning machine (used to help bond acrylic resin in some products), piles of machinery yet to be cleaned and re-engineered, and a former pastry chef. "If I need to use a pastry chef to get things done, then I will," Dussert Vidalet says. The pastry chef, it transpires, was employed when the company was finding difficulty in sealing some of its OLED products with an acrylic backing to hold the connectors and wiring. After a number of failed mechanical attempts, a chance encounter with said chef made them realise that the process was not dissimilar to icing a fondant fancy – hence the final flourish on some Blackbody products is added by a culinary nanotechnologist.
The air inside the sealed box is replaced every seven minutes
The most important product in Blackbody's consumer market development is about to be launched for sale. The company has collaborated with Flos to produce a lamp to mark its 50th anniversary. Dussert-Vidalet had been looking for a way to improve the profile of Blackbody with a meaningful collaboration that could test its capabilities. He approached Flos' Piero Gandini and invited him to Toulon to show him the facility. "I went to the factory and walked into the office. It appeared banal," Gandini says. "The offices are normal and then you pass into the chamber where they are demonstrating an extreme level of sophisticated engineering. My reaction was to say, 'Let's push them'."
Enthused, Gandini began negotiations with Blackbody to make a product that would be both environmentally friendly and an embodiment of the ideals of technological and material progress that he sees as inherent in Flos' operation. "We want to move forward with a real sense of perspective," Gandini says. "At Flos [through our products] we are just managing cultural exchange and thinking about what is going on." Gandini saw that Blackbody needed a challenge and made a phone call to his friend and longtime collaborator, Philippe Starck. Starck had just landed in Nice with his wife on holiday and, at Gandini's insistence, he was outside the Blackbody facility on a motorbike within an hour.
Starck was fascinated with the technology. "He wanted to know everything," Dussert-Vidalet says. 'He sat down in the office and just tried to work out the engineering. It was a while before he came back to us with a proposal." Starck asked Blackbody to produce the world's largest OLED to be the light source for his design, Light Photon. It took over a year of development and testing before prototypes were ready and shown in Flos' New York store; then a further two years to be ready for the 50th anniversary and sold in a limited edition of 500.
Starck's design comprises eight individual components that form the Light Photon. Seven of these elements form the brushed steel base and stand; the assemblage is a poised and precision-engineered piece of design that connects the light source to the stand with the use of magnets. It is the world's largest OLED light source, which is a typically ostentatious Starckism, a grandiose idea executed with an astute eye for detail. Yet there is something disappointingly familiar about the Light Photon – the excitement of the story from Gandini tails off after the science lesson from Dussert-Vidalet. The sense that this well-crafted object holds so much potential but is presented in such a prosaic way is disappointing, and although the OLED pane is the world's largest, it measures just 470mm by 370mm.
Still, it is early days, and the boutique mayhem of Blackbody and its eccentric factory will provide a route for research and development of the technology outside the black-box mystery of its three multinational competitors in the market – Phillips, LG and Samsung. If Light Photon shows the possibilities of OLED in the eyes of Starck, it also shows the limitations of an older generation of designers to find a way to use technology that fully exploits the romance and excitement of its potential. Light Photon will pique the interest of an emerging generation with a deeper understanding of the responsibilities and opportunities that Blackbody will afford them. For Flos and Gandini, it might be time to find that new generation to carry the light of the Beauborg to the market. "The production facility is a bit of a Frankenstein's monster, we are still learning about it and adding to it," Dussert Vidalet says. "When we work out what is actually possible, it will get really interesting."
The OLED making process takes half an hour
Despite the nanoscopic scale, the process is very hands on
Philippe Starck's Light Photon uses the world's largest OLED
The OLED is created in s vacuum chamber