Standing in his industrial Brooklyn studio, 26-year-old Richard Clarkson exudes Kiwi chill. The mayhem outside is muted by hanging clouds, light and water displays and music. A “thinking swing” hangs in the middle of the room.
The industrial designer has transplanted his Hawke’s Bay upbringing into the city that never sleeps.
Despite the whirlwind of the last few years – which saw Clarkson shoulder tapped at university in Wellington, selected as the youngest member of an inaugural design course in New York, and thrust into business – it’s easy to imagine he maintained that air of cool. Even when he was placed literally in the eye of the storm.
“I had arrived in New York and about four or five weeks into living here this huge super storm came through, Hurricane Sandy. In New Zealand we don’t really experience too much of that. We certainly have our fair share of earthquakes, but this was something I’d never been a part of.”
Taking shelter in his new class at the School of Visual Arts, Clarkson was given one of his first briefs: to design a plush night light. Inspired by what was going on outside Clarkson says a cloud “just made sense”.
“There was a certain sense of awe and wonder, and, in some cases, beauty to it.”
Over the next two years his first prototype – “just this tiny little fluff ball with a couple of LEDs in it” – developed into The Cloud, his signature product. And this has thrown him into the spotlight and been selling worldwide.
The lamp reacts to movement and music and an inbuilt Bluetooth speaker mimics thunder and lightning, reflects a beat with multi-coloured flashes of light, or creates a peaceful ambience, thanks to its Arduino technology. It was the first of a series of clouds Clarkson continues to make out of his studio.
His most recent project is definitely the most ambitious – a levitating cloud. The collaboration between Clarkson and levitation technology company Crealev is ongoing, but the first prototype has been released and the fully rotational cloud floats up to two inches from its base using magnets.
The desire to push materials to their limits and explore different functions is fundamental to how Clarkson works.
“There are all these new opportunities to let the technology drive the design process and drive the direction.”
Clarkson, who grew up on a 1500 acre sheep and beef farm in Maraekakaho, just outside of Hastings, learnt to be hands-on from a young age with his father, a farmer, employing “typical Kiwi ingenuity”.
“Making something to make your life easier was very much a part of what he was interested in.
Clarkson followed his dad into the shed, but says he was more interested with pulling things apart than finding solutions.
“To me the more interesting part was seeing what was inside.”
Eventually Clarkson headed south for Wellington’s Victoria University and was completing a Bachelor of Innovation in Industrial Design when a lecturer shoulder tapped him for a design programme starting at the acclaimed School of Visual Arts in New York.
Although doubting his chances and writing in his cover letter that he didn’t have the funds to attend, Clarkson was accepted as “they ended up creating a scholarship type situation for me”.
At 22 he was the youngest in the inaugural two-year Products of Design programme run by renowned designer Allan Chochinov. Clarkson says as the faculty are all working professionals teaching part time the teachers were invaluable in giving him access to a new design community and networks.
“Even now there’s a lot of times when we need to call on those contacts and connections. That’s very New York, everyone is so busy doing everything that everyone is always helping each other out.”
It was just after graduating in 2014 that Clarkson had to make the quick transition from design student to entrepreneur. He says framing his personal portfolio as a sales website helped to get the ball rolling and the project quickly became a product.
Clarkson’s then girlfriend and now wife Erin Ross moved to New York to help the blossoming business and the couple rented a studio.
“We started the studio playing catch up trying to fill orders that we had got. It was a really interesting way of starting a business, kind of like a Kickstarter, without a Kickstarter.”
The initial capital came from presales and there was a lead time of around six weeks, Clarkson says. Everything was being figured out along the way.
“It was pretty insane. We were working long hours at that point trying to keep up, it was like a crash course in how to run a business and how to start a studio.”
But without investment capital or partners, Clarkson says they were able to tailor the business as they saw fit.
The Cloud retails for US$3360 and other iterations are between US$380-1200. Clarkson says although the model is sustainable, he is constantly working on bringing the price point down.
Clarkson employs a studio manager and paid interns, while most of his time is spent developing. Other products include a rain lamp merging water and electricity, a sabre reflecting soundwaves with patterns of light, and hand-crafted furniture.
Clarkson is also diversifying his services by offering consulting work. He has just finished a project with technology giant GE designing a smarthome lamp that was released in December.
But his long-term goal? To head back to New Zealand.
In a few years the couple hopes to open a studio in Wellington or Nelson, he says, while keeping the New York studio running.
His aim is to create a new range of products for the New Zealand market using local materials “rather than shoe horning our current products into that”.
“We want to celebrate what New Zealand has to offer in terms of a design culture. That’s going to be one of our bigger challenges, in terms of how we manage that transition, but it’s something we’re really excited about.”