People see things in clouds. We seem predisposed to find meaning in things, especially those things we can’t quite grasp or wholly experience. Clouds fit the bill: They’re neither sufficiently material nor close enough for us to really engage with. Unless, of course, you have them in your living room.
Designer Richard Clarkson’s Cloud Lamp adds to the atmosphere at home. A heap of down fluff impregnated with a battery of electrical wires, the lamp gives you your very own cumulonimbus cloud. Not only does it approximate the gust-like shape that hovers in stormy skies, but it also produces a phantasmagoric play of lights—call it lightning design.
Even so, verisimilitude is not Clarkson's goal. Unlike the cloud-doubles artist Berndnau Smilde coaxes out of a smoke machine—an admittedly simple process—the Cloud Lamp is high-tech. Clarkson, a masters candidate in the Products of Design department at School of Visual Arts in New York, tells Co.Design, "The ability to digitally control, read, and interact with the physical world is fast becoming a key skill in the design world." With the Cloud Lamp, which is powered by an Arduino circuit that makes it interactive, Clarkson wanted to make an object that demonstrated these features in an appealingly domestic application.
The lamp consists of three parts. The outer fluff is fastened, like a wig, to a styrofoam core that’s embedded with the Arduino, LED lights, a motion detector and other electrical inputs. The Arduino, in turn, is stamped with code Clarkson pieced together himself, with some help from a friend and after much trial-and-error. It came down, he says, to "learning the code by using examples, breaking and fixing, mixing in other examples codes together," and then "more breaking and fixing."
When prompted, the Arduino signals the 16-watt LED bulbs buried deep within the cloud’s folds to flash, while also tapping a 2.1 subwoofer to emit pre-recorded thunder sounds. The effects converge in a virtual lightning storm that bubbles more furiously when you approach the lamp or, conversely, wanes the more distance you put between it and yourself. A control reproduces the same effects from afar, sending up a spidery streak of blue lighting on the side of the cloud with the flick of a switch.
Given the extensive coding process, the light-and-sound show was hard won. Yet Clarkson says the troubleshooting was a cinch compared to fabricating, then sculpting the actual cloud. "Everyone asks what the fluff is made of," he explains, referring to the pillow innards he used to construct the exterior layer. "People tend to laugh at that, but it was a little more complicated" than just ransacking a few spare pillows. In fact, Clarkson had to track down the softest, most cloud-like specimens he could find, which required many late-night visits to home goods and upholstery stores—with Goldilocks-style testing standards. The task was further compounded by the fact that he couldn’t actually see the valuable down insides he was looking for. He had to feel his way through hundreds of pillows before finding the right material.
Several clouds later, Clarkson has his own "fluff supplier." He’ll make you a Cloud Lamp for a tidy sum. Interested? Place your orders here.