Tradition and Technology

Dimitri Bähler, is a name to watch in design and the latest emerging talent to join the Established & Sons roster. Laura Houseley, editor-in-chief of Modern Design Review, explores Bähler’s design language and the inspiration behind Cho Light – a lamp that appears almost impossibly lightweight.
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Tradition and technology come together in Cho Light, a poetic light by Swiss designer Dimitri Bähler. A Washi paper shade meets a carbon structure in a design that is delicate and modest but at the same time considered and contemporary, a perfect expression of Bähler himself, a multi-faceted young designer.

Bähler’s output since graduating from ECAL (University of arts and design in Lausanne) in 2014 has been diverse and includes arts-led installations, an extensive and celebrated series of ceramics and plenty of investigative projects involving process – such as a current collaboration with a Japanese origami expert – and expression, like the Urban Legends projects focused on transitioning communities in Burkina Faso. Here is a designer whose approach is untethered to notions of industrial or studio production, instead sitting somewhere in between. The result is that wherever there is rigour and technical prowess in Bähler’s work, you will also find whimsy and beauty.

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“The most important aspect of the Cho Light lamp is the poetic element: The relationship between the natural material, the soft Washi paper, and the unnatural, artificial, material, the carbon, interests me very much,” says Bähler. This seeming disparity between something engineered and something unrefined is exaggerated throughout the design.

The carbon elements are clean and minimal. Bähler has played up to the strength of carbon fibre by choosing the thinnest and longest section possible, just 6mm in diameter, for the reed-like stem of the light. The carbon-fibre elements are standardised, industrially produced components. The floor plate is minimal, while the shade and stand connect via clean magnetic elements, simply clicking into place without the need of screws and bolts. So far so technological.

Yet the shade that Bähler mounts onto this industrially-built structure has altogether different associations. “Washi paper is a traditional material for diffusing light and structure in construction, for the sliding doors and windows of traditional Japanese architecture, and for lamps too — although sadly this seems to be dying out,” explains the designer. The paper lantern is a simple form, the inspiration for which Bähler attributes to a familiar Japanese children’s game: “Kamifusen is a game in Japan where a small paper bowl is inflated through the process of playing with it. In the same way, the shade for the Cho Light can be gently inflated by the user, we recommend that it is blown into, or I hope people might play the Kamifusen game too.”

Washi papers are made from wood pulp, they are translucent, malleable and tactile, warm to the touch. Their appealing textured surfaces and strength are the reason why they have been used for over 1000 years as a material with which to build and make. The length of the fibres in Washi paper give it its strength. These are pounded and stretched, rather than chopped, during the making process. Washi has a resistance to tearing that means it can be used like cloth, rather than paper. It is often stitched or used to sculptural effect, exploiting its strength, durability and ability to hold its shape.

Although the carbon fibre and Washi used in Cho Light are seemingly contradictory materials – old and new, hard and soft, high tech and low tech, linear and rounded – they share important characteristics. Despite appearing delicate or fragile, both have deceptively inherent structural strength and flexibility, provided by those extra-long fibres in their make-up.

Of course, where the materials differ dramatically is in Washi’s translucency. This characteristic is what has made Washi a natural choice for lighting for centuries. What followed the decision to use this evocative centuries-old material in Cho Light was a lengthy investigation into the best type of Washi. “Sebastian (Wrong) and I both wanted to find the paper which filled all the require-ments; the practical needs for strength, cleaning, the right diffusion, fire restrictions,” remembers Bähler. “We looked at all the different possible materials and, in the end, we chose one that was very similar to the first I trialled.”

The Washi used in Cho Light is softly crumpled and delicate in appearance – its physical softness is a fitting metaphor for the softness of the light it filters. The play between light and dark, illumination and shadow, and perceptions of space and form is a theme in Japanese architectural theory that Bähler acknowledges. He references the influential essay In Praise of Shadows ’by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, which explores and lingers on the importance of darkness and subtle light (“Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty”). Cho Light is an atmospheric light, designed to illuminate but to also enhance mood and inspire sensitivity. “The stand is so thin that from a distance you might think that it was suspended,” says Bähler. “I like this idea that you don’t really see its support, you just see the simplest essence of a light.

Cho Light

Words by Laura Houseley
Photography by Dimitri Bähler

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