While his dream of becoming a stuntman might not have panned out, other childhood loves such as James Bond and anything sci-fi certainly play a part in British designer Ben Rousseau’s product designs, as Helen Fletcher discovers.
With a background as colourful as his latest clock design, the career of British designer Ben Rousseau could have gone down a number of routes at any given time. Whether it was his childhood dream of becoming a stuntman; or his time in the events industry working with clients including Xbox and on music events in Ibiza; or dressing up as a children’s clown entertainer for a Swedish cruise ship (and at 6ft 4ins that’s a pretty terrifying thought), he’s almost done it all…
Thankfully for the design industry, Rousseau knew from an early age that his calling was something that sat between art, design and engineering. “My dad had classic motorbikes all of his life and had an old 1955 Chevy bell air hot rod when I was at school,” he tells darc. “It was mirror black and amazing! I was really into what some of the American hot rod designers such as Boyd Coddington and so on were doing, I was amazed by the tricked out interiors, the lighting, and wheel design as much as I was with the amazing bodywork on the vehicles.”
Born in Australia, but with an upbringing in England’s oldest recorded town of Colchester, a younger Rousseau soon became tired of the town’s historical tales and children’s rhyme references of Humpty Dumpty and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and following his time at Colchester Institute, left to pursue a BA degree in Product and Industrial Design at Middlesex University in North London.
“I left Colchester institute art department wanting to make film sets and special effects models, so went to study 3D model making at KIADW (Kent Institute of Art and Design) in Rochester. While there I spent a lot of time in the workshop and also dj’ing, putting on parties at the weekend. This turned my attention to event props and creating nightclub furniture and hospitality interiors.
“I always felt I had been blessed with plenty of imagination but needed to learn how to get things made, how to use the precision machines I’d seen making those cool hot rods in the States.”
So, throughout his studying Rousseau befriended the workshop technicians, learning how to use the machines, the lathes, drills, milling machines and so on – taking in advice on materials and limitations of assembly and so on. Learning how to fabricate and build while ensuring his designs could actually be made and if not, then pushing the boundaries of what people and machines could do to get them produced.
It was Rousseau’s university partying days that in fact saw him first introduced to light. Spending a lot of his spare time in “crummy night clubs”, there was always something about UV light and mirror balls that mesmerised him. “Lighting always did something to me and I knew that somehow it would be the secret ingredient in my design work that meant it was different to the person next to me.
“I found LEDs after my trip to Sweden as a clown, my partner for the trip Jai Drew was Captain Hook and a ‘wannabe inventor’, a sci-fi nerd and a great guy, but very clever with taking machines like old photocopiers apart and making something completely different with them, he showed me how to play with basic electronics and afterwards we started illuminating small rods of acrylic, I knew the seed was planted for an obsession with the beauty of light.”
Rousseau’s end of year piece at Middlesex University was a black American walnut table that featured a lighting tray below it, made of Live Edge acrylic, which lights up when it absorbs light through the main surface of the material and forces it to the edges. It was the culmination of everything he had learnt; his maturing that led to an aesthetically pleasing style; an appreciation of quality materials; and the skills to build it all himself.
“Shin Azumi gave me possibly the most poignant bit of advice I’ve ever had,” says Rousseau. “The early designs for the table were really over designed and he said ‘just think about how you can simplify the design, look at what you take out to make it more elegant’. I look back at the early sketches with horror as they were so bulky and hideous. I think of those words almost every time I do anything, it’s built in me now.”
As a child of the ‘80s, Rousseau sites his love of Star Wars and James Bond as some key early influences for his designs of today. “Ken Adam who designed all the ‘bad guy’ sets in the early Bond films was my first hero and then Ralph Mcquirrie who designed all the sets and artwork for the early Star Wars films.”
Today, the sci-fi film theme continues for Rousseau, with the film Ex Machina a particular inspiration for the designer.
“It was like watching a film pulled straight from my imagination! Modern architecture, concept car design and modern fancy hotels all help add pockets of inspiration here and there, as well.”
The next steppingstone in Rousseau’s career came after he was selected to represent Middlesex University at the new designers show. Following this, Max Fraser asked Rousseau to be part of the Design UK show at Designers Block and then again in Milan the following year. “I got my first decent commission after the Milan show, building a bar and lots of feature items in a lovely property in Beaconsfield. That customer is still one of my biggest supporters. I also met a guy there that is now one of the head honchos at Philips Lighting, he brought over some Color Kinetics kit to show me – it was amazing! Stunning colour changing LED technology blew me away and he’s been a good contact ever since.”
With a style that can be best described as modern luxury with a flavour of sci-fi and automotive influence, Rousseau has been incorporating light into furniture and event spaces for about sixteen years, telling darc: “It’s the one thing most people can’t imagine how good it will look until it’s finished and in its final setting. It has the power to completely change a space or item.
“Lighting should be used to make the space have a pre-planned feel to it. In a showroom it should be about showing off the product to its best capability; in a bedroom the light should be soft enough to feel at your most relaxed and happy, so every space is different as the tasks are different. People will buy a house because of the good light and the good feelings. I like my products to have a secondary element that gives a double whammy of good feeling. My moon lights give off a nice warm glow but also create stunning shadows all around the room, my Tempus clocks are kinetic light wall artworks but actually work as a 12hr clock as well.”
Tempus came about after Rousseau created a collection of wall-mounted artworks that used repeated precision geometrics. “I kept going back to using 60 repeated shapes which planted the seed that these designs could then relate to a time piece of some sort,” he says. “I have been using engraved and laser cut acrylic with lighting from the start, varying between polished and frosted surfaces to create form and visual impact inside surfaces. With individually addressable LEDs, I had all the elements I needed to create my newest ideas.”
Before Tempus, Rousseau had noticed that he would just stop and stare at illuminated art pieces. “It felt as though I should be watching something happen,” he says. “I wanted to create a piece that was primarily a beautiful piece of illuminated technical art.”
The piece builds in segments over the course of each minute and hour in a very hypnotic way. “I love to see people view it for the first time when they are instantly attracted to it. They are hypnotised by the seconds building up and then the next minute appears and they suddenly think, ‘is this some sort of time piece?’ They usually count the pieces and get it… but it’s when I show people the colour patterns that they’re pretty blown away.”
The idea for Tempus came around six years ago, but it wasn’t until one of Rousseau’s business advisers suggested creating something unique that he could send potential clients as a type of calling card before having met them. “I thought the illuminated clock would be an idea no one had seen and would certainly get some attention,” says Rousseau. “So I made the first prototype… When I saw it for the first time I knew it was the start of something quite special. It was mesmerising, the opportunities for it were flooding through my brain!
“Tempus is a clock for the digital generation… a timepiece for the 21st Century. I like the fact that early time pieces used sunlight and shadow to tell time, I absolutely love my watches and they almost all have hands but Tempus can do so much more than just tell the time, it’s done so in a way that is visual and stimulating. It can be colour coded to match weather patterns; it can be connected to all sorts of apps and web data so it changes with information; it can flash to warn people of danger detected in the building… and it will be able to dance to music once I’ve developed the app I want for it.”
Tempus has been designed to be highly versatile with its wide range of material options and lighting options, from beautiful architectural reception areas in large corporate offices to luxury hotel lobbies and hospitality premises. There are highly personalised options to suit the highend residential markets and then lightweight versions for use on super yachts and planes.
Talking with Rousseau on design in general, the notion of ‘throw away’ design is not one that sits comfortably with him, telling darc: “One of the best product designs of my generation is the Technics 1210 turntable, first launched in 1972 and still used in the same way today. I still have a pair myself and will keep using them forever, a piece of great usable product that has been a stable for longer than any other product I can think of, it has a real place in my heart.
“In terms of lighting, I love the Laser Pod Chris Levine designed, I put one in my bathroom ceiling so it casts a lovely moving glow over you and tickles you with laser beams as you look out of the window into the stars from the bath below.
“A good product needs to work well and do the job it was intended but I believe you buy with your heart and that comes down to something being attractive in the first instance. Whether it’s a light fitting, a motorbike, a chair or a pair of shoes, you must be attracted to it to buy it first off, then you get to use it and fall in love with how well it works. A good product is one that pushes the boundaries of technology, material capabilities and improves life – it moves human evolution along.”
Looking ahead, there’s a lot on the horizon for Rousseau’s studio – having worked on a series of sci-fi artworks and automotive inspired furniture for a number of years, the next step will see the team build this into a concept call Super Spaces.
Rousseau tells darc: “I’m working with Helen Chislett of London Connoisseur, who represents my artwork and furniture, on this concept that creates super spec ‘man caves’, automotive storage solutions, private car museums, games rooms, trophy rooms and spaces for entertaining. It’s going to be an exciting chapter for the studio!”