Walking into Richard Clarkson studio, we’re greeted by an expansive ceiling covered in clouds of all shapes and sizes, each one fitted with an electric chord and ready to come to life. Two associates toil away building smart panels and programming LED lights for the cloud brains. Bundles of unidentified puff garnish the work table. Here, Richard and his team create their famous interactive cloud lamps. It plays music, booms thunder, beams lightning, and reacts to changes in the environment. It’s an insanely impressive product, but even more impressive: Clarkson created his cloud as part of a typical class assignment at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan (SVA). It’s the unexpected product that launched his entire, now-famous studio.
Clarkson has always found inspiration in nature, the elements, and basic shapes, so it’s no surprise Hurricane Sandy affected him both personally and creatively. He lived smack-dab in the middle of the storm and experienced the damage and devastation it caused first-hand. As the storm raged on that night, he stayed up mulling over an SVA brief - to create “a plush night light.”
“I was inside listening to the rain pouring and the wind gusting, and it was just this insane experience. It was so powerful and out of control. I wanted to flip that sense of power and awe and give it back to the people. I thought, ‘What if you could turn a thunderstorm on or off with the push of a button?’”
That night, the Smart Cloud was born. Using complex hardware, software, and fresh coding skills he learned in class, Clarkson built his prototype. It had speakers, thunder and lightning, and reacted to music and sound. It took a long time for the execution to match the expectation in Clarkson’s head, but once it did, he felt real pride in the result. The product shortly went viral on Buzzfeed, Colossal, Design Milk and more.
Richard opened up a studio and focused on a series of new, nature-inspired products powered by technology.
“I’m inspired by being outside, looking at the stars. Little moments when you interact with nature. It’s nice not to feel like you’re at the center of the world anymore. And it doesn't take a thousand foot waterfall. It could be something tiny, like a breath of fresh air outside.”
For Clarkson, the technology piece is critical to his products specifically, but also represents a growing opportunity in home decor. As prices for certain tech decrease, more designers can bring code and complex programming to their products.
“I think there will be a definitive split between the two parties: one will really lean on technology to make high tech products and create a certain experience and aesthetic, and the other will stay more traditional and low tech. I don’t think home decor designers need tech to succeed - I don’t think it’s essential to home decor - but it’s an interesting option for those in modern design.”
Clarkson walks us through the rest of the studio as we marvel over the terrarium globes and indoor rain lamp. It’s obvious he works under strict processes and methodologies. Such complicated, interesting products require meticulous planning and execution. But there’s also something undeniably beautiful and elegant about his work. It’s easy to question where design begins and art ends, and vice versa. Luckily, Clarkson doesn’t see a need to categorize his work so decisively. To him, it’s irrelevant. In fact, it’s more fun to float between the two.
“I went to art school but completed a design program. I wrote an art-based thesis. I’m trained as an industrial designer. I’ve bounced back and forth between art and design, but I’ve never really been comfortable calling myself an ‘Artist’ or a ‘Designer.’ I like the idea of creating this middle ground where you can draw from each discipline.’”
He fiddles with an LED light inside one of the cloud brains before closing it up. For the ordinary observer looking at a finished Smart Cloud, there’s zero indication that beneath the iridescent fluff there’s a mini computer powering the entire piece, making the beauty happen.
“I don’t think we need any rules. Be an artist when you need to be. Be a designer when you need to be. You’re allowed to live somewhere in between.”