Whatever your field of work, if the phone rings and it’s Time magazine on the line wanting to know more, you’re probably doing something right. A few weeks ago this very thing happened to Dublin-based industrial designer Ian Walton who, ‘out of the blue’, found that a two-year-old prototype designed with university colleague Eoin McNally was being decreed by Time as one of the best inventions of 2007. Since then there’s been a torrent of e-mails and Web traffic, mostly asking one question, ‘Where can I buy one?’
The device they’re after is called the Glo Pillow, a pillow-cum-alarm clock which emits a soft and gradually brightening light, waking the user slowly from sleep and gently balancing their circadian rhythm. It was a response to the Royal Society of Arts’ 2005 Design Directions competition and, as yet, is not in production. ‘It was always a conceptual answer to a brief about 24-hour living, but I never saw it as the most commercially realistic of the products I’ve done. But we’re talking to some Americans who might manufacture it and we’ve had a call from Swiss International Air Lines too,’ says Walton.
The Glo Pillow snatched the Ideal Standard Designer’s Award in the Royal Society of Arts competition, but perhaps more significant for Walton was the way that the project helped define his approach to design solutions. ‘It was the start of finding a way I like to work, which is to sit down for hours and say absolutely anything and it not be considered stupid. I always want to find that extra bit of insight that’s inside the brief, that eureka moment.’
In a Kitchens of the Future competition for German home appliance manufacturer Miele, this ‘insight inside the brief’ was to take inspiration from traditional country kitchens, rather than forwards to futuristic technologies. Working again with McNally, the pair created Cultivate, a prototype cultivation system that uses hydroponics to grow fruit and vegetables in the kitchen.
There’s a precision in Walton’s approach to design, the provenance of which demands telling. When asked about influences and inspiration, Walton turns first to his grandfather. It turns out, rather wonderfully, that in 1932 Ernest Walton became the first person to split the atom and, along with collaborator John Cockcroft, was awarded the 1951 Nobel Prize in physics for the achievement. There follows a family tree full of physicists, with Walton’s decision to become a designer somewhat breaking the mould.
‘The control and engineering side in me comes from my family. At school they’d get me to sit on the ground and paint with a bit of wood to try to be a bit looser. You need a balance of creativity and precision in design, but maybe I’m a bit too controlled still,’ he concedes.
Walton’s final-year project, the Ulo chair, is a piece of furniture designed for the type of compact living spaces now being realised by prefabricated architecture. ‘Architects are coming up with better ways of creating small spaces that are more efficient and more sustainable, but the products in them aren’t designed for multi-use spaces,’ he claims. The Ulo chair responds to this with two positions and modes – ‘upright’ and ‘lounge’. But it’s in the seamless shift between the two that Walton’s engineering rigour comes into play. With one swift movement the legs ‘bend’ and the seat shell pivots to the new position, despite the apparent absence of any joints or moving mechanisms – aesthetics are not at all sacrificed to function.
Despite a number of years in graphic design positions, Walton is in many respects only just embarking on his 3D-design career. Graduating from Dublin’s National College of Art and Design this summer, he was swiftly picked up by Dublin product design consultancy Design Partners to work with a roster of global consumer electronics clients. But with interest in the Glo Pillow hotting up, Walton is ‘hugely eager’ to maintain outside projects. ‘Some students come out of college and think that’s their conceptual stuff done; they can bank it and get on with some real work. But I still need some of that. I’m in the camp that thinks designers should lead clients to new ideas and to do that you need to be open to that kind of conceptual thinking.’
If there’s atom-splitting power in Walton’s blood, we might expect a few great conceptual leaps along the way.