The mind behind the Sonnylight design: Kurt Solland
By Christine Rasmussen
If a product looks ugly or too bizarre, no matter how functional it is, would you still buy it? Probably not. Sonnylight inventor Leo Hayes knows this; that?s why he employed one of the top minds in the field of industrial design to create the look of his revolutionary product. His name is Kurt Solland.
The two met back in Hayes? days as an automotive executive for the automotive industry. Solland was working for Harman International, which designs, manufacturers and markets audio systems. Hayes was charged with development of the rear entertainment system for the Lexus platform, and Solland was brought on to help. “We had a good time designing it together, and the rest is history,” states Solland.
As Harman International vice president of global design, Solland is charged with “setting the company?s global vision in design language,” meaning, he determines the aesthetics of its audio products. “The engineers figure out what kind of sound package the consumer wants to hear – whether it?s an iPod, a home system, or a home theatre system – and I figure out what it should look like to the consumer. It?s kind of like a car: if a car was plywood, you probably wouldn?t buy it. Industrial designers have to figure out what the car looks like and combine that with technical functionality.”
Solland readily admits he didn?t choose industrial design as a career; rather, it chose him. “I would be doing this even if I didn?t major in it – it?s just in my DNA.”
Solland grew up in a household where engineering and designing things like hydroplanes – boats that go really fast on water, like 150 mph, and have huge rooster tails – was commonplace. “My dad was one of the hydroplane innovators in the 1950s. We
had this big shop: upstairs was the boat-building facility and downstairs we made all the hardware for the boats and motors. I can make a racing motor with my eyes closed.”
A tinkerer from a young age, Solland was drawing inventions and making little models of them before he was a teenager. First attending college for sculpture, Solland decided that although it was good expression, there was something missing. “Then I found this thing called industrial design, which merged the two together – sculpture and engineering – to create manufacturable products; essentially, manufacturable sculptures. Making sculptures for the masses – that is what I wanted.”
Upon completion of his degree in industrial design, thus began the stockpile of Solland?s design accomplishments, starting with several entrepreneurial ventures involving mountain- and road-bike parts in the 1990s. Today, Solland has 88 patents and over 100 design awards under his belt. Part of those patents came from designing fitness equipment for infomercials and big box stores (think: Nordic Track).
While working for a consulting company, Solland was asked to manage a client called Harman, where he was eventually hired to manage its retail strategy.
Challenging the notion that speakers had to be little beige boxes that matched the computer screen, Solland designed the Creature. “It was something like a little desk sculpture,” describes Solland. “It really forged the way in the industry; now you see a lot of things like that.” From there, Solland created such iconic speakers as the JBL iPod On Tour, the On Stage and the On Time, which have also done well on the market.
As of late, Solland has been increasing his freelance work for lighting, with projects such as street lights for municipalities and movie lighting. He sees it as the emergence of another phase in his life. “We?ve got sculptures for hearing. Now, I think
sculptures that enhance visually are opening up a different world. I would say an umbrella of why I do all these things is to enhance the senses; putting a smile on somebody?s face is always a bonus. That?s what?s been fun with some of the iPod docks – they?re kind of playful.”
Creating the Sonnylight
The process of designing the Sonnylight began as any industrial-design project does. “First, you have to figure out the intent – what does the consumer really want, or need that they don?t know they need?” says Solland. “So you have to do a lot of research and keep your eyes open to what is going on in the world. With kitchen stuff, people really gravitate toward stainless steel.”
Because the Sonnylight denotes a quality piece, an upgrade, Solland knew a premium lighting source should have a premium visual solution as well. “So the consumer knows, before they even buy it, that visually it looks cool. Visually, it will be a quality piece. Then the techno-gadget guys look at it and say „Oh my god, this thing is really powerful and does what it says – it truly will grow things exponentially.?”
The nice thing about the LEDs is that Hayes was able to form exact wavelengths that the plants love, according to Solland. And with the Sonnylight LEDs never requiring changing, the product is an achievement for the green movement as well.
“I think Sonnylight is going to be very successful,” Solland predicts. “There are so many different climates, and you can imagine that city dwellers do not have a chance to understand how to grow. Growing things is pretty cathartic, so I think it is going to be a good thing.”