The Kowtowing Lamp


The Kowtowing Lamp is an exploration into products that have personality. As an object, it functions as both light source and a data visualization device. We decided not to specify the information displayed, imagining instead that people could map data sets of their choosing to the lamp’s behavior via an API. As for personality, we think The Kowtowing Lamp nicely highlights that how things communicate is often just as important as what they communicate.

Note: If reading’s not for you, please scroll to the bottom where you’ll find a little film we put together.

The Kowtowing Lamp Explained in Full

Sometimes you make something seductive and you’re not at all sure what it’s for, who it’s for, where it belongs. You marvel at it, but puzzle over what it might mean or represent. Cynics call this ‘post-rationalization.’ We call it ‘getting to the root of the matter.’

Recently, we made just such a thing. We started with a very clear idea about what we were constructing: a lamp that physically displays weather data by way of LEDs and programmed behaviors. During its development, though, this device began to opine on its own creation. Not communicating with a ‘user’ the way we intended, but telling its supposed architects why it should be one thing and not another. Its voice wasn’t audible or telepathic, but expressed through form and contour. Sculptors will perhaps relate to dialogue with objects on this level.

An example to illustrate: we thought the lamp should have kinetic legs. It resisted, “Open your eyes, do you want me to look like a squid (Fig. 1)? An illuminated, weather-forecasting squid that hangs from the ceiling?” Wearing its beliefs, the lamp told by showing. We heeded its creative direction and edited out the legs (Fig. 2). But what it gained in personality, it lost in formal definition. The initial question intensified: what was this thing?

Fig. 1 – An early sketch

Fig. 2 – The legs come off

During the lamp’s final critique, we looked to others to help us see it better. By this point, the lamp had gained a digital consciousness of sorts. We instructed it to perform according to a procedure we had rehearsed, and it did so. Now it had behavior to go with its form and contour—additional tools for self-expression. Upon seeing this performance of light, shadow, and motion, our esteemed and telepresent examiner Bill Verplank wondered aloud about the lamp dancing or kneeling or bowing when its owner enters a room…

Of course! It bows! And it could not have been otherwise, for though we had strung together the mechanical guts of the thing, it and only it could decide how to express itself, and the thing really worth communicating was reverence for its animators.

Stuff like this directs our attention to a future arriving in large doses: objects that can communicate with you and each other, objects that know their own history and can update themselves, objects that can speak for you, objects that may very well have interior lives of their own (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3 – Do androids dream of electric sheep?

This is good territory and material for designers, because we think it is useful to assume that objects should have some kind of inner substance to be revealed, as Disney believed (Fig. 4). But Uncle Walt also cautioned against entering the uncanny valley where mimetic representation continues its frivolous journey towards our mirror image (Fig. 5). People like cartoons better.

Fig. 4 – Beauty and the Beast’s Cogsworth and Lumière

Fig. 5 – Hiroshi Ishiguro and his Geminoid twin

Back to our fairly new relationship with The Kowtowing Lamp. Sure, objects like it, ones with more awareness, will keep helping us do things more efficiently, do things we can’t do ourselves or couldn’t previously do. Pets provide this kind of utility, too. They retrieve ducks from ponds and sort out our rodent problems. But the efficiency and optimization they bring into our lives is not really what strikes us; we appreciate their individuality and our relationships with them. We are curious about the temperament of their breed and how they get along with kids. We oblige their eyes with names (Fig. 6) and shed tears when they leave us to return to the wild…

Fig. 6 – “Surrender to my gaze…”

And so we have come to think of The Kowtowing Lamp as a caricature of man’s best friend, a companion in the world of means and ends, and, like us, a blend of the two.


The lamp is made almost entirely of plywood. The top-most part is a single sheet made flexible and mat-like by laser cutting a special pattern. This pattern allowed us to wrap the sheet into a cylinder, creating a shade. The lower part is made of flat strips of plywood. As with the upper part, these are flexible and can bend outward, allowing light to escape. LED panels and chains were installed in both the top and bottom parts, and diffused with translucent paper and fabric. These lights, along with the servo motor that compresses the lower part by tightening a spool of wire, are wired to an external Arduino microcontroller.

Thank you

Zubin Pastakia, Alex Graham, and Bronwyn Stippa for your editorial input. David Cuartielles and Massimo Banzi for your guidance. Matt Jones and Bruce Sterling for your ideas.