Portable lights from the SowdenLight collection, image credit Alice Fiorilli.

George Sowden

In Conversation

On the eve of the Salone del Mobile 2023, SCP’s Editor Duncan Riches talks to British designer and engineer George Sowden about his latest project, a new lighting company called SowdenLight.

For anyone unfamiliar with George Sowden, he is a British designer, originally from Leeds, who went to Milan to work as an industrial designer in the early 1970s and never left.


Olivetti L1, 1978-79, designed by George Sowden.

Early on he secured a contract with Olivetti, and worked on developing products alongside such Italian luminaries as Mario Bellini, Ettore Sottsass, and his compatriot, James Irvine. Sowden was responsible for designing Olivetti’s first desktop computer, the L1, in 1979. He established his own design and product development studio in the city that same year, and alongside his partner Nathalie Du Pasquier, was a founding member of the influential Memphis Group in 1981.

Oberoi armchair for Memphis, 1981, designed by George Sowden.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s he continued to design products for a wide range of companies, such as Alessi, Bodum, Swatch, Steelcase, Tefal and Pyrex. Since the early 2000s, his studio has focused on developing own brand products, such as the Sowden Softbrew coffee system, while also creating new products for Danish brand HAY. His most recent project is SowdenLight, a new lighting brand under his own name. As always, we are keen to find out more.

Meada Shizuoka side chair, 1988, designed by George Sowden.
Miram phone, Olivetti, 1988, designed by George Sowden.

How are you keeping?

“I am very well thank you. We are quite busy now of course, because we are starting to get ready for the Salone, which is in a month’s time.”

Have you still got the store that you rented for the Salone last year?

“Yes. The one I got last year, I have a contract for 12 years.”

Last year during the Milan Salone del Mobile, Sowden opened a showroom called 44 Spazio, at number 44 Corso di Porta Nuova, with a show called Shades. It is well located in the central Brera district, just a short walk from his and Du Pasquier’s home and studio. In the process of looking for a suitable space to host an exhibition, he found that it was actually cheaper to rent a store for a whole year, than just for the Salone. So, that is exactly what he did, taking on a slightly rough old shop, totally redecorating it, and renovating the exterior courtyard at the rear with a beautiful Du Pasquier tiling scheme. It makes for a great base for the Salone, and for another show this year.

“We have the lights again, we have the whole catalogue which is in production, and then we have some new lighting ideas, and a couple of product ideas as well.”

SowdenLight exhibition during the Milan Salone 2022.
The external courtyard of 44 Spazio, Sowden's Milan store.

"This project is the result of five years of work, but not on this particular project, but doing other things to do with lighting".

George Sowden

I want to talk about the Sowden lights. Can you rewind right back to the beginning and give a sense of how the lights were developed?

“It’s a long story.”

That’s okay.

“I look at this project and I think there is no way you could sit down and say to yourself, I am going to sit down and design this. It’s a result of five years of work, but not on this particular project, but doing other things to do with lighting. It was a kind of accumulation of things that happened. It started about five years ago, I had never done any lighting projects before, not really, I have done a lot of things, but not lighting. I was working with my assistant Christian on LEDs, because I found it quite interesting.”

Sowden explains that just prior to Western Governments outlawing incandescent light bulbs in 2012-2013, the American Government ran a competition to produce an LED bulb of a particular specification. It had to be a 60 watt equivalent, an 800 lumen light bulb.

“A standard bulb, but with ten times the efficiency, because incandescent is 90% heat and 10% light, and LED is 90% light and 10% heat. And Philips won that competition in 2010, with a very weird product. I don’t know if you remember it, it looked a bit like an enlarged photograph of the head of a frog, with big eyes. It weighed 300 grams, and it cost 75 dollars, so it wasn’t very successful.”

He goes on to explain that the competition had the effect of boosting the development and research into LED bulbs, but there was a fundamental problem with the brief. The standard shape of a light bulb, which was what most of the development was trying to create, was in no way suited to LED technology.

“This was one of those massive industrial mistakes, because with LED light bulbs, really the last thing you wanted to do six or seven years ago was to squeeze them into a shape where you couldn’t get the heat away. Because LEDs, even though they are only heating up 10% of the energy used, you still need to get the heat away, or you lose the efficiency of the LEDs themselves. So the first ones were ugly, heavy, they had these heat syncs on them, they looked like motorbike engineers in a way, to get the heat away, they were awful.

The whole thing started off badly, there was a lot of confusion as people got used to them. It’s settled down now, and the bulbs are really nice. They are more efficient now, so the heat is not really a problem any more, because when you have to dissipate the heat from 12 watts or 15 watts, it’s much less of a problem if you are using 6 watts or 8 watts. I got some really nice bulbs the other day, which we are using for our products. They are 1000 lumens bulbs and they are only 7 watts, so they are not going to heat up. So the whole efficiency side is getting better and better.

So I first started working with Christian on designing light bulbs, rather than on designing lights. We came up with a few nice things. We were working with a company in Italy and one in Bulgaria. We got quite far down the line designing light bulbs, and just before Covid we did some samples in Italy, and it was very similar to this.”

George holds up a new LED bulb that is shaped a bit like a flying saucer.

“It was really nice, so I said we should make a little shade for it. I didn’t want to make it in cardboard, or pressed metal, and this is where that element of coincidence comes into it, I was doing something else at the time in silicon. It’s really not expensive to make, the tooling to do samples is only a couple of hundred dollars, so we made these little shades, and I got the first ones back, and we mocked up some samples, and I switched it on, and I thought wow, look at the light diffusion. It was pure luck, it just happened to be really extraordinary.”

Portable light in action, SowdenLight, image credit Alice Fiorilli.
Ceiling Light, SowdenLight, image credit Nicolo Ughetti.

“I keep one of the portable lamps plugged in beside the bed, you don’t have to unplug them either. I usually take it to the breakfast table in the morning."

George Sowden

It sounds like one of those really nice moments when a confluence of different things come together at one time.

“At that point Covid hit, we were lockdowned. Nathalie and myself lived here at the studio, and the guys were working at home. When we were in lockdown the Chinese were coming out of their first lockdown anyway, and I started working with them. I thought well, why don’t we make a bigger shade, then bigger ones and bigger ones. So suddenly I had done all of these things in lockdown without really having a plan. At one point we had perhaps twenty different shapes of shades, and we were putting them all together. In the beginning I thought we could just hang them on the lamp holders, then I decided we needed something to fit them all together. So, we did this little piece of plastic, which allows all of the shades to fit together, and the whole thing mushroomed from there. Suddenly we had this range of things which seemed almost infinite really. This is how it happened. As I said in the beginning, you cannot plan that. It happened by doing it.”

So once you had kind of cracked the idea of a lighting system that you could put together, how did you narrow it down to a coherent collection?

“We are a very small group of people, there are three plus me in Milan, and a person in England who does all the management of the books and so on, and we have a team in China, one person who manages the warehouse and the suppliers, and an engineer there too. So we are a small team that makes decisions together. I don’t like making decisions, because when you make a decision you exclude all of the things that you might not have wanted to exclude. In September 2021 at the event which was called the Supersalone, we had a show which had about forty lamps, and that was just impossible, too complicated to do. So, in the end we just said yes, no, yes, no, to the products. We chose five different pendant lamps, two table lamps, two portable battery lamps and one floor lamp, but it could have been less, it could have been much more. As it turns out, we almost chewed off more than we could swallow. It’s a big task, putting that kind of size project into production, but it’s worked fairly well. MoMa took a fairly good order recently, and they gave us 20 square metres in their Spring Street shop, plus two windows, and in the museum shop. That’s just installed and opened last Thursday.”

Selection of ceiling lights, SowdenLight. Image courtesy of Sowden studio.

Seeing the whole collection together last year in your store was great, it’s very aesthetically balanced. I actually got one of the portable ones for my partner for Christmas, so we’ve had it round the house for a while now. It’s much lighter in weight than I expected when I saw them and it’s interesting to see how it’s used. My kids pick it up and wander off with it to do some drawing or something.

“I keep one of them plugged in beside the bed, you don’t have to unplug them either. I usually take it to the breakfast table in the morning. My plan now is to make all the lamps we make battery driven. Even the table lamps, we are designing some big battery packs, so you could have 1000 lumens and still have six hours of light if you decide to take it off to the garden or something. Also, sending things around the world, if it’s hard wired, you have different regulations everywhere. Different plugs, different voltages, that kind of thing. No two countries are the same, but if everything is battery, you are talking about low power, so the whole approval system is different. Plus you have this added feature of being able to move it around if you want.”

What are your hopes for the next period?

“I am actually working on light bulbs at the moment. I have designed two, one that we are using on the portable lamps, and one that we are using, hang on, I’ll just get it. (George returns with a saucer shaped LED bulb). So this is the Sowden light bulb, which we have done in three different sizes, this is a medium size, there is also a large and a small. It has a little rim on it, so you can actually fit the shade on top of it. (George demonstrates). So it’s a product in itself.”

Are they ready quite soon?

“Yes, we will show them during the Salone. I am working on the bulbs and I am really interested in batteries as well. I want to do a Sowden battery as well, because I also think that is something important. I want to work on things that are on the edge of technology, because I find that space interesting. My work has always been between technological things and decorative things. It’s just the way I work, and it’s what I like to do.”

We are very much looking forward to seeing the show in Milan.

Many thanks to George Sowden for his studio for their time.

Shades Collection

by SowdenLight