Little Sun solar lamp bridges art and outreach

From the Kemper Art Museum to Madagascar villages

By Liam Otten

Sarah Moore, an architecture master’s candidate in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, recently designed, constructed and installed a group of Little Suns — small, powerful solar lamps created by Danish artist Olafur Eliasson — in the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. Photo by Whitney Curtis.

You try doing homework in the dark.

For school-aged children across much of the developing world, access to electrical lighting remains precarious. Many rural farming villages exist “off the grid.” Major cities from Nairobi to Kolkata are subject to regular blackouts — a phenomenon from which even the United States, as Hurricane Sandy demonstrated, is not entirely immune.

Enter the Little Sun. Designed by Danish artist Olafur Eliasson and engineer Frederik Ottesen, Little Sun is a small, powerful and inexpensive solar-powered lamp. The almost shockingly bright LED, encased in tough, cheerful yellow plastic, shines up to five hours on a four-hour charge.

Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton examines a Little Sun with Ian Smith, a student in The Madagascar Project. Smith and fellow student Anne Dohmen will present a poster about their work at 5 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 6, in the Kemper Art Museum as part of an open house for the Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. Photo by Sid Hastings.

“As an artist, Eliasson has increasingly turned his attentions to communities and peoples in need,” says Peter MacKeith, associate dean and associate professor of architecture in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts. “Can something of functional — almost desperate — value also become something of artistic consideration?”

Now Little Sun is at the center of two projects involving WUSTL students and faculty.

Sarah Moore, a master’s candidate in architecture, recently worked with MacKeith and Eliasson’s studio to design, construct and install a group of Little Suns in the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.

Next spring, students in “Sustainable Development and Conservation: Madagascar”— offered by University College in conjunction with the Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and the Missouri Botanical Garden — will, among other projects, track the usage of Little Suns while exploring their larger economic and environmental potentials.

“Madagascar is a biodiversity hotspot, but only 10 percent of its forest is left,” explains Judi McLean Parks, the Taylor Professor of Organizational Behavior in the Olin Business School.

“The people are crushingly poor, among the poorest in the world,” adds McLean Parks. “When you’re faced with a starving child, you’ll cut down a tree to make charcoal to sell.

“You have to solve the people problem first.”

Transforming cultural production

In the Kemper Art Museum, the Little Sun installation is situated near another Eliasson project, the 600-pound aluminum sphere titled Your Imploded View, which hangs permanently in the atrium. The small yellow discs shine brightly in the latter’s mirror finish.

The installation is presented in conjunction with Design with the Other 90%: CITIES, a major exhibition of smart, problem-solving projects from around the world, which MacKeith coordinated. Alerted to the Little Sun by Sabine Eckmann, the museum’s William T. Kemper Director and Chief Curator, MacKeith arranged to meet Eliasson in September, during the Venice Architecture Biennale. He quickly saw the potential for wider university partnerships.

Little Suns hang next to Olafur Eliasson's Your Imploded View (2006) in the Kemper Art Museum. Photo by Whitney Curtis.

“In conversation, it became clear that, in addition to designing a supremely useful object, Olafur was deeply concerned with the pragmatics of distribution,” MacKeith says. “The idea is to transform centers of cultural production, such as museums and universities, into points of contact, where visitors come to understand and engage with these issues.”

Moore, a longtime fan (and Twitter follower) of Eliasson’s work,  volunteered to help. In consultation with Eliasson's studio, she designed the installation and built many of its component parts. 

The result has the friendly, intimate air of a Calder mobile. Little Suns and photos of owners are suspended with transparent filament and framed with laser-cut plexiglass discs that catch the light and echo the lamp’s distinctive silhouette. Visitors use iPads to explore the Little Sun website on their own.

"We wanted to show how people use them and how their lives are enriched," Moore says. She adds that the suns are now available for purchase in Europe and the United States, with sales helping to support distribution in the developing world. 

Additionally, a portion of the sales of the Little Suns sold in the Kemper Art Museum Shop ($25) will support the Skandalaris Center's Madagascar project.

"Every time you buy a Little Sun, you're supporting the whole endeavor."

A collaborative effort

Next spring, that endeavor will expand off the southeastern coast of Africa, thanks to The Madagascar Project.

Founded in 2006 — in partnership with the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Community Conservation Program, which has been active in Madagascar for decades — the program helps small communities cultivate sustainable economic growth.

“It’s been a collaborative effort,” says Ken Harrington, managing director of the Skandalaris Center. He credits Charles McManis, JD, the Thomas and Karole Green Professor of Law, with bringing the garden’s outreach to university attention.

“Over the last several years, students and faculty from across campus have worked together on a wide variety of projects,” Harrington says. “Their ability to look at challenges from different disciplines has enriched the solutions and the experience for all involved.”

The powerful LED runs at 0.5 watts but emits the light of a 40-watt incandescent bulb.

In January, the program will work with local conservation partners to dispense more than 100 Little Suns to families, farmers, basket-weavers and others. In May, students will travel to Madagascar, interview recipients and, hopefully, develop a sustainable business model to promote wider adoption.

“One of the challenges is how to define the process of distribution,” says adjunct instructor Armand Randrianasolo, PhD, associate curator at the Missouri Botanical Garden, who will teach the course. Given the limited number initially available, careless dissemination could lead to conflict between families or communities. 

“We have to think carefully,” he says.

Yet the potential benefits are significant. 

“First, it can enhance daily productivity,” Randrianasolo says. 

For example, a busy mother might have only a few daylight hours each week for weaving baskets. Extra hours following dinner would result in more baskets to sell and more household income.

The lamp also will help families save money on candles and kerosene whose fumes can cause respiratory problems. That, in turn, can help alleviate the tension between economic and environmental stability.

“When the family has more income,” Randrianasolo concludes, “it won’t need to cut forest trees to feed the kids.”

At noon Thursday, Dec. 6, Judi McLean Parks will discuss Design with the Other 90%: CITIES at the Kemper Art Museum. In addition, at 5 p.m. the Skandalaris Center will host an open house, also in the Kemper Art Museum. Anne Dohmen and Ian Smith, both students in The Madagascar Project, will present posters about their work.

Both events are free and open to the public. For more information, call (314) 935-4523.

Liam Otten
Art News Director
(314) 935-8494
Neil Schoenherr
Senior News Director
(314) 935-5235
Peter MacKeith
Associate Dean, Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts Associate Professor
(314) 935-9300
Judi McLean Parks
Reuben C. and Anne Carpenter Taylor Professor of Organizational Behavior, Olin Business School
(314) 935-7451