Marjan van Aubel on Her Work At the Intersection of Design and Solar Energy — and Her Artful New Collab With Lexus

If we’re entering the age of what’s been called the “Clean Industrial Revolution” — when investment in clean energy has risen by 40% in the past three years and coal, oil, and gas production is expected to finally begin falling by 2030* — it’s certainly thanks to growing concerns about climate change and the volatility of fossil fuel markets, heightened by conflicts like the Ukraine War. But aesthetics, argues Dutch designer Marjan van Aubel, also have a role to play in pushing renewable energy forward, by heightening consumer demand and by imagining more creative possibilities for its use. Van Aubel calls herself a “solar designer,” and since she graduated from the RCA in 2012, she’s devoted her career to finding ways of making solar power more beautiful and accessible, using projects like solar-cell window hangings and rainbow-gradient solar roofs to inspire people to look at and use the technology in a new way. This week, she’s applying the same approach to the automotive realm, with a colorful interactive installation for Lexus in Miami that proves design can help speed us toward the future of environmentally conscious driving, too.

Installed in the sculpture garden of Miami’s Institute of Contemporary Art for Miami Art & Design Week, “8 Minutes and 20 Seconds” — whose title references the time it takes for light from the sun to reach Earth — is a collaboration between van Aubel, Lexus, and the experiential firm Random Studio that abstractly channels the LF-ZC Lexus Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV) concept car. The car is depicted, at full scale, through a series of cross sections: hanging panels of PVC embedded with organic photovoltaic cells that send electricity into a giant battery built into the platform below. The battery then uses that energy to power motion-sensing LEDs that bounce vibrant colors back onto the panels, turning the sculpture into an interactive light show that moves and color-shifts in response to the movements of visitors, or the time of day.

Though the LF-ZC concept car itself isn’t solar-powered, it represents the next generation of electric vehicle technology, where prismatic batteries that are lighter and more energy-dense will allow for twice the driving range on a single charge. The piece, which sees Van Aubel’s solar artistry for the first time entering the realm of actual art, is a compelling bid to raise awareness of how the automotive industry, and Lexus in particular, is innovating its way towards carbon neutrality faster than ever before. We took the opportunity to sit down with van Aubel and learn more about the project, how she fell in love with solar energy, and why its future shouldn’t be dominated by men in blue suits.

*Source – World Energy Outlook 2023, IEA, Paris  Lexus installation, photos by Steve Benisty

Tell us a bit about your background and how you arrived at this career. I read in another interview that you had artists in the family.
Both of my grandfathers were artists, but actually I come from more of a science background. My dad and sister both studied chemistry. I never intended to go to art school, but I was good at drawing and I liked it. And then I started a course in design at the Rietveld Academy, and it clicked immediately. I realized you could tell stories through objects, and I got super enthusiastic about it. The Reitveld is the most conceptual school you could imagine; you get a word and you have to work with that word the whole year. Art was too vague, but design really clicked. It was more about research, process, and the experimental side of designing, with a lot of material research and design thinking. Later I attended the RCA’s master’s program. I was in Platform 13 — the technology platform — which was about the future, and the first assignment was to engineer an experience. So I engineered the feeling of flying. It was really different from the Rietveld, but it was nice. The overall idea of the platform was, imagine a future. How can technology enable it? I did that for one year, and then I did a platform about storytelling. And that was a nice mix for me, to think about the future but then tell the story through objects.

When and how did the focus on solar energy enter your work?
My RCA graduation project was my first solar project: The Energy Collection. It was a collection of tableware that all contained dye-sensitized solar cells, which are colored solar cells made from glass. At that moment I thought, wow, if you can integrate this technology into glassware, it can be applied to everything. All these pieces collect a tiny bit of energy, and when you put them into the cabinet, the cabinet stored the energy and became a big battery, so you could power a light or a phone with it. I discovered the technology for dye-sensitized solar cells when I was writing my thesis about the future of color, which explored what functions color can have that are more than the color itself (like generating electricity).

How does the color change the function of the solar cells?
The solar cells convert light into electricity, and different colors have different efficiencies; red is more efficient than yellow, for example, because it has a different place in the wavelength spectrum. Black is always the most efficient. Black absorbs all colors. A very dark solar cell is always more efficient than a clear transparent yellow one, because it lets less light pass through.

But even though transparent, colored solar cells are less efficient than black ones, they’re still more relevant to your thesis as a designer, which is why you use them I presume?
The reason why I wrote the book Solar Futures is that if you look at the history of solar cells, it’s always been about efficiency and the payback time, or the length of time it takes before the cells you buy can pay for themselves in energy savings. Which made sense because solar cells used to be super expensive, whereas in the last 60 years, they became 1,000 times cheaper. We’re at a state now where we can let go of that. But still we talk about the efficiency and the payback time. If we buy a car, for example, we don’t think about payback time. But we’re all trained to talk about this when we talk about solar. If we let it go, there are all these options and possibilities. You can start to think about all the places you can put solar cells that you couldn’t have otherwise. For example a transparent solar cell may be less efficient, but you can put it in your window, as opposed to the traditional blackout panels only used on roofs or in solar farms. Now the panels are cheaper, they’re made in different colors, there are companies that print on solar cells, there are flexible ones. It’s a super interesting time for solar now.

Solar power is still essentially an industrial product though — can you explain your thesis on how aesthetics factor into the equation, and why they should matter?
I go to solar fairs, and it’s a lot of men in blue suits dominating the way we talk about and deal with solar. It’s not very inclusive. It’s coming from technology and economics. But when architects build a house, solar is the first thing they take off, because people think it’s ugly. If you have a super nice-designed house, you don’t want ugly panels on your roof. And then they’re putting huge fields of solar panels into nature, which can be good, but is this really the way we have to do this? These massive solar fields? They’re efficient, but they have a down side. You need to have a counter-reaction, which is thinking more about options, color, and design. Beauty attracts — you want to be part of something, and you talk more about it, rather than if the solar panel is a shame piece.

Solar Pavilion at Dutch Design Week

What’s your relationship with the industry? Do they see the value you can bring?
In the beginning I was this girl who wanted to do something with solar, but okay, she’s not going to change things. But now the industry sees that they also need to change, because the demand is changing, so they’re actually coming to me for advice. A lot more architects, researchers, and companies are approaching me as well. For example the pavilion at Dutch Design Week that I worked on last year, it was with a company called Chameleon Solar that prints on solar cells. They can make them whatever pattern or color you want. They knew my work and wanted to do something together, so we built this pavilion. These collaborations are also helpful for me — at first I was on top of all the new developments in solar, and now there are things happening that I wasn’t aware of. For example a researcher emailed me and told me you can have silver solar cells now. I always thought that wasn’t possible. It’s a dream.

And I guess one of those companies was Lexus! Can you explain how your collaboration with them came about?
I interviewed Paola Antonelli for my book, and she’s a judge for the Lexus design awards. She recommended me as a mentor last year. Lexus saw my work through that and invited me to do the sculpture for Miami. They were looking for a colorful installation that rethinks the future, to celebrate the LF-ZC concept car that’s completely electric. It’s so cool — the interior materials used are copper and bamboo, and it lights up so that when you’re driving, you have this double experience of being on the road but also the car’s interior changes with the environment. It’s super futuristic. The battery is super thin, so the car is very low to the ground; you have a lot of space inside the car because the battery doesn’t take up too much space.

How did that inspire the concept for your installation at the ICA in Miami?
I was thinking about the surfaces of the car and also the experience of being inside the car, with the light changing constantly. The installation is constructed from thin sheets that are embedded with organic photovoltaics and hanging next to each other, creating a 2-d representation of a 3-D car, similar to work I did called Ra. The battery that’s on the ground underneath the sheets is a focus, too, where instead of hiding it, it becomes a feature. It lights up the whole sculpture, and is also constantly changing color. The work is interactive, so when you come close to it, the car notices your presence, and the colors and soundscape — relaxing music with bamboo and birds singing — change. Sometimes it will go into action mode and “drive” through the space, giving you the impression that it’s moving. The colors shift on their own, too; during the day the installation looks more orangey-pink and in the evening it’s more blue-purple. Lexus installation, photos by Steve Benisty

What do you want visitors to take away from the project?
For me it’s nice that it’s a sculpture. It’s not super obvious that this is a solar panel installation. Even though it’s got this technology angle, it becomes an artwork, and because of it you can start to imagine this new future made with solar. During Miami Art & Design Week everyone’s so busy, so you have to attract people immediately or you lose their attention. For me it was a new way of thinking. The light, the sound — it helps with capturing people’s attention.

Did you learn anything through the collaboration about what the future of solar cars could be or how feasible it is?
I’m not sure if solar cars are in the pipeline of Lexus or not. But electric cars are step one, and I think the next step is solar. I’ve been thinking about a solar car for a long time. If you have a solar car, it means freedom. You can ride wherever the sun is. You’re not bound by a charging network. For example in Africa, the infrastructure is so different but there’s sun all the time. It’s liberating. There’s a Dutch company called Lightyear that’s already working on affordable solar cars. It’s difficult to make a solar roof, but it’s definitely going to happen. Lightyear already produced the first car that can drive on solar panels, and now they’re pivoting to creating solar roofs for other car companies.

That’s interesting because outside the car industry, it sometimes feels to a layperson like wind energy is beating solar at the moment.
Well you always need wind next to solar. Sometimes when there’s no sun there’s definitely wind. But if you look at the installation cost of wind, it requires this huge scale, whereas with solar scale doesn’t matter. Whether you have a single panel or a whole field, it’s not more efficient. So it’s a more democratic way of harvesting energy because you can do it yourself, which I like about it. So I think the future is definitely solar. And there’s a lot of solar innovation in the Netherlands, so I’m really in the middle of it. I learn so much from the different industries here.

Are there other solar projects by designers at the moment that you admire?
There’s a project in Paris by Jean Nouvel in collaboration with Solar Visuals, two towers with a golden facades that actively generate power. I also like Sabine Marcelis’s new work which has the same name as my project Ra (named after the sun god); she created a rectilinear glass sculpture that contains solar cells, and that can be used to harness energy at Egypt’s Pyramids of Giza. Both projects look fantastic and don’t shout that they’re using solar power.

Biotope at Dubai Design Week

How exactly have you been collaborating with architects? It seems like architects could work directly with the companies making the solar cells if they wanted to — what do you bring to the equation?
I really like to collaborate with architects to explore the possibilities of how to harvest energy in a nicer way. We’re doing a proposal for a car park now, for example, because in France, if you build a car park, you have to have solar panels on top. So it’s a nice design challenge, because how are you going to make a car park that’s not ugly, but still functions? Because I’ve been working with this theme for 10 years now, I have different knowledge than architects have. For a research project for the Ministry of Finance building in the Netherlands, for example, the brief was to look at all the many surfaces of the building and see how to optimize them. By 2030 all government buildings in the Netherlands need to be carbon-neutral and produce energy rather than take it. The Ministry of Finance was built by a Brutalist architect in the 1960s and was redone in 2000, to make it more sustainable, so this was another layer of that effort, to look at the solar part. I also designed the roof of the Biotope building at the World Expo in Dubai, which was created by V8 architects. They invited a lot of designers and companies with their own innovations to contribute to the project.

Aside from architecture, though, it would be nice to do other large-scale outdoor projects. For example I want to think about how the ecosystem can benefit from solar, rather than what’s happening now where they’re building these big solar farms and the surrounding ecosystem isn’t surviving very well. It’s nice to focus on solar energy because you can work very big and small at the same time. It’s like a ceramicist — you have a material you can use to make bricks and build Rome, or to make tiny cups. All in the same material.

RaRaSunne lamp – purchase here

On the smaller side, are you still developing the furniture side of your practice? Do you think there’s a future for solar furniture, or was your earlier work more of a thought exercise or concept?
I think if you do the calculation of the table, for example, okay, it makes more sense to have it outdoors. Because you have all this sun and no electricity there. So it was moreso highlighting the technology to say hey, you can have solar panels inside your house, in the shade, and it works. It was changing the perspective of, solar should be on the roof, it should be directed a certain way, it should be blue, etc. You need projects like this to show people that you can do things differently. And if you look at energy generated by the Energy Collection it was so little — you could charge your phone, which was nice, but it was so little. But with my solar-powered Sunne lamp, you can hang it in the window and it actually makes sense to have the light there. In the early day you get all the light from the window, and in the evening you get no light, so it’s nice to store that and have natural light coming from the same place. To extend the sunshine. I also get requests from people who live off-grid and really need a Sunne. Ra, my latest work, works similarly to Sunne: You hang in front of the window, and it illuminates at night. But it’s more subtle.

Sunne might be some people’s first personal experience with solar power. What did you envision that experience might feel like?
We all know the sunset and sunrise, and still each time it’s different. Each day, every location, it’s different. And it’s never forever. It’s changing all the time. It’s something you cannot grasp. Or you have a picture on the wall of a sunset, but it’s not the same. You have the feeling of something where you want to keep before it’s gone, and Sunne lets you do that, lets you keep it a bit longer, in your house. When the sun goes down, Sunne goes on. It’s like you saved a bit of your sunlight, so you have a bit extra in your house. It’s a treat.

I like an idea I’ve heard you talk about, that these products are helping people understand where their energy comes from, and what it takes to create it. Why do you think it’s so important for people to have a more human relationship with energy?
I think that’s the case with everything humans consume. For example we have oranges in our garden, and it takes a whole year to grow an orange with sunlight. And it takes quite a bit of effort to go up in a tree and pick them. When we aren’t doing it ourselves, we take that for granted. It’s the same with energy. One hundred years ago we had to go into the woods, cut down a tree, drag a log to the house, and make a fire, and then you looked at how long the fire would last and knew how much of your own energy you had to put in to make the house warm. Now you just switch on a button and your radiator works. Maybe your bill goes up because it was a tough winter, but that’s it — you have no idea where the energy was produced, and what we had to do to build the infrastructure. So it’s nice to see that you need have this solar panel for X amount of hours in the sun, and then you have light in the evening. And if you put it in the shade, you don’t have any light. You have to take care of it. They become like living objects. We’re so spoiled. We don’t realize how much effort and engineering, and how many resources, go into the development of our products, and we all take it too much for granted. We don’t need constantly more things — it would be great if we could appreciate what we have and make better use of it. Using sunlight as a free and unlimited energy source is a great start. ◆Portrait by Steve Benisty