We sit down with Astro Lighting’s Cofounder and Design Director, James Bassant, to talk about the design philosophy fuelling the international success of the brand, the importance of being accessible – and why Astro never aspired to be achingly cool.
October 13th, 2021
Speaking with the Design Director of Astro it immediately becomes clear that James Bassant loves what he does. But while his passion for design became clear earlier on, his affinity for luminaires took a little longer to float to the surface. “I can’t really claim that whilst I was at university, I thought, ‘Right, lighting is what I want to do,’” admits James, who has a Product & Furniture Design degree from Kingston University. His affinity for light came with time – and flourished with experience. His first job out of university happened to be in a small, creative lighting company.
From then, James found himself working for another lighting brand, learning more about this specific area of design and building his craft. “I stuck with it ever since,” he says with a smile. “And I’m incredibly pleased that I did, because even now, I get huge enjoyment out of designing lights. It’s something I understand and enjoy.”
The same passion for quality British lighting design James has almost 25 years after Astro’s inception was the very reason he and John Fearon founded the brand in the first place. “When John and I got together, we knew we had an opportunity to do things that we liked,” James explains. A leap of faith that started with one customer and six products, today is a globally recognised lighting brand. With international distribution partners around the world, like Enlightened Living here in Australia, the appeal of Astro designs is undeniable. What is the design concept behind its incredibly captivating offering?
James refers to it as an accessible contemporary design and explains that since the very beginning, Astro has relied on an important filter, which he jokingly calls “Would I buy it?” lens. “It’s a simplistic view, but it works,” smiles James. “We’re not this achingly cool brand – we make contemporary design accessible to a greater number of people. I never design to end up in a museum somewhere, I get far more enjoyment out of knowing that thousands of people have bought an Amalfi wall lamp,” James mentions one of Astro’s designs, which exquisitely expresses the brand’s signature design philosophy.
“John and I really like this pared-down, contemporary look that distills out the simplest elements of a product. It’s not completely minimalist because there has to be an emotional resonance to it as well,” James explains the intent at the heart of Astro’s design practice results in an inherently timeless quality. “We’re not interested in shifting boxes. We want to design things we love, and put them out into the world,” he says.
The incredible fondness and consideration every object at Astro is treated with is expressed on a variety of levels. Attention to detail is one of them, and at Astro it goes hand in hand with the right tooling – something the brand invests a lot in. “You can achieve the same overall effect through different manufacturing techniques,” says James. “Let’s take steel pressing as an example. The pressed steel part would have a radius on it. That’s why we usually invest in quality die casting tooling, which allows us to create these very crisp, sharp lines.” James brings up Tacoma, a light released in 2020. Tacoma’s simple base and arm were all cast in one piece which gives it a seamless look. “You could create a base and an arm as two separate pieces, but there will be a join,” says James. “At Astro, real thought goes into these kinds of details.”
The commitment to refinement informs not only the choice of tooling. It underpins manufacturing methods and material selection too – like the fascinating process of gravity-fed glass extrusion which has generated the immaculate shape of the io Pendant, from Astro’s Capsule Collection. “You have this vat of molten glass at about seven metres up in a factory,” James recounts passionately. “And after they open a hole, the glass just pours out like liquid honey over a mould. By the time it’s reached the floor level, it cools and solidifies, and somebody just gives a little tap to break it off. So you’ve got these fantastically beautiful pieces of glass achieved through an incredibly simple process.” James explains that with the io Pendant, the idea was to strip it off any unnecessary components and keep it as minimal as possible to let the glass shine.
The other two luminaries from the Capsule Collection – designed by James Bassant and Astro’s Senior Designer, Riley Sanders – reflect the very same pursuit of excellence through purity and simplicity. James says that design, to him, is about trying to arrive at a point of clarity, when the light is as perfect as he can make it – and both Halftone and Orb emulate this credo flawlessly.
Embracing the humble, yet striking form of a circle and exploring the materiality and potential of acrylic plastic, Halftone features a tactile, etched pattern. Starting at the edge of the shape, and circling back towards the middle, the subtle pattern increases with intensity, generating an energising ring of light. Conceived in a bid to separate the light and reflection from the mirror, Orb comprises an illuminated spherical ball with an adjustable magnifying mirror that is designed to look like it orbits around the luminaire at the centre. James pushes the design towards the idea of a solar system, which informs the arrangement of the base, light and the mirror in relation to each other. The immaculate aesthetic of the lamp is profoundly linked to the striking and seamless yet unostentatious lines of the design.
This allegiance to simplicity of form seems intrinsically tied to James’ appreciation of the role of light in people’s lives – and the function of the lighting fixture as a wrapper for it. “People buy the physical object, because they need light. You’re screwing something to a wall, you’re putting something on your table only because you need what it produces,” he says. “We’re wrapping it up in well-designed housing that elevates its function.” James explains that the physical envelope and the production of light into space has to work within the desired scheme.
Sometimes, the product has to be subtle and discreet. “It’s more about light than the light itself; it’s not about the object so much as what comes out of it,” he says and points to Astro’s plaster range and lighting fixtures like Parma, an incredibly sleek plaster wall light. “Beautiful objects in their own right, they’re about geometry and proportion. They’re very architectural and are designed to almost blend into the background and become a part of the structure,” he adds. Other times, luminaires function as pieces of furniture. “They’re producing light, but they’re part of the overall aesthetic and emotional response to a space,” James says. He adds that the ultimate goal is to supply the designers with instruments that allow them to generate a variety of desired visual outcomes. “We try to create the tools that allow those designers to create the scheme that they want – whether that be a discrete reading light, or a bigger, more dramatic object.”
In combining the universal magnetism of pared back simplicity with deep appreciation of the vital role of light that is expressed through considered forms and utmost functionality, Astro’s accessible contemporary design has understandably brought the brand global recognition. From bathroom lights – which were Astro’s main focus at the start of their journey and now form one of the biggest selections of bathroom lighting available – to luminaires that adorn swanky hotel rooms, commercial interiors, residential settings and assisted living spaces across the world, Astro’s versatile appeal is an undeniable testament to James Bassant’s design philosophy. And it’s proof that if you love what you do – and make what you like – others follow suit.
Astro’s collection is available with Enlightened Living, the brand’s long-standing partner in Australia. The broad selection includes some of Astro’s beloved classics, as well as some of the latest releases – like Riva, which was designed for hotel spaces that confidently blur the boundary between the room and the bathroom spaces, or the unpretentious, yet character-filled Miura range. With such an extensive selection, any designer is bound to find a product that will bring a sense of timeless allure, pared back excellence and exquisite quality to any interior.
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