Yair Neuman is a London-based designer and entrepreneur, exploring sustainable design opportunities, while minimizing the environmental impact of everything he produces and conceives. His most recent collection was developed in collaboration with eyewear brand Cubitts. As with most eyewear stores, Cubitts’ frames are displayed with dummy ‘plano’ lenses that are replaced with prescription lenses once purchased by the customer. The average high-street eyeglasses store discards 200 such lenses every week. Neuman is turning these lenses, otherwise destined for landfill, into polycarbonate sheet materials, from which he has created a striking lighting collection called Lens Light, recently launched during the London Design Festival.
Tell me a little bit about your childhood, education and background in terms of how you first became interested in creativity, design and sustainability.
My jeweler mother, with her artistic view, and my surgeon father, with his practical precision, provided me with a good balance of creativity versus execution to start with. Then studying design in Eindhoven and in London has helped me build my practice around sustainability, which is common to the majority of designers in my age group. I just don’t think there is any other way.
How would you describe your Lens Light collection?
The collection is a representation of many labor hours and represents just the first page of a story about waste in the eyewear industry. It also shows that there are great brands like Cubitts, with whom I collaborated for this collection, that are working towards a real change.
What inspired this project?
The first time I worked on eyewear pieces was at Ron Arad’s brand pq in 2010. Being involved in the industry on and off since then I witnessed wastage that is hidden from the costumer’s eye. This project started when I realised there was an opportunity to use that waste as free, high-quality material that I could repurpose into something else.
What waste materials is the collection made from, how did you select those particular materials and how do you source them?
The most polluting part of eyewear making is the lens waste. This is what I work with and use to create my pieces from. All the clear display lenses installed in eyewear frames in shops are replaced with consumers’ prescription lenses when the frames are sold. Despite being made out of optical grade polycarbonate, these clear display lenses are essentially disposable and go straight to landfill. The nice thing I have discovered is that if an optician or store is willing to collaborate and keep these lenses for me, all I need to do is to collect them and transform them into something else. It is a simple supply chain.
When did you first become interested in using waste as raw material and what motivated this decision?
The general feeling in the design circles I move in is that we’ve taken enough out of this poor little planet. We have dug, cut, pumped and extracted for generations. There is, of course, some value in processing virgin materials, but with so much that can be reclaimed, repurposed and upcycled, sometimes it just makes more sense to do that, no?
What processes does the waste material have to undergo to become the finished product?
I start by composing patterns using the lenses’ original shapes and then flatten them either individually or fused into sheets, depending on the designed piece. Then I use a combination of heat, pressure, jigs, moulds and freehand sculpting to create the final designs.
How did you feel the first time you saw the transformation from waste material to product/prototype?
This is such a good question as that very moment was probably the most inspiring moment in the work. This usually happens in projects, I find, and if the feeling is positive enough it can really help to overcome hurdles later on in the process and carry the project all the way to completion.
What happens to the product at the end of its life? Can it go back into the circular economy again?
Making objects that are mostly static, such lamps works well with the delicacy of the material and supports longevity. At the very end of the product’s life, there will still be the problem of not being able to recycle large plastic objects easily. However, I’m hoping to collaborate with other makers who specialise in processing rougher plastic parts into raw material that could be repurposed the lamps. Some of them already operate in the UK.
How have people reacted to this project?
It’s very reassuring that many people from within the industry are reaching out to me as a result of seeing the work. It shows that the time is right for a change and the professional world is ready for it.
How do you feel opinions towards waste as a raw material are changing?
I notice it’s a topic of conversation and sometimes people are proud to have something made out of waste material. My hope is that over time it will just become common sense rather than being something special.
What do you think the future holds for waste as a raw material?
Production facilities are becoming increasingly automated, which is allowing for detailed control over each step of the process. I can already start to see how this will enable producers to separate, control and reintroduce waste back into the system, overcoming logistical challenges that we’ve been struggling with so far.