Cerno: Boutique Design in the Age of LED
When Cerno entered the lighting industry 3-1/2 years ago, the three founders were, they admit, naïve. But co-founders Nick Sheridan, Daniel Wacholder and Bret Englander see their naiveté as a positive influence on their designs and overall vision for their company. Best friends since childhood, their personal chemistry and depth of understanding facilitates the completely hands-on process of designing and manufacturing Cerno’s inventive, modern LED light fixtures and bringing them to a competitive marketplace. Their unorthodox forms are the creations of an imaginative design team and a product of Cerno’s nimble business model.
After graduating high school the three best friends remained close, but went their different ways. Sheridan studied architecture and after school worked with a cousin who had been practicing architecture for a few years. Wacholder studied mechanical engineering and later ran a manufacturing firm. Englander studied journalism and media, and after school worked in finance and marketing.
Englander recalls the exact day the decision was made to start Cerno; the day that would bring their professional paths together on a single trajectory. “We woke up early in search of some surf, but unfortunately the ocean was not cooperating and we ended up sitting on the beach just talking, one cove over from where our friendship began 20 years earlier,” said Englander. “After a few hours of brainstorming, the decision was made. We were going to start a design and manufacturing company.”
Nine months – and a lot of late nights and long weekends – later, they had all quit their jobs, rented their first industrial space and Cerno had completed its first projects. Today, they still work 6 days a week. “Our friends and family think we are crazy to work as much as we do, but we love it and love the product and brand that we are building,” said Englander.
Close friendship of design & production
Being a boutique design and manufacturing firm brings with it a set of challenges, but also a lot of advantages. Cerno is vertically integrated: all the design, production and shipping happens in one building in their hometown of Laguna Beach, California. This consolidation allows them to be in complete control of the entire process.
Everything unfolds under one roof, which facilitates the ability to prototype quickly and achieve many other efficiencies. In addition to expediting production processes, it allows the founders to be hands-on every day. Wacholder is continually resolving and perfecting the product and the way it is manufactured, while Sheridan is simultaneously applying what he learns to the next generation of Cerno products. Being immersed in both processes creates an intimacy that does not exist when the development process is divided or outsourced.
At Cerno it is a team effort to realize each product. Often to begin, Englander will identify a particular market segment and price point as well as share any feedback from Cerno customers. Wacholder is constantly studying the LED market from a manufacturing and LED technology point of view and makes sure Sheridan is privy to the latest suite of LED packages, heat sinks and drivers. With the knowledge of desired function and possible components, Sheridan conceives the fixture by hand sketching or drawing on the computer, often building rough proof of concept prototypes.
Next, Wacholder and Sheridan scrutinize the materials, scale, manufacturing possibilities, connections and joints – all of which influence one another. At this stage in the process the design will go through several iterations, until the team agrees that the product is fully resolved.
A solid model is then created and engineered in great detail including the manufacturing process. After the team reviews the pre-production prototype and concludes that it is ready, it is put into production.
Playing with the big boys
Cerno possesses a few key characteristics that enable it to compete with more robust companies that have larger research and development budgets, not to mention a bigger bag of tools. According to Wacholder, Cerno runs lean and is creative not only with their forms but how they produce the product. “Looking beyond the obvious way of doing something often allows us to find a fresh approach that is much less costly, and more often than not results in a more unique product,” said Wacholder. “Also, having an intimate knowledge of our available production processes lets us make creative cost-saving decisions early in the design process.”
Concrete, wood, metal and plastic make up the majority of materials that compose Cerno’s sculptural and functional forms. Although no design team can live in a vacuum and be completely isolated from outside influences, Cerno customers find the novelty, originality and unique composition of materials to be the primary attraction to the product, according to Englander. “There is nothing more validating than experiencing our creations through a customer’s visceral response when initially interacting with the product,” he said. “We strive to design timeless pieces of functional art that enhance a customer’s design experience.”
LEDs started to positively disrupt the lighting industry several years ago and acted as a catalyst that sparked the co-founders’ imaginations. Cerno has never designed a non LED fixture to be part of their product line.
Designing with LEDs facilitates creating lighting forms that were not possible when designing for the archaic incandescent. Cerno’s fixtures embrace this new technology, which is illustrated by their thin, minimalist lines and small profiles. Often there are applications when a light should be directional rather than emitting 360 degrees of light, and this is easily achieved with LEDs that are inherently a directional source. There are also occasions when 360 degrees of ambient light is desired; Cerno addresses this through optical engineering as well as using multiple light sources in one fixture.
Cerno is at the forefront of the American-made modern LED lighting design and manufacturing. Its mission is to “fuse quality, performance and resource efficiency with modern design.”
The three founders of Cerno are (from left to right, above) Director of Design Nick Sheridan, and Director of Sales and Marketing Bret Englander and Director of Engineering Daniel Wacholder.