How Engineering Art and Creativity Can Light Up New Business
Alfonso Oliva, director of LERA+, describes himself as half artist/half engineer. He decided to merge both halves when he started LERA+, a spinoff of structural-engineering firm LERA. LERA+ offers engineering services—including design optimization, software development, structural design, simulation, and 3D modeling—to help artists bring their visions to life and build efficiencies along the way. Watch how the firm collaborated with media artist James Clar to create software for his light-based sculpture, Gravitational Collapse.
Alfonso Oliva, Director, LERA+: The reality is that we actually saw an opportunity. We saw a gap in the industry that was not being filled, and we had all the cards to do that.
The easiest way to get in, of course, was structural design because LERA, at the core, is a structural-design company, so we started with that. But last year, we officially opened the software-development company under LERA+, and I think that’s actually giving us an edge over our competitors. My father is an engineer and math teacher; my mother is a math teacher; my sister is an engineer, so I’ve always been surrounded by numbers growing up. Today, I feel like I am half artist and half engineer. The clients that we work with at LERA+ are very diverse, and there is a reason behind it.
Nidhi Sekhar, Computational Designer, LERA+: We work with the designers, and especially artists, to help them realize their visions. We work on optimizing different parts of the design itself to help them achieve it. I had a connection with LERA+ as soon as I came in, and the fact that we work on this large range of projects—which ranges from furniture and sculptures to skyscrapers—it’s very interesting how we work. James is what we are in our field—he’s an intersection of technology and design, and that’s what he does. And he’s so passionate about it.
James Clar, Media Artist: I remember I was sitting in a theater, and I was watching the movie, but then I started thinking about the system—what I was watching. And it occurred to me that, you know, what I’m seeing on the screen—it doesn’t exist. It’s just light bouncing off the screen, and then it goes into your eyes, and you start to interpret characters and a timeline. And you start to have an emotional reaction.
Oliva: James is a really interesting artist. I think he has a pretty unique vision. He has a unique way to communicate complex thoughts—a very clean way. This reflects definitely in his art.
Clar: My art now is more about conceptual narratives. I’m interested in technology and how technology has kind of skewed our view of reality. Gravitational Collapse is a light sculpture created using LERA+’s plug-in that we developed that allowed me to create a more abstracted form than I had done before. The plug-in has allowed me to explore more expressive or abstracted structures. Before, the geometry was a lot more rigid and more, like, parallel or set angles. But now I can do kind of off-angles. So, before, it’d be 45-degree angles or 15-degree angles, but now I can just kind of pretty much do any sort of angle. So it’s opened up a lot more possibilities.
Oliva: There were different challenges in James’s project. One of them was the fact that we needed to fit an LED and a wire for each single LED within a shape that was basically this big [gestures], so you can understand how tight that space can be. James wanted to actually use different kinds of LEDs, so one of the plug-ins [had] to adapt to different sizes for different LEDs that he was using.
Sekhar: What we’ve done in this plug-in is that we’ve minimized the amount of material that we use at each connection, so I’m making sure that each connection is very minimal so that when you 3D print, it costs as little as possible.
Clar: The connection points are very important to the structural pieces that I’m doing, because they hold the lights in place. So they create the structural form, but they also pass the electricity from one light to the next. It’s aesthetic, but it’s also part of the sculpture itself. I think without LERA+ I wouldn’t have tried to tackle that piece itself because then I think it just would have been kind of a black hole.
Sekhar: It’s great to see how our work lets people focus on the big picture instead of focusing on the details in dealing with them. The biggest reward is actually seeing what you do come to life and also how it affects other people.
Oliva: There is a lot in the future of LERA+. I believe that, as a group, we’ve grown. The group was started four years ago; now, we are five people to date in the group. And we’ve tackled so many different markets, and we’ve been successful in different markets. We don’t want to stop, because we are interested in expanding and finding more creative people out there.
Clar: My relationship with LERA+ has definitely enabled me to create new forms, develop new concepts, but also bring about a practical end to the application or to those concepts to create the idea and then make it a reality.