The Online Magazine about New York Designers


Amelia and  Chuck

You might think the idea of designing solar powered products in the shadowed canyons of New York to be, well, misplaced. But Amelia Amon sees the city's density as environmentally positive as well as a source of connections, both professional and electrical. And if you get your Cherry Garcia cone from a solar powered ice cream cart at your next Phish concert, you'll be seeing one of her designs.

DB: What's it like to be a solar designer in this densely vertical place where sunlight is a commodity?

AA: I think that everyone thinks it's a little strange to be a solar designer in the city – here in the cutting edge of environmental degradation.

LG: Do you get a lot of flak for that?

DB: There is this mindset that if you are an environmentalist, you have to be a tree-hugger.

AA: For a lot of environmental people, what I do seems strange. But the truth is that, the world really can't survive at this point without cities. The world would be sprawled out. There would be no land left; there would be no wilderness you could go to…

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solar ice cream cart

LG: Well, how did you get into solar design?

AA: Around 1990, I'd gotten very active in the IDSA [Industrial Designers Society of America]. I started to volunteer for things and pretty soon I was chair of the New York chapter. At the time, I was curating shows. One of them was for the MAS [Municipal Art Society], called "Garbage Out Front" and the section I curated was about using recycled materials. It basically got me trying to find examples of work that didn't exist, or when they did exist, they were not esthetically interesting. I had sort of felt that my skills were more about networking and bringing people together, and looking at other people's work, and it really wasn't until this show that I started thinking about solar and thinking that I had something to say visually. And because, who else was gonna do it? (laughs).

DB: So, were you into the environmental part of it before you joined IDSA, or did they bring that to you?

AA: I guess it had probably always been part of my consciousness, but it had never been part of my work. And, y'know, I was a design advocate, but part of me thought that this whole thing of making corporations more competitive, making America strong through selling more products – through competition -- there was something that wasn't ringing true for me (laughs). And the environmental thing gave me more of a reason for what I was doing in design.

DB: And you just said, "who else was going to do it?" It's a good thought because solar power isn't often thought of as an art form; we tend to think of it as a technology.

AA: The truth is, solar has got to become more of a thing that people become more comfortable with...or think [that] it's exciting and sexy; it's got to be at the same level.

LG: It's got to be high design.

AA: You don't get the same sort of money going into the design.…it's not the [kind of] money that Sony's putting into their design.

LG: How does that approach play into your work?

AA: Right now I'm working on a controller, which is a piece of equipment, for the NY Energy Research and Development Authority [NYS ERDA].

DB: It's one of their cost sharing programs?

AA: Yes. It would be a consumer oriented "brain" or circuit board of the system, that takes the energy from the solar panel, and either puts it into the battery or directs it to the load.

DB: That sounds more like electronics design than product design.

AA: But it's very much [about] user-interface. And right now, the ones that they have on the market are very primitive. They have these items where you have to strip the wires, and screw things in, and things that consumers don't really want to do. I mean, I don't want to do those. (laughter)

DB: Is this the equivalent of designing the box that holds all of the computer stuff? Like, designing the I-Mac, but not designing the hard drive?

AA: Exactly. One of my earlier products...was a microphone for the Macintosh, and I didn't design any of the circuitry -- just a really nice case. And there's always been resistance from these solar guys, who've been doing this for 25 years, who say, "you're not doing anything new," but, from my point of view, just making something consumer-friendly…

LG: And accessible…

AA: Right. That you could plug your cell phone into it if you want…or recharge it if you want.

solar powered street lights

LG: And everything is so much about design right now, and "cool" design right now, and if somebody sees that, they might gravitate towards something solar powered because of the design first, and then, they might become interested in the fact that it's solar. It's a great way to get people educated.

DB: What was your first solar product?

AA: The first product was probably the solar powered ice cream cart, which came about through a friend who was trying to organize a "Green Chamber of Commerce" in New York. Through that connection, I heard about a woman in Washington who had wanted to do a solar powered ice cream cart, and I thought "well, that's just about the scale I could work…" So, I went down and met with her a few times, and did a few designs and made a few proposals, and, she never was able to come up with the funding, but then I was able to bring it to Ben and Jerry's, and they got involved in it.

DB: So, did they actually produce it?

AA: Yeah, there's about four of them now. Ben & Jerry's uses them at events like green conferences and outdoor concerts.

LG: How did you nab Ben & Jerry's?

AA: Well, at the same time I was designing a product for Real Goods – a solar powered battery charger – and they knew the Ben & Jerry's people.

DB: Along with the ice cream carts, one of your better known projects was for the Cooper Hewitt. Tell us how that came about.

AA: That was another IDSA connection. I'd been talking with the Cooper Hewitt for a while about an eco show out in their garden. Originally they were interested in the ice cream cart, but then I proposed a fountain.

LG: And you've worked on some other New York City based projects.

AA: Yes. For a while I was working a lot with George Bliss at the HUB. George and I developed a canopy for the ice cream cart there. Then we did a ZEV vehicle -- a zero emissions vehicle that was based on a bicycle. [It was] a four wheeled bicycle with an electric motor and regenerative breaks. We made the body for it over at the HUB. Some of the fountain pieces were made there as well. So, it was a big loss when the HUB lost their space on East 3rd Street.

More recently, I collaborated with several New Yorkers for a project at the Liberty State Park in Jersey City.....


Click to read part 2. (You're more than half way through....)


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