Entering the lighting industry wasn’t on the list of possible career choices for Ron Henderson, the founder of Varaluz who had a life-long interest in making things — until he met one of the industry’s legends while both were passing time waiting for their respective flights in Los Angeles. That conversation led the Southern-raised Henderson to move to Las Vegas to embark on a career path that has more than fulfilled his desire for building things using creativity and innovation.
How did you enter the lighting industry?
After a chance encounter with lighting veteran Harry Kallick at LAX, my first job in the industry was at his firm, Kalco, in the 1990s. Growing up, I pretty much always wanted to be either an architect or a car or airplane designer. I have been sketching or doodling buildings, airplanes, and cars as far back as I can recall.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen?
Wow, so much has changed. For me the biggest – and one of the saddest – changes has been the commoditization of lighting. Hand-crafting and originality, which used to be the norm, are now considered largely a premium. Some of that can be blamed on pushing manufacturing around the world in pursuit of lower costs. In starting Varaluz 8 years ago, I was frustrated to learn that about the only way we could get a business license and the permits to manufacture where welding and painting is involved (even in Nevada, which is famously a business-friendly state) was to buy existing businesses that already had those permits and licenses. It is not impossible to do…just hugely impractical anymore.
The technology involved in lighting is changing at a faster pace than ever before (like in many industries). It took millennia to go from oil-burning fixtures to evolve to electric/incandescent ones, but only a couple hundred years to finesse incandescents and get to LEDs. And LED technology is still evolving rapidly! Design-wise, LEDs are exciting and daunting. Daunting only because we don’t have enough stability in the components yet, but it is crazy-exciting to be able to design from a clean sheet of paper. For the first time since oil-burning chandeliers, a light doesn’t have to conform to a chandelier or other expected shape or construction. Light sources can literally come from anywhere! The challenge is to keep it artistic and not just a sterile, but perfectly functional experience on your wall or ceiling.
What has been the key to your success?
Either passion or stupidity I’d reckon. When things don’t go so well (like that whole economic “thing” from 2008-2011), the easiest way I know to avoid defeat is to just stick your head in the proverbial sand and ignore it. Completely.
I hope that most people see [my] passion or enthusiasm, though. It has been – and continues to be – a real blast for me to do all this. The business demands are not always as much fun, but bringing a slightly twisted idea to fruition by producing it is amazing. I’ve been in jobs and industries before where there are no tangible results — that’s a nightmarish scenario for me. It is truly awesome to know something you have been involved with is bringing light and hopefully amusement and minor adoration in people’s daily lives.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started out?
Cash is king. I really didn’t understand how important managing cash flow is to the success of a business back then and it is still an evolving art form for me. Business schools emphasize that “inventory is evil” and you need to track profitability and lots of metrics for the health of a business; but really, in the end, it is all about the cash.
Artistically, I’ve learned to be myself, but only 90% of myself. In many people’s eyes, it’s a fine line between originality and crazy. In pursuing the more unusual ideas that pop up, I’ve learned it is okay to pull those ideas back a little bit. Small jumps in design directions are better than giant leaps.
Where do you see Varaluz in 5 or 10 years?
I hope we will still be presenting a challenge to “boring.” I have lots (and I do mean lots) of ideas in what to do and where to go with design and categories. My guess is 5 years from now will be an exciting time for art and light. I do know we will continued to play with what is expected, and depending on world events, we may even be manufacturing here again in 10 years.