The first thing I noticed about Max Gunawan when we first met at café kapok was that he was wearing slippers. "Man, I should have just worn mine instead of these!" I gestured to my pair of wedges. The designer flashed a dimply, mega-watt smile and agreed. "Yeah, keep it casual!"

Max Gunawan

Casual indeed. There was an ease about him, a quiet confidence emanating from this Jakarta-born entrepreneur. He's now based in San Francisco, which seems to be the go-to place for those who want to start something that will change the course of their respective industries: Think Twitter, Reddit, airbnb and Fitbit. Of course, we are talking about a guy who raised more than US$500,000 from 5,276 backers in a crowdfunding campaign for his modern lighting systems. When I ask him if Lumio, the lamp disguised as a book is considered a Kickstarter success story, he grins. "It's all relative," he replies.

Lumio disappears into the shelf

A winner of the Red Dot Design Award 2015, Lumio is Gunawan's debut product from his growing design studio. An architect for ten years working on retail and commercial products, he launched Lumio on Kickstarter in February 2013. Promising a product that's adaptable, portable and versatile, he defined Lumio to be a "modern lamp with infinite possibilities". Soon, he found himself being featured on Wall Street Journal, SF Chronicle and as a speaker at a TEDx conference. In town recently for Lumio's installation at the Singapore Night Festival, Gunawan shares more.

Lumio things

I had a very modest childhood... I was a latchkey kid so my parents left me at home to my own devices. I didn't have many toys, so I had to be resourceful. I would skin a pomelo into a toy car which I'll just drag along, and recycle packaging as toys. Those were the things I survived on as a kid, along with my imagination. 

Like any other Asian kid who went to the U.S., I wanted to study... economics and be an investment banker, back when investment banking was the s***. It has shifted of course.

During my first year in university... I started taking studio arts classes. In my second year, I took a class with this very charismatic architecture instructor, and I learned about Tadao Ando, the Japanese architect. I was so drawn to his work. In my third year, I did an exchange programme in Columbia and spent one semester in Paris. That sealed the deal. When I got back I was like, "Alright I want to do architecture, I don't care."

When I told my parents I was majoring in architecture and studio arts... they were like, "You better be successful."

Part of the reason which pushed me to branch out and do something different was... it (being an architect) got to a point where it became too repetitive and wasn't creative at all. 

It's not like one day, I woke up and wanted to do this... 2012 was a year where I wasn't really inspired. So progressively I started making models and coming up with ideas. I wanted to do products that related to space design. Lighting is very essential — but all beautiful lighting is fixed and constrained to a power source, and I wanted to do something different. That's how it morphed into Lumio.  

I was like a small, strapping entrepreneur, who didn't have the connections... I moved to China to source for material. If you have tons of money you can go there and ask them to do it for you. But I was on the ground trying to convince factory owners that it's a good product. 

My advice for budding designers is... to think bigger than Kickstarter.

Lumio is available at kapok at NDC, 111 Middle Road.