One of the highlights of December 2023 Miami Art and Design Week – where Design Miami and Art Basel Miami took place - was the unveiling of the Lexus-commissioned “8 minutes and 20 seconds”, an installation by award-winning Dutch solar designer Marjan van Aubel. With a naming regiment speaking to the time it takes for light to travel from the sun to the Earth, the installation was inspired by the zero-emission LF-ZC Lexus battery electric vehicle (BEV) concept car.
The result, in the simplest terms, was a glass-panelled structure harnessing the sun during the day and using this energy to power a quietly spectacular audiovisual transformation at night, becoming what the brand describes as “a sculptural interpretation of Lexus’s groundbreaking new model of electrification, intricately constructed around Van Aubel’s unique use of organic photovoltaic cells commonly employed in solar power applications”.
Hosted at the Institute of Contemporary Art Miami (ICA Miami), the collaborative installation also showcased the motion-activated soundscapes of producer, sound engineer, and Lexus creative lead: global brand development, integrated marketing & communications Sabina Charfauros. We spoke to Van Aubel, a graduate of the Royal College of Art, on the sidelines of a special panel on “Tapping Into the Power of Light” at the ICA Miami.
Q: How do you describe the idea of a solar designer to someone who has never come across that concept?
Van Aubel: When I say I am a solar designer [people ask], “So, you wire up solar panels or something?” And then I explain, “What if you have this painting, a painting that can harvest energy, in whatever form you like?” I mostly have to show my work, then people have to see the colours of stained-glass windows, for example, and then they get it.
Q: You developed an interest in solar power quite early — what prompted that?
I saw how you could use the properties of colours to generate currents. I was like, “Colour has a real function?” So, I started diving into that. [I realised] you can have a glass object that is powering itself while being beautiful.
Q: Over the past decade, what have been your realisations about solar power?
My graduation was 10 years ago, and the shift now is to more aesthetic solar panels, integrated solar panels, invisible solar cells. There are many more possibilities — that’s the biggest shift I have seen. It’s not just technology with a function, [through aesthetic design] people can also see we are human beings, we have emotions.
Q: When you were approached to do the installation, what was your starting point?
A solar-powered car means freedom, because you can drive wherever the sun is. That is a future I really want to see, [where] you don’t need a system of charging stations. Working towards this [future] with Lexus was great because they’re so much about craftsmanship; the car is an experience, it’s all about design, the details. And my work is also like that.
Q: Any challenges in the process?
I have worked with big companies before and a lot of people think you’ll [always] disagree about some things, but it wasn’t too bad. The timeline was tight, there was a bit of time pressure. I was approached in June  and was like, alright (laughs).
Q: Light and sound play an important part in the installation. I understand the light component, talk to me about the sound part.
I often work with sound art in my work; it is definitely a layer of engagement. That’s also what Lexus wanted, and they had someone amazing. We started with a brief and said we’d like this bamboo effect, like being in nature, and they [went with] that.
Q: How far are companies such as Lightyear, which develops solar EVs, in producing viable solar cars? Africa has an abundance of sun, and while South Africa has a decent-enough charging infrastructure for electric cars, solar-powered travel would be a game changer.
The first affordable solar car was released a couple of years ago. I think they are pivoting towards making solar roofs for cars, for companies such as Toyota, bringing their technology to them, as they see it makes more sense there. It can happen, it is happening.
Q: Do you think we could have a future where anything and everything is self-powering? Yes, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing. I really think the future is solar. Instead of looking at the grid for power, it is free and available for everyone.
Siphiwe Mpye was hosted in Miami by Lexus. Interview edited for space and clarity.