Pass the Salt: Sodium Crystals and LEDs Create Unusual Light Fixtures

A computer programmer turned artist and lighting designer has combined his scientific expertise with his love of the natural world to create something truly unique and beautiful. Daniel MacDonald calls his collection of light fixtures “shio,” from the Japanese word for “salt.” They are formed through a weeklong process of washing salt water over an internal structure made of fabric and plastic. The sodium crystals adhere to one another, building up and blooming into pillowy spires that eventually create a translucent spherical or tubular mass, which can contain a home LED light bulb. The LED lights shine from within the structure, highlighting the intricacy of its patterns and creating a beautiful ambient light fixture.

The effect is otherworldly, and indeed, MacDonald has embraced an extraterrestrial theme throughout shio’s design and development. He calls his two different lines of light fixtures “species” and “mutants,” describing species as “families of individuals grown from similar skeletons,” while mutants are one-of-a-kind experiments. Childhood trips to Yellowstone’s geyser fields inspired Daniel to develop his unique process for creating these lights. “The genesis of shio was a meditation on the algorithmic essence of organic growths inspired by the natural mineral formations around the geysers of Yellowstone. The simplicity of the concept, the elegance of the technique, and the splendor of the results captivated me and motivated me to develop it for fully 7 months before I finally admitted to myself that what I was doing was essentially engineering where the sole requirements came from my own whims and desires...and that this was what other people call art,” he writes in a blog on the shio website.

If you’re worried about the fragility of these lovely, crystalline illuminations, don’t be! While some small breakage is normal, MacDonald assures us “Each piece is supplied with specific handling instructions to avoid damage to the smallest features. Small pieces tend to shed with time and normal handling but it is usually impossible to tell. Generally, if you drop it, it will break. If you lift or support it from the wrong angle, the fine features will likely break. On the other hand, I recently 'dropped' a 30+ pound orbis from a height of 4 feet on to a wooden tabletop. The orbis was the only thing not visibly affected by the ensuing carnage.”

It is interesting to note that incandescent light bulbs will not work for these fixtures—their high heat levels might not be a problem for the salt crystals, which don’t melt until 800°C, but the plastic skeleton will begin to melt at 200°C. For that reason, energy efficient, cool-running LED puck lights are the best bet for shio fixtures. You can support MacDonald and his new venture through Kickstarter. He’s got a week left to meet his fundraising goal—help him out!

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