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Light It Up


By Mary Daily

Published Oct 1, 2011 12:00 AM


Photo courtesy of Ron Rezek.

Ron Rezek '69, M.F.A. '71 is a household name to fans of contemporary product design. Which is only fitting, considering how many households are graced by his art. As are any number of businesses.

And one very famous group of fictional lifeguards on one very famous fictional beach.

But before he revolutionized lighting and ceiling fans in residential, commercial and sandy environments, Rezek was a high school kid in San Diego County who liked to tinker. Then he came to UCLA, where he settled on studying industrial design.

It was a field he knew little about, certainly not enough to know he'd landed in a mecca of 20th-century designers. The faculty included such icons in product design as Henry Dreyfuss, Niels Diffrient, Charles Eames and Don Chadwick '59. Oh, and a guest lecturer was Buckminster Fuller, whose philosophy intrigued Rezek. To top it off, Rezek got part-time work creating models for Frank Gehry.

After graduation, he stayed to earn an M.F.A. During that time, while talking with Bob Burnside, lifeguard captain at Zuma Beach, Rezek learned about problems with aluminum floats used in water rescue. It was just the kind of challenge he was itching for. Burnside would handle sales if Rezek would design a plastic version. The designer paid for the models himself and personally delivered the finished floats.

Before long, the "rescue can" was hailed as "the first major design breakthrough in this kind of equipment in 50 years." It is still preferred by professional lifeguards and had a recurring role on TV's Baywatch.

Rezek, still working out of his garage, founded Surf-Saving International to manufacture and sell the device. He would go on to teach environmental product design at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where he always assigned students a lighting project because, he notes, lighting is "a nice synthesis of form and function."

At the time, lighting in the U.S. was all "brass and glass," Rezek recalls, nothing in contemporary materials, shapes or colors. So he sold his interest in Surf-Saving to Burnside and began designing lighting in copper, galvanized metal, perforated metal, and glass in simple, clean shapes. In 1978, he established Ron Rezek Lighting to modernize the decorative lighting industry. In 2004, he sold his company to the Italian firm Artemide.

Rezek's next quest was to modernize ceiling fans, which had been designed mostly in traditional, ornate styles. In 1997, he began The Modern Fan Co. in Ashland, Oregon, where he works today in a warehouse. Architectural Record has credited the company with offering original, "graceful designs for normally chunky fixtures."