Everybody knows 3M Co. for its Scotch Tape and Post-it Notes, but recently the Maplewood colossus dared to try on something far more flashy.
This summer, 3M strutted into the world of haute couture with a new line of interior lights aimed directly at hip retailers, chic hotels and trendy eateries. Its AIR and FLEX lights boast the kind of sleek curves and ribbon-like patterns that 3M officials expect to be all the rage among high-end architects and interior designers.
The rollout has been steady. The lights, which 3M factory workers assemble in New Ulm, were hung three weeks ago inside 3M's new design showroom on the fifth floor of the International Market Square in Minneapolis. (Showings by appointment only, please!) And in June, 3M showed off two of its new lights to 20,000 designers at the National Exposition of Contract Furnishings Show in Chicago.
"Designers were just clamoring for them because they are just so visually interesting and have such a luminous glow. It's phenomenal to look at," said Cheryl Durst, CEO of the International Interior Design Association. "Most designers have a very different view of 3M. So this was a big reveal for them."
The lights aren't merely a sartorial statement for 3M. They're part of a broader effort to transform past innovations into new products that appeal to commercial customers. Two years ago, 3M launched its Architectural Markets unit, which blends its knowledge of glues, bus wraps and race car decals to make aesthetically appealing wall, furniture and appliance coverings that resemble wood, etched glass, steel and scores of other surfaces.
Now 3M's high-end lights, which curve down walls, twist around air ducts and snake in artful patterns along ceilings, are the latest innovations to emerge from the architecture unit. 3M's entry into haute couture lighting took less than two years to develop with the help from Design Group Italia, old 3M technology, and a few hundred thousand dollars in marketing and production costs.
3M wedded common LED lights with the thin, high-tech, optical brightening-films it originally developed for LCD TVs and cellphones. That marriage bore its AIR and FLEX lights.
"This is exactly the kind of innovation and design quality we continue to strive for at 3M Architectural Markets. These fixtures provide the efficiency of an LED with the stunning qualities of an art installation," said George Levendusky, the global business development manager for the new unit.
Think edgy window displays, provocative fashion walkways, or avant-garde offices or restaurants and designers begin to see the possibilities. Each connectable FLEX light panel runs about $500 to $1,000 depending on curve and length. Designers can snap together 11 options in any order to create long strips of light that loop, twist or dart.
"Certainly from a design process the lights are really cool. They are kind of jaw dropping," said Morningstar research analyst Adam Fleck who had a chance to see the lights when visiting 3M's Innovation Center in Maplewood recently.
3M's AIR fixture also uses optical film technology but offers a halo of light that can be suspended (alone or in multiples) from any ceiling at any angle. AIR comes in 3-foot to 9-foot diameters and weighs just 30 to 60 pounds. Costs will typically run $3,500 to $7,000 per light but can stretch to $15,000 for customized color-changing options.
Fleck said 3M's foray into the lighting world may not "move the needle" of the entire $30 billion conglomerate that is 3M. But the new line is splashy enough to bulk up 3M's toddler Architectural Markets unit.
Durst of the International Interior Design Association said 3M easily has "multimillions of dollars" in sales ahead just because of its new lighting. "I am thinking about the breadth of potential installations. The minute you see it, you can immediately see it in high-end hotel lobbies, in retail shops ... in libraries, college campuses and health care facilities."
By transferring its focus from commercial applications to architects and designers, the new division grew from $125 million to $150 million in a single year. And that's without the new lights.
"That's really good," Fleck said. "Anybody outside 3M would love to have a 20 percent growth business." The new lights can only add to that, he said. "This is another very good example of how they can take their core technologies and combine them into something new and marketable."
And more product launches are coming.
Walking through the Minneapolis showroom on a recent Tuesday, 3M's Levendusky strolled under newly installed AIR and FLEX fixtures and pointed out a third fixture, a glowing prototype due to hit the market in early 2013. The prototype -- which consists of seven lightweight reflective discs arranged in a circle -- clung to and illuminated a large white wall despite being powered by a single LED.
"It's very cool the way it does that," Levendusky said. "The goal is to have it be modular, so you can make it round or linear."
Dee DePass • 612-673-7725