Chloe Aboud in Conversation with Manoj Phatak
Manoj Phatak is the Founder & CEO of ArtRatio, a boutique manufacturer of patented smart glass vitrines, customised to achieve the sustainable display of art and luxury collections. ArtRatio aims to balance the conservation and exhibition of the items on display by automatically varying the light levels inside each vitrine in real-time, based on their environmental sensitivity and visitor popularity. Manoj holds degrees in Electronics Engineering from Southampton University and in Software Engineering from Oxford University, and is a Chartered Engineer at the UK Engineering Council.
Manoj, I am so delighted to have the opportunity to interview you – thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule! First of all, I would love for you to share your journey with ArtRatio - when was it that you saw an opening in the market for ‘smart glass’ and how did you initially launch your business venture?
Hi Chloe - It is an honour and a pleasure to participate in this interview. Thank you for this opportunity to speak with you.
My journey with ArtRatio began in 2008, experimenting with several smart, functional materials, one of which was ‘smart glass’. This is simply a glass laminate with a plastic interlayer sandwiched inside it that changes its level of transparency when you apply an electrical voltage.
I realised that this could be useful to protect artworks, but I had no knowledge whatsoever of the art sector!
So, I built a crude MVP (Minimal Viable Product) consisting of a jokingly simple wooden box with the top facade of smart glass and took it on a series of customer interviews at some of the biggest museums in London, Madrid, Doha and Zurich.
From those meetings, I learned a lot about the viability of the idea, the technical challenges and the market opportunity at hand. Since then, we have constantly been adapting our offering in line with what our customers ask of us, and have now delivered projects for some important museums and private collections.
For those who may not be all too familiar with the intricacies of smart glass, can you explain how it works to protect art and objects encased by it?
The film inside each panel of smart glass is composed of miniscule particles which align with an applied electrical voltage, letting in sunlight. Whenever you remove the voltage, the particles move into a random position and block light. This change happens within seconds and the level of transparency changes dramatically from completely opaque to semi-transparent.
Since we couple this up to a proximity sensor, we activate the smart glass only when someone is present, thus exposing the objects to light only when necessary and reducing damage from light exposure.
Our solutions allow museums, private/corporate collections and luxury retailers to let in more natural light into the building, without jeopardising their collections, and facilitating a more sustainable display of art and luxury items.
I understand that you’ve undertaken some research into the damaging effect light has on artworks – could you talk a little about your research and the importance of advocating smart glass in the art industry?
Yes, we have been researching this area for several years now and we have discovered some interesting facts:
The damage done to artworks is proportional to the light exposure (light levels multiplied by time), similar to when you take a photograph. The higher the light exposure, the higher the energy imparted to the object and the more severe the damage. This can result in colour fading, structural breakdown and decomposition of fragile materials, such as paper, textiles and fugitive pigments.
All artworks are essentially unique, since they are composed of different materials. Composite objects can contain materials that can have different rates of thermal expansion with changes in temperature, humidity or light, and so can crack, bend and break if subjected to extreme fluctuations. At the moment, many museums apply a blanket approach to the entire gallery, often subjecting objects which are not that sensitive under the same conditions as the more fragile objects. This increases the energy costs on the building and results in a less-than-optimal display of the collection.
When sunlight falls on a display vitrine, about 50% of this energy is infrared (heat), which increases the temperature inside the display vitrine, reducing the relative humidity, thus reducing the amount of water in the enclosed space. This drier air does not allow any static charge that collects on on insulating surfaces (e.g. glass or acrylic) to dissipate naturally to electrical earth and the charge can thus accumulate, resulting in the worst case scenario where friable media, such as charcoal and graphite, can actually be ‘lifted off’ by the locally accumulated static electrical field.
The marriage of technology and art is a topic that comes to mind when I envisage the engineering behind ArtRatio, coupled with its overarching purpose to conserve art. How do you visualise the future of technology permeating the art world?
What a great question!
I envisage that technology will permeate into the art world just as it has permeated into every other aspect of our lives. Just as our smartphones know about our likes/dislikes, habits, purchasing patterns and even our travel plans, I foresee that display cases should also ‘know’ what is inside them - and change their behaviour correspondingly.
For example, if the object is fragile, the smart glass and internal LEDs inside ArtRatio vitrines reduce the light exposure automatically to preserve the items more efficiently.
All data collected by an ArtRatio vitrine is currently pushed to the cloud, enabling post-processing to calculate indices of risk and popularity, as well as providing secure visibility on the collection from anywhere in the world.
As another example, if an item by the same artist sells at auction for a substantially higher price than expected, this may affect the price of the item contained in the ArtRatio display case. The user should be alerted to any increased threats of theft, as well as short-lived opportunities to sell the item if that is his/her desire.
The success of ArtRatio can be measured in its popularity with both public and private collections. What has the feedback been like from museum visitors – have the smart glass cases/plinths enhanced the overall visitor experience?
I would let our customers speak for us. Here are some quotes:
"The ArtRatio smart glass table works wonderfully, does its job of protecting our manuscripts and looks great in the room as well!" - Carina Pia Fryklund, Curator, Department of Prints and Drawings, National Museum of Sweden.
"Very interesting risk management technique. Preservation is key to maintaining the quality of the work. ArtRatio products are a great tool for those who take preservation seriously, so current and future generations can experience works of art in a manner that the artist intended." - William Fleischer, CIC, Bernard Fleischer & Sons Inc. / ArtInsuranceNow.com.
"ArtRatio loaned our MA in Art Logistics students a display vitrine to use as a teaching tool, which provided them with direct access to this innovative and necessary conservation technology." - Gareth Fletcher, Programme Director, Sotheby's Institute of Art.
"I worked with ArtRatio in 2014/15 on a project which helped preserve one of our museum's star objects; the Waterloo Map. They were extremely helpful whilst putting together our bespoke solution and I would certainly recommend working with them in future" - James Scott, Deputy Curator (2014-2016), Royal Engineers Museum, UK.
"The team at ArtRatio have completely rethought the concept of displaying art. ArtRatio display cases elevate even humble objects into something special, because of the theatrical presentation afforded by the smart glass and internal lighting. The care they afford your precious items are equalled by their stunning appearance." - Dr. Tehmina Goskar, Director, of the Curatorial Research Centre.
In regards to private collections, it seems to me that smart glass is an essential addition for a collector – the vitrines are almost a piece of art in themselves! I’d imagine they are a welcomed inclusion in any collection, be that of paintings, antiquities, books, even vintage handbags. Are you able to give us an insight into some of your client’s requests?
Thank you for the compliment!
Indeed, our private clients request a lot of customisation, so we are attentive to the special needs of each object we are entrusted to display.
As an example, one of the objects we are displaying is the original map of the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, which still has the original graphite pencil markings of the 1st Duke of Wellington on it !
This map was actually used in the battle to inform the British army of the likely location of Napoleon’s troops as well as their allies, the Prussions, so it is of immense historic value.
Due to the friable graphite materials on the map though, we had to take special precautions to avoid their lift-off due to static electrical charge.
Also, our clients take their privacy very seriously, as can be expected due to the high value of the items that we are displaying and conserving for them. So we take great care to respect their wishes for anonymity.
I understand that the vitrines are custom-designed, but I was wondering how portable are they? With the growing popularity of the uber-wealthy housing their collections onboard superyachts, I was wondering if ArtRatio caters to collections in that environment?
Our vitrines typically weigh between 150kg-250kg, so I would not describe them as especially ‘portable’ at this time. However, on a superyacht, we would be focusing on security, so I think that ‘anti-bandit’ strength would be the primary requirement, as well as conservation and display, perhaps more than portability.
Just to touch on the topic of pricing, do you feel comfortable discussing the cost of a piece from ArtRatio?
Our prices vary from GBP 15,000 up to GBP 55,000, depending on the dimensions, materials and functionality we deliver. This cost is small compared to the millions that museums and private collections currently pay to implement the ‘blanket measures’ I alluded to before. These include:
(i) installing curtains, window filters and exterior blinds, which can be expensive and cumbersome to maintain, especially in harsh climates;
(ii) removing the windows entirely in some galleries to reduce light damage, which then requires more artificial lighting and increases the energy footprint of the whole building;
(iii) object rotation schemes which typically allow only a partial display of the most sensitive items, sometimes for 3 or 6 months only, depriving the public of these rare objects.
And lastly, branching on from the previous question, do you think, down the line, that smart glass could become a ‘must-have’ even for art objects that may not be top-end of the price scale? What I am getting at is, do you think smart glass will become more readily available to the general population or will it remain an exclusive addition to priceless collections?
Yes, I am sure of it, just as with any technology.
As we move from a project-centred company to product-centred, we hope to mass-manufacture our products in standard sizes, bringing our prices down, and making our technology available to a broader audience.
It is our goal that every humble vitrine is converted to a smart ArtRatio vitrine, just as all ‘dumb phones’ were eventually phased out in favour of ‘smart phones’.
Our technology will also bring benefits to the much larger luxury retail sector, such as the retail popularity monitor we currently provide, which is based on the total time someone has viewed the objects on display.
This popularity metric is time stamped and pushed to Google Analytics, allowing a comparison of the virtual visits on the web page of an object (e.g. a Prada handbag) against the ‘physical’ visits on that same object.
This facilitates the ‘phygital’ offering that many museums, galleries and luxury retailers will be looking to strengthen post-Covid.
Thank you Manoj, for this wonderful insight into ArtRatio and for taking the time to share your research and business venture! I think its safe to conclude that the marriage of art and technology is something that is constantly developing and adapting to the times. Definitely, watch this space!