In the United States of America, there is a strong belief in the 'self-made' story; that wealth can be achieved by one's abilities and efforts, that we are a meritocracy. While this is true for some, the strongest predictor of how wealthy you will be in your lifetime is how wealthy your parents (or grandparents) were.

Darwinian Candelabra is designed to demystify the premise of meritocracy and to shed light on the underlying cause of wealth inequality. The candelabra represents the 'balance' of wealth in society. It is set up to begin in a state of more-or-less equality standing for a meritocratic society, but as candles burn, its underlying structure creates an inevitable shift in balance, a transition, to a highly unequal form, revealing the structurally determined inequality from wealth accumulation over generations.


43 x 36 x 33 inches | before burning
44 x 22 x 44 inches | after burning

brass, steel, walnut, wax,
and augmented reality

Credit: Leah Yao

Credit: Leah Yao


the second gilded age

Gilding is a surface treatment, a process of applying a thin layer of gold to a material, to create a sense of luxury, solidity, and an illusion of depth. The process lends its name to a period in the late 19th century known as the Gilded Age, a time of extreme wealth, but also extreme inequality; hence it was a gilded, rather than a truly golden age. Today, increasingly high levels of wealth inequality have led some critics to argue we're living in a Second Gilded Age.

Darwinian Candelabra was designed during the advanced studio at RISD; design in the Second Gilded Age, taught by Thomas Thwaites. The studio took critical, adversarial and experimental design approaches to interrogate questions around money, luxury, and inequality. To push this thought, the class experimented with a 'new' gilding process by applying virtual ornamentation to physical surfaces in augmented/mixed reality.

Courtesy of Thomas Thwaites


concept development: why darwinian candelabra?

One of the most critical issues in the first gilded age was the idea of Social Darwinism, arguing that economically and socially successful people are "naturally" the fittest (conversely reasoning that the poor were "naturally" weak and unfit), and it pervaded many aspects of the American society in politics, the economy, and society in order to justify discrimination and inequality.

In the Second Gilded Age, Social Darwinism seems revived by some contemporary Social Darwinists, who propagate the myth of 'meritocracy' although their success may come from inheritance. Besides them, in fact, many professionals who style themselves as the "meritocratic middle class" come from the top decile of American wealth, privileged from the social system such as private schools and better healthcare.

So, I decided to rebut the meritocratic justification from Social Darwinianists and to instigate discussion about the underlying cause of current wealth inequality through a candelabra, a symbolic object of wealth in The Elms, the symbolic space of the gilded age.

Site visit: The Elms_exterior
Site visit: The Elms_exterior
Site visit: The Elms_interior
Dining room, where Darwinian Candelabra was displayed
Candelabras in the dining room
Idea generation for objects in the dining room

form exploration & prototyping

I started from a look of the phylogenetic tree, a branching diagram showing evolutionary relationships among organisms, as I planned to discuss the misapplied evolutionary theory, Social Darwinism. However, I shifted to a more abstract form as it might cause misunderstanding to someone as the 1st prototype looked like a Menorah in a way.

As this candelabra is about revelation, I came up with the idea of a kinetic object changing its structure via an event, candles burn, and it led me to a mobile-like object through iterative prototyping.

Before candles burn, Darwinian Candelabra represents 'more-or-less' equal society with its 'balanced' form, but it reveals the structural inequality of our society through its structural shift as candles burn.

techniques | wood & metalworking
tools | bandsaw, drill press, hand tools

Form exploration: from phylogenetic tree to mobile
Form exploration: from phylogenetic tree to mobile
1st prototype,
2nd prototype, testing structural feasibility of the form transition
3rd prototype, finding the right dimensions & changing to brass
Final design, representing meritocratic society
Final design, revealing the structurally unequal society

augmented reality development

As it was not allowed to light candles on in the museum, the footage of the transition was 'gilded' using augmented reality technologies.

The virtual video was mounted on a specific image target and incorporated into the Newport Mansion Tour App, so visitors were able to watch the clip by spotting the image target through mobile devices.

techniques | film editing, programming
tools | adobe premium pro, unity, vuforia, Xcode (iOS)

A new 'gilding' process using unity & vuforia
A new 'gilding' process using unity & vuforia
Image target for Darwinian Candelabra


The exhibition titled 'Gilded Age 2.0' was held in The Elms, Newport, RI, from May 22nd to June 22nd 2018.

Gilded Age 2.0, The Elms, Newport, RI, 2018
Gilded Age 2.0, The Elms, Newport, RI, 2018
The augmented reality mounted on museum's BLUs
The augmented reality on the screen of BLUs
Visitors seeing Darwinian Candelabra and its transition
Darwinian Candelabra in diningroom
Darwinian Candelabra in detail
Visitors seeing Darwinian Candelabra and its transition
Visitors seeing Darwinian Candelabra and its transition