Today’s best lighting designs are really sculptures that illuminate.
The website for R & Company of Manhattan categorizes Jeff Zimmerman’s Illuminated Crystal Cluster as a “hanging lamp,” but it is much more than that. The crystal chandelier is a tantalizingly literal take on the well-established form of the crystal chandelier, a status symbol that enlivens royal palaces and imposing estates the world over. Instead of clear teardrops of leaded cut glass cascading from the ceiling in glittering rows, Zimmerman’s sculpture looks like he has hewn actual oversize crystals from the bowels of the earth and suspended them in the center of the room.
“Each is unique. No two could be the same if you tried, and that’s the idea,” says Zesty Meyers, co-founder of R & Company. “The color would never be the same. The density would never be the same. It’s limitless in scale, in shape, in size. They’re customized to the space, always.”
Zimmerman’s Illuminated Crystal Cluster does more than look great and shed light, however. “What he accomplishes is amazing,” says Meyers, explaining that by the time that Zimmerman is called in to contribute to a home project, “The architecture is already done, the art is hung, and the interior design is already done. He’s the glue holding them together. He is the one that does that. This is his genius. He makes a sculpture that doesn’t interrupt a thing, and ties them all together. He has to connect all three and highlight himself. He has the hardest job.”
The tale of Zimmerman’s cluster neatly captures the tale of how high-end lighting design has changed from the end of World War II to now—it isn’t enough for a light to simply be a light anymore, and thanks to technological advances on many fronts, it can be so much more. It isn’t restricted to the role of a tool that liberates us from dependence on sunlight and candles. Many of the most exquisite contemporary designs aren’t strictly lights at all, but artworks that happen to glow.
Postwar high-end lighting designs tilted toward prizing functionality as much as aesthetics. A rare floor lamp created in 1954 by Gerald Thurston for Lightolier, and now available at Patrick Parrish in Manhattan, sports Calderesque colors and unimpeachable utility: its nine shades can point in nine different directions, and the lamp itself is light enough to pick up and move with ease. An exquisitely rare set of three-light Dahlia sconces, made by mid-century glass master and designer Max Ingrand for the Italian firm Fontana Arte and currently on offer at Donzella in Manhattan, look enchanting but never lose sight of their basic purpose: to illuminate.
Things started to change by the late 1960s. The designs championed by the French firm Verre Lumiere, which was another initiative of Ingrand and was active from 1969 to 1989, pushed the boundaries of what was possible. Sabine Charoy’s brass and steel Floor Lamp from 1969 stands nearly six feet tall and resembles an unearthly piece of industrial equipment but proves itself practical. Its counterweight lets the user wheel its light around at will to loom over a desk or hover near the floor or float near the ceiling. Its light, which sits in a semi-circular metal bowl, rotates in a circle for still more flexibility.
An even greater Verre Lumiere triumph was Jean-Pierre Vitrac’s Flower Lamp, dating to 1970 and fashioned from chrome and stainless steel. Stephane Danant of Demisch Danant, a gallery with locations in New York and Paris, has a special place in his heart for Verre Lumiere and Vitrac’s lamp. He estimates that the company made perhaps 20 examples, and he happily lives with one. It has six individual petals that can be posed in various ways—closed, open, partially open. “When it’s closed, or has one petal open, it’s much quieter,” Danant says. “When it’s all out there, it’s like a Christmas tree—too crazy, too noisy. It’s more of a lighting sculpture than a real lamp.”
It’s also heavy. When Vitrac brought the cardboard Flower Lamp model to Verre Lumiere, he apparently assumed it would be produced in plastic, not metal, so it likely carries a heft that he did not intend. But Danant isn’t bothered by its quirks, and neither are its admirers. “I never tire of it,” says Danant. “Serious works of art and design, you never get bored of them. They always stay beautiful.”
Around the same time that Vitrac was toting his cardboard maquette to the Verre Lumiere factory near Paris, American studio furniture artist Wendell Castle was unveiling Pinkie, a bubble gum-pink arch-shaped floor lamp made from fiberglass-reinforced plastic and crowned with a single round bulb. Castle had intended it as a limited edition, but for whatever reason, it didn’t find favor with the public in 1969. Forty years later, Meyers and his gallery stepped up to realize the artist’s vision of a series of eight. “We think he’s a good designer, and people need to know more about him,” Meyers says, adding, “In the end, Pinkie is really not a lamp. It’s a sculpture with a bulb in it,” says Meyers.
Then he utters a phrase that Danant uttered about the Flower Lamp, and which other gallerists voiced spontaneously about other objects of theirs, without prompting: “You’re not going to read by it.” Artistic and aesthetic lights existed before the late 1960s, but it took until then for boutiques and galleries to begin offering objects that give light, but aren’t really usable as lamps. And it took until then for elite clients to begin to wrap their heads around the notion of buying them.
While lighting designers created fine things between 1970 and 2000, the advent of light-emitting diodes (LEDs) changed everything, and continues to change everything. LEDs give off less heat and can assume far smaller sizes than traditional bulbs, and many varieties are extremely low-maintenance, able to shine for decades before they must be replaced. “It’s unbelievable what designers can do now with the new technology,” says Cristina Grajales, who runs an eponymous 15-year-old gallery in New York. “It gives them so much freedom. It’s really quite fascinating.” David Alhadeff of The Future Perfect, a 13-year-old firm that has outposts in Manhattan and San Francisco, concurs. “You can make a chair that’s fresh and new, but it’s still a chair. Designers are sculpting with the new technology,” he says. “The reason why lighting is so exciting right now is it feels fresh, and it actually is fresh.”
The liberating effect of LEDs reaches far and wide. The range of FLOS, a firm founded in 1962, includes the Ipnos Outdoor, a deceptively simple-seeming outline of a three-dimensional rectangle. “[It] would not have been possible before LEDs,” says Jack Schreur, CEO of FLOS USA. “The design needed to look fragile while actually being quite sturdy, which is why we ended up coming up with an aluminum treated for outdoor use,” he says, adding, “Ipnos hides the light source so successfully that it looks as if the warm glow is coming from the metal itself.”
Michael Anastassiades’s Mobile Chandelier series, which began in 2008 and is offered through The Future Perfect, is another seemingly simple design that was impossible before the LED era. “It could not have been done in halogen light because the globes are so small and so delicate, they require cold light output so they don’t melt the glues,” says Alhadeff. In other words, halogen bulbs might burn hot enough to cause the precisely balanced brass chandelier to weaken and fall apart.
Artists should receive some credit for accelerating acceptance of LEDs. Todd Merrill, of Todd Merrill Studio in Manhattan, remained on alert for years for someone who could make the new light source worth gazing upon. “I was not representing contemporary artists working with light before 2010. LED was so ugly and no one had designed anything that made it beautiful,” he says. “There was no way to dim them, and the light was cold and white. It had an institutional feel.”
Irish artist Niamh Barry was the one who changed his mind. In the designs and prototype that she showed him, Merrill recalls that “she had encased the LED in polished true bronze and covered it with alabaster-like glass. It was really winning.” On the strength of pictures alone, Merrill accepted Barry’s work into his booth at a major fair, and it was an instant hit. Merrill has since invited other artists who work with LEDs to join his roster. Particularly notable is American sculptor Colleen Carlson, who unites one of the world’s oldest artistic mediums—clay—with LED strips that radiate through cross-hatching or mesh.
Strategically placed LEDs allowed Christophe Côme to create his Large White Loukoum, a 2012 piece that fuses two pieces of polished crystal and stands almost a foot tall. Earlier, smaller pieces relied on flame-shaped incandescent bulbs placed under the glass for their illumination. Côme switched to LEDs for the bigger versions. “You have to take the glass off and change the light in the base. It’s heavy glass,” says Grajales. “With LEDs, you don’t have to change them for a lifetime.”
This is not to imply that artists and designers have abandoned other forms of illumination. Sebastian Errazuriz tried using an LED for his Chicken Lamp and discovered that it just wasn’t right for the job. Also represented by Grajales, the Chicken Lamp is a limited-edition successor to a one-off sensation that had its origins in a trash bin in Santiago, Chile. Errazuriz spotted a headless duck in the garbage outside a shuttered taxidermy museum and decided to give it a new life as a lamp. Grajales displayed the duck in her Design Miami booth in 2008 and she says it sold “in two seconds.” The 2014 Chicken Lamp is an homage to the duck, and no LED can deliver the visual punch that a classic incandescent Edison bulb does. “He wanted the honesty of the naked light bulb on top of the chicken, no frills, no nothing,” says Grajales. She has sold eight of the edition of 12 and unlike other art-lights, it’s eminently functional. Many have gone to art collectors, and Grajales reports “they actually do use this lamp,” setting it on side tables and consoles.
Lindsey Adelman’s 2014 limited edition series of Totem chandeliers for The Future Perfect combines LEDs and halogen lights, as well as elements fashioned from porcelain, wood, glass, and brass. Extending to between five and six feet, and perhaps longer depending on the space, Totem chandeliers have been chosen by clients to adorn grand staircases. “They give off light, but they are sculpture,” Alhadeff says. “That’s not to say they don’t have light output. They do. But that’s not why people purchase them. They purchase them because they really love them.”
By Sheila Gibson Stoodley