In Profile: Designers Who Make an Art Out of Light
Thomas Alva Edison perfected the incandescent light bulb in 1876, and the world became modern. In the years since, technology has continued to transform the light bulb—from incandescent to fluorescent, to today’s LEDs and OLEDs, and beyond. Lighting has long been a preoccupation for designers: the opportunity to take a functional object and turn it into a work with a higher calling.
In articles to follow, our first-ever special focus section, MODERN looks at both the history and future of lighting as design. You will read about designers who work with light and discover new ways to look at nature or aesthetics. We’ve selected seven designers whose work crosses over from the practical to the poetic, whose work is shown in leading design galleries and collected by museums. You will see ten early modern lighting designs that shaped the future, and read about the Italian companies that have fostered design and ensured that what we put in our living rooms and libraries has more than mere function. A final article looks at the forces—from ever-advancing technology to the repurposing of old materials— that are shaping the future. Can I resist a pun here? No. I hope you will find this section illuminating.
Ingo Maurer, arguably the most famous lighting designer of our time, became one by a twist of fate. He started his career working in graphics. “I believe in what the French call hasard, that chance rules us,” he says. “I was staying in a pensione in Venice and I saw a light bulb dangling overhead. I had had a good meal and a bottle of wine and I thought, ‘the bulb is beautiful; we have to honor it.’ I went to a glassmaker. That’s how it started.”
The result, Bulb, an oversize blown-glass light bulb set on a chrome-plated base that houses a conventional incandescent one, was introduced to the world in 1966 and was an instant success, quickly establishing Maurer as a force to be reckoned with. Today Bulb brings five-figure prices in the secondary market. But that was just the beginning of the story. With a decades-long career under his belt—he celebrated his company’s fiftieth anniversary last year—the designer, who will turn eighty-five in May, is still at the top of his game. Strikingly tall with a mane of white hair, he exudes a hypnotic warmth.
He has produced an amazing body of work—all of it distinguished not only by sheer beauty, romantic passion, and wit, but also by innovation. Maurer has been responsible for a host of groundbreaking technologies, from the first low-voltage lighting system with cables and halogen bulbs, YaYaHo, which he introduced in 1984, to his pioneering work with LEDs, creating the very first residential LED lamp, Bellissima Brutta, in 1997. He has made wallpaper with built-in circuitry and LED lights that slowly change colors and patterns. His widely exhibited Wo bist du, Edison, jetzt wo wir dich brauchen? is believed to be the first 360-degree hologram ever created. It plays with holograms as a source of light. In the last ten years he has been experimenting with OLEDs (organic light-emitting diodes), the latest technological advance in the rapidly changing world of illumination. Vico Magistretti, the late Italian design maestro, wrote of Maurer: “Ingo uses technology as a means of expressing a new sense of beauty . . . . His objects convey a strong sense of humor, which is ultimately poetic.”
The Munich-based designer creates more than residential lighting. He first exhibited non-commercial work at Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain in 1989. Since then, he has created a multitude of specially commissioned pieces for both public spaces and private clients, including a fashion show and London showroom for Issey Miyake, subway stations in Munich, and a giant snow flake for UNICEF in New York. Maurer has had countless museum shows throughout Europe, Asia, and the United States, and has recently opened an exceptional showroom in Brazil.
He is something of an anomaly among the current global giants of design. By setting up his own company he has been completely autonomous, responsible to no one but himself. His sixty-plus employees, whom he calls his team, are always scrupulously credited for their contributions. Maurer is never tempted to outsource production. He feels a moral obligation to his staff; he is supporting what he calls his “family.”
Successfully in business for five decades, he has never had a marketing plan. Intuition is his guiding star. Maurer frequently quotes Albert Einstein’s dictum, “Intuition is more important than intelligence. Without intuition, innovation is impossible.”