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.
It is only a short distance between designer Lindsey Adelman’s workshop where she designs and produces her sculptural lighting, and the showroom, where much of it is handsomely on display. However, this brief walk in Manhattan’s NoHo neighborhood is a magic interlude between two very distinct yet intrinsically connected spaces: one where the seeds of ideas are tested and realized, and the other, where those early sketches and concepts have ripened into distilled, elegant designs. And indeed, these spaces look the part. The forty-plus-person workshop, casually divided into different departments, is brimming with machinery, fixtures-in-the-making, and rows of neatly organized parts; while the showroom, tucked away on Great Jones Street, is a fitting backdrop for Adelman’s numerous collections, illustrating at once the conceptual breadth and the common visual language that ties her work together. Inside the showroom, a kinetic Burst fixture, with its rotund hand-blown glass globes and glass spikes and “barnacles,” soars above the center of the room, facing one of her Cherry Bomb Fringe flush mounts, a piece resembling sinuous branches of a cherry tree, from which thin brass chains hang like melting icicles. The workshop and showroom alike provide a lens into both Adelman’s creative process and her aesthetic sensibility—and give insight into the evolution of a piece from inception to completion.
For Adelman, the designs are rooted not only in the visual, but in the impulse to foster engagement. “I let my mind wander and daydream beyond practicality,” she explains in her office. “I see an installation in my mind or how I want people to respond, or an experience I want people to have—and I’ll write it all down even if I don’t know how it will come true.”
Her lighting, of course, serves a very practical purpose, but more than that, it succeeds at stirring a visceral sensation akin to experiencing one of Alexander Calder’s mobiles. Adelman’s Branching Burst similarly suspends from the ceiling as if weightless—a delicate balancing act of parts, with the thin furcated brass armature supporting a series of glass bulbs emanating light.
“I think part of the reason that I love lighting design is you’re really working with the immaterial substance of light, and I think about its effect on the room, and so I like to work with as little material as possible or if you have material that takes up volume, that it is transparent or that it is expressive or sensual in some way,” she says.
Adelman happened upon industrial design in her twenties, when she discovered the fabrication shop while working as an editorial assistant at the Smithsonian. She recalls, “it was the first time I was ever in a huge warehouse with people building things who weren’t sculptors, and what really appealed to me is that it could be a job.” Soon after, she applied to the Rhode Island School of Design and focused on lighting. Ten years after graduating, in 2006, she opened her eponymous studio, and, since then, has been at the forefront of the field, showing her collections at, among others, Nilufar gallery in Milan, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, BDDW, The Future Perfect, and Design Miami/.
As the business has expanded, Adelman has balanced the high demand for the coveted designs in her collections with a ceaseless thirst to experiment and try out new ideas. “I always want my lights to be not only a light,” she explains. “Just because we know how to make a small sconce does not mean we should have a small sconce in our portfolio . . . our mission is not to please everyone—our mission is to make beautiful work that we know how to make, and that in many cases we feel only we can make.”