Electrifying Design: A Century of Lighting

Moloch Floor Lamp (1971). Gaetano Pesce, designer; Bracciodiffero, manufacturer.

Since the invention of the first electric light in the 1800s to the development of ultraefficient lightbulbs in the 21st century, lighting technology has fascinated engineers, scientists, architects and designers worldwide, inspiring them toward new creative expression. 

The High Museum of Art is the exclusive Southeast venue for “Electrifying Design: A Century of Lighting” (July 2-Sept. 26), the first large-scale exhibition to consider electrical lighting from the past 100 years as a catalyst for technological and artistic innovation within major avant-garde design movements. The exhibition is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), where it debuted in February. 

I was fortunate to be among a select few who toured the exhibition with the High’s curator of decorative arts and design, Monica Obniski. 

Monica Obniski, curator of decorative arts and design, explains the function of exhibit selections.

“Electrifying Design” will feature nearly 80 rare lighting examples by leading international designers including Achille Castiglioni, Christian Dell, Greta Magnusson Grossman, Poul Henningsen, Ingo Maurer, Verner Panton, Gino Sarfatti, Ettore Sottsass and Wilhelm Wagenfeld, among many others. The works on view will demonstrate how these innovators harnessed light’s radiance and beauty, resulting in designs that extend beyond or challenge the functional nature of lighting. 

“We’ve presented a number of exhibitions in recent years that explore the myriad ways that design influences, and enriches, our lives and shapes how we experience the world,” said Rand Suffolk, the High’s Nancy and Holcombe T. Green, Jr., director. “With this exhibition, we look at how lighting offered a path forward for groundbreaking designers to explore new territory and bring wonder to practical purposes.” 

The High’s curator of decorative arts and design, Monica Obniski, added, “This exhibition demonstrates the ingenuity and creativity of these designers, who tested the limits of technology to address practical needs while at the same time demonstrating masterful artistry. In every sense of the word, it will be illuminating for our audience.” 

Monica Obniski, curator of decorative arts and design, details the history of exhibit selections.

“Electrifying Design” focuses on lighting’s contribution to design history, showing how it responded to advances in technology and materials as well as the adaptations of form during changing aesthetic movements. The exhibition is organized by themes into three sections: “Typologies,” “The Lightbulb” and “Quality of Light.” Each section includes works ranging from the 1920s to the present from the United States, Europe and Asia. The galleries also will feature large-scale immersive experiences, including DRIFT’s “Flylight” (2015), which comprises LEDs in glass tubes suspended from the ceiling. The tubes light up unpredictably in response to movement in the space, mimicking the behavior of a flock of birds. 

DRIFT's "Flylight" (2015).

DRIFT's "Fragile Future" (2013) is made with real dandelion seeds.

“Typologies” reflect the evolution of function and design within discreet forms: task lamps, floor lamps and ceiling lamps.  Designed for specific functions — such as stationed on desks, tables or pianos — task lamps are small-scale devices that respond to new ways of living by addressing glare; the need for focused, directional light and adjustability; and advances in efficiency and serial manufacturing. Floor lamps provide light to interior spaces from a fixed location, incorporating modern and innovative materials. Ceiling lamps are focal points of any space, helping to define and break visual planes. 

An array of typologies.

Over the past century, lighting typologies have forged connections between changing domestic and public uses, stylistic and material choices, and technological innovations in bulbs and manufacturing. 

“The Lightbulb” is integral to functionality in lighting. This section of the exhibition highlights examples in which the bulb is both the light source and an aesthetic element, and exposes how the fundamental component has pushed form and function to new levels. 

I NEED this in my life!!! "Wall Light" by Gino Sarfatti (1951).

One of the most common lightbulb forms is the bulbous shape, a manifestation of “capturing light in a bottle” — an idea demonstrated in German designer Ingo Maurer’s “Bulb Light” (1966). 

"Bulb Light" (1966) by Ingo Maurer.

Early modernists stripped their designs to the most basic, functional elements, such as in Jean Prouvé’s “Potence d’Eclairage (Swing Jib Lamp) No. 602” (1952). Prouvé reduced the task lamp to a globe bulb that projects a single blob of light to meet a user’s needs. 

Works influenced by pop art and the radical design movement in Italy introduced whimsical references. Martine Bedin’s “Super Lamp” (ca. 1978), for the design collective Memphis, resembles a toy car: a rounded base crowned with similarly shaped bulbs in socket collars of different colors, which showcase how lighting can be playful and express a sense of wonder. 

"Super Lamp" (ca. 1978) by Martine Bedin.

Gerrit Rietveld believed interior and exterior spaces were seamlessly connected and created elements that emphasized harmony between planes, color and function. His “Hanging Lamp” (1922) features bulbs suspended from the ceiling in long, vertical and horizontal lines that intersect or bisect yet never actually touch. Gino Sarfatti’s “1063 Floor Lamp” (1954) was one of the earliest manufactured lamps that used a long tube bulb in a minimal composition. Aldo van den Nieuwelaar’s “TC6 Lamp” (1969) takes advantage of the period’s new neon tubes, which can be bent into circular or otherwise shaped forms. 

“Quality of Light” considers the manipulation of light effects. Designers have long sought ways to diffuse, reflect, transmit and express light. Over the past century, they have not only created new lighting forms but also explored the physical, transformative and emotionally or psychologically stirring potential of light on its own terms. 

"Splight Table Lamp Prototype" (2005) by Matali Crasset.

One strategy is shifting the focus of direct light through reflection or diffusion using mirrors or reflective surfaces — a tactic that has been around for centuries to expand the reach of candlelight. 

Donald Deskey’s “Table Lamp” (1928), one of two works in the exhibition from the High’s collection, demonstrates the use of diffuser lenses to produce a specific quality of light in a sculptural form, and Zahara Schatz’s “Table Lamp, Model T-4-S” (1951) employs a reflector to spread illumination across a surface. 

More recently, Toyo Ito combined spun fiberglass with nested globular forms to create a light-filled sculpture for his “Mayuhana Mie Floor Lamp” (2007). 

“Electrifying Design” is conceived and co-curated by Cindi Strauss, Sara and Bill Morgan curator of decorative arts, craft, and design at the MFAH and Sarah Schleuning, interim chief curator and Margot B. Perot senior curator of decorative arts and design at the Dallas Museum of Art and former curator of decorative arts and design at the High. 

The exhibition is on the second level of the High’s Anne Cox Chambers Wing.

"High Museum of Art" (2021) Bonnie Morét Photography

For more information, visit www.high.com.

Photographs by www.bonniemoret.com.


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