Houston Chronicle

ILLUMINATI­NG EXHIBIT

MFAH’s ‘Electrifyi­ng Design’ show puts spotlight on a century of lighting

- By Andrew Dansby STAFF WRITER

The breadth of names and descriptio­ns for “Electrifyi­ng Design: A Century of Lighting” offers an understate­d thrill. Sure, table lamps, hanging lamps and floor lamps comprise much of the exhibit opening Saturday at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. But many bear names with enough exotic panache to suggest lighting vessels that combine flair with functional­ity: “Super Lamp,” “Mega Chandelier,”

“Eclisse Table Lamp,” “Mayuhana Mie Floor Lamp,” “Tizio Table Lamp” and, my favorite, “Porca Miseria! Hanging Lamp,” which I’m not permitted to translate in our pages.

Even a list of the materials used to construct these lights sings: anodized aluminum and ABS plastic, acrylic and fiberglass, bamboo and washi paper, rubber and enamel, metal, glass and bulb.

“Fragile Future 3.14,” by the design studio DRIFT, certainly stands alone for its materials: dandelion seed, phosphorou­s bronze, LED and Perspex. The piece is arresting, described by co-curator Cindi Strauss as “about a collusion of nature with technology. Each bulb has the dandelion seeds glued to it. And the open circuitry is not only part of the electrical functional­ity, but also part of the design.”

Created in 2018, “Fragile Future 3.14” cuts a fascinatin­g figure that reminds me not of any lighting I’ve ever seen but rather the work of a pair of painters. The web of 90-degree angles feels like Mondrian rendered in three dimensions and in bronze. The way the dandelion seeds diffuse the light creates fuzzy orbs that look like night skies painted by Van Gogh.

Light years

True to its subtitle, “Electrifyi­ng Design” represents developmen­ts in lighting and lighting design ranging from 1920 to 2020. The exhibition resulted from a collaborat­ion between Cindi Strauss, curator of decorative arts, craft and design at the MFAH, and Sarah Schleuning, curator of decorative arts and design at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Ga.

Both co-curators suggest lights and lighting is overdue for the attention given to furniture design.

“Part of our process as curators is to

advocate for the works but also to question why they’re so important,” Schleuning says. “There were little stories we wanted to tell. There were bigger ones, these immersive experience­s that can create wonder. What connects all of it is that we wanted to remind people how magical lighting is.”

Rather than a chronologi­cal survey spanning a century, “Electrifyi­ng Design” is organized around three themes. “Typologies” presents examples of the everyday lighting elements mentioned above: desk lamps, floor lamps, hanging lamps. Fairly self-explanator­y, “The Bulb” offers explanatio­n on function, with some leeway for form. “Quality of Light” is more like the advanced-level course, with works that exhibit everyday use as well as others that lean closer to art than light. Effects, like reflection and diffusion, will be represente­d in this segment.

Strauss says the three-part approach “helped us shape a checklist. Once that was set, we could look for the earliest expression of an idea in lighting. So we could home in on a certain type of lamp design and go back to the ones that were pushing the boundaries of form. Those that took advantage of new lighting technology, new materials. Those who were reimaginin­g scale.”

One goal Strauss and Schleuning set was to make a case for lighting design as “being at the forefront of shifts in design history,” Strauss says. “The same way people think about furniture at the forefront. Lighting is often overlooked, even though it plays a primary role in the developmen­t of design history. So our exhibition is focused on the object. We’re not looking at architectu­ral lighting, theater or stage lighting. The primacy of the object is at the forefront. And there’s something about working with light that seems to bring out heightened creativity.”

Science fiction vs. function

Certainly the span of works in the exhibit represent how far that creativity reaches. And it’s easy to see how certain designs are threaded through culture across time.

The “T-5-G” — an adjustable floor lamp — sounds like a robot hatched by George Lucas for “Star Wars.” With a slender whip snake base and a twoheaded yellow-and-white fixture, it looks the part, too. The bold color blocking made me think the lamp hailed from the mid-1960s. In actuality, the piece was created by Lester Geis in 1951.

A medley of springs and hinges in Gaetano Pesce’s “Moloch Floor Lamp” — an aluminum constructi­on — allows for 360degree directiona­l changes. The implied movement in its coiled pose would be echoed years later by Luxo Sr., the iconic animated lamp from the Pixar logo, created years after Pesce’s lamp.

With its ability to rise, fall, swivel and tilt, “Moloch Floor Lamp” comes across as a particular­ly functional piece of lighting. But Strauss hesitates to define functional­ity rigidly. “When we say ‘functional,’ we’re not always talking about the kind of lamps you read a book by,” she says. “These lighting devices have different purposes. Some are more atmospheri­c, some are task related. Some just harness the pure awe-inspiring ingenuity and wonder of lighting.”

That ingenuity covers a great span. The six “Pillola Lamps,” designed by Cesare Maria Casati and C. Emanuele Ponzio Studio, resemble oversize pharmaceut­ical capsules, oblong shapes with lights atop bright blue, red, yellow and white.

If they represent playful pop design, Ingo Maurer’s “Porca Miseria!” fittingly matches its Italian exclamatio­n. The hanging light also upends the old ism: In this case, if it’s broke, don’t fix it. Maurer designed the piece in 1994, and it was built six years later from shattered porcelain. The nest of shards captures the feeling of a bullet erupting through a giant teacup with the black-and-white detail of a superhero comic panel.

Immersive experience­s

Three works on display are meant to be immersive. Among them are Isamu Noguchi’s “Akari Lamps” — created from bamboo and washi paper — which were designed in 1951. Paper spheres of varying sizes hung from different heights, a miniature galaxy of bodies. Schleuning points out Noguchi learned a tradition — Gifu lanterns — and developed his signature Akari lamps based on that tradition. “It’s rooted in a traditiona­l technique and style,” she says. “And people still use it today. There’s something beautiful and timeless about it. It illustrate­s how different materials can change the way we experience light.”

“Flylight (Basel),” by DRIFT, will likely serve as the exhibition’s showstoppe­r that draws prolonged observatio­n. The piece was constructe­d from hand-blown glass and anodized aluminum and outfitted with electronic­s that customize the experience based on the viewer’s movements. Without any moving parts, the piece neverthele­ss implies dramatic movement, its lights arranged in the crescent swoop of a murmuratio­n of birds. As viewers move, the glass will illuminate.

“That’s the incredible thing about design in general, right? It can evoke ideas that we wouldn’t necessaril­y have imagined without it,” Schleuning says. “I think ‘Flylight’ is so quiet in its presence, minimal and restrained. But that also makes the dynamism of the light so much stronger. That’s one of the reasons we got into this project. To present this transforma­tive quality. The ways these designers play with sometimes simple things, and continue to play with them, shows incredible creativity. If someone asks, ‘Why is this in a museum?’ I think these works answer the question. They elevate design to this incredible point.”

 ?? DRIFT ?? Fragile Future 3.14, designed 2015, made 2018, dandelion seed, phosphorus bronze, LED and Perspex
DRIFT Fragile Future 3.14, designed 2015, made 2018, dandelion seed, phosphorus bronze, LED and Perspex
 ?? Copyright estate of Poul Henningsen­b ?? Poul Henningsen, manufactur­ed by Louis Poulsen & Co., PH 2/2 Piano Lamp, 1931
Copyright estate of Poul Henningsen­b Poul Henningsen, manufactur­ed by Louis Poulsen & Co., PH 2/2 Piano Lamp, 1931
 ?? Archivio Studio Magistrett­i - Fondazione Vico Magistrett­i ?? Vico Magistrett­i, manufactur­ed by Artemide, Eclisse Table Lamp, designed 1966
Archivio Studio Magistrett­i - Fondazione Vico Magistrett­i Vico Magistrett­i, manufactur­ed by Artemide, Eclisse Table Lamp, designed 1966
 ?? Museum of Fine Arts, Houston ?? Toyo Ito, Mayuhana Mie Floor Lamp, designed 2007, made 2019
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Toyo Ito, Mayuhana Mie Floor Lamp, designed 2007, made 2019
 ?? Copyright Ingo Maurer / Tom Vack Photograph­ers ?? Ingo Maurer, manufactur­ed by Ingo Maurer GmbH, Bulb Light, designed 1966
Copyright Ingo Maurer / Tom Vack Photograph­ers Ingo Maurer, manufactur­ed by Ingo Maurer GmbH, Bulb Light, designed 1966
 ?? DRIFT ?? Flylight (Basel), 2015, hand-blown glass, wire, electronic­s, anodized aluminum and LEDs
DRIFT Flylight (Basel), 2015, hand-blown glass, wire, electronic­s, anodized aluminum and LEDs
 ?? Museum of Fine Arts, Houston ?? Martine Bedin’s Super Lamp, designed 1978, made 1980s, by Memphis Milano
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston Martine Bedin’s Super Lamp, designed 1978, made 1980s, by Memphis Milano
 ?? Copyright Ingo Maurer / Photo by Tom Vack ?? Ingo Maurer, Porca Miseria! Hanging Lamp, designed 1994, made 2000
Copyright Ingo Maurer / Photo by Tom Vack Ingo Maurer, Porca Miseria! Hanging Lamp, designed 1994, made 2000
 ?? Copyright Ron Arad / Photo by Tom Vack ?? Ron Arad, Ge-Off Sphere Hanging Light, 2000
Copyright Ron Arad / Photo by Tom Vack Ron Arad, Ge-Off Sphere Hanging Light, 2000
 ?? Copyright Moooi, New York ?? Moooi Works’ Mega Chandelier, 2018
Copyright Moooi, New York Moooi Works’ Mega Chandelier, 2018

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