Interior Design

Suspended fascination

As likely to be made of aluminium or porcelain as crystal, chandeliers are shedding their grandiose image and making bold design-led statements. Emma Crichton-Miller reports.

October 06 2010
Emma Crichton-Miller

When we recently restored the dining room in our house to its original Georgian dimensions – in an explosion of creative energy, knocking down partition walls and then allowing our builder, painstakingly, to repair the damaged mouldings – we became aware of a glaring omission. In the middle of the beautiful ceiling there was a painted iron hook, and it was now, once again, located immediately above the dining-room table. And there was no chandelier.

I have always fought shy of chandeliers. Friends may have sourced for their otherwise contemporary houses beautiful antique mouth-blown, coloured confections from Murano or cut-crystal masterpieces from Bavaria, but I was not convinced that our rather austere dining room could accommodate such historical grandiloquence. With so many sleek and gorgeous contemporary standard and table lamps to choose from, who needs an old-fashioned tinkly chandelier to detract from the stylistic rigour? But now the hunt was on for a centrepiece that would work: in effect, a contemporary lighting sculpture that would crown an eclectic marriage of old and new furniture, conjure festive glamour for large dinner parties but not seem absurd presiding over family supper.

Over the past few years there has been a resurgence of interest in contemporary chandeliers, not just as something people want to buy but as something designers want to design. Curiously, it is the proliferation of new forms of artificial illumination – LED lights, fibre optics, halogen bulbs and other low-energy technologies – that has inspired designers, enabling them to identify a radically new way forward for the chandelier that owes nothing to the humble candle.

One way to shake up the tradition has been to use alternative materials. When Jason and Lucy Boatswain started their company Diffuse in 1998 and began to explore the potential of porcelain as a material for lighting, they had only their belief in the material to go on. “We knew from our time at Saint Martins that porcelain had versatility as a design material and the properties to resist the high temperatures that lighting demands,” says Lucy. They experimented, adjusting their methods and the scale and dimensions of their work to suit individual clients, and were soon picked up by The Conran Shop and Harrods.

Now they have greatly expanded their operations, but it is still their bespoke work – whether for a ballroom in Kobe, Japan; the Conran-designed Lutyens Restaurant, Bar and Cellar Rooms in London’s Fleet Street; or a private palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – that enables them to exploit the medium to the full. The honeyed glow of light through their fine porcelain chandeliers evokes candlelight, but is married to the elegant minimalism of their designs. A recent addition to the range is the Butterfly Ball chandelier (£4,580 for the larger version), a dramatic sphere of 176 porcelain butterflies swarming around the central light source, each embossed with a damask texture. Pieces such as this rely on the latest electronic lighting technology, which has allowed the Boatswains to combine the cooler heat and lower energy consumption of LEDs with this most ancient material.

Another designer-maker who has exploited the potential of ceramic for lighting is David Wiseman. He treats the business of design and the business of making as a continuum, using his craft skills to bring off individual pieces of great beauty and originality. Wiseman, currently based in LA, is still under 30, but came to notice five years ago when he completed an ambitious ceiling installation of more than 500 individually glazed porcelain cherry blossoms nestled on a network of fibreglass and plaster branches. He now makes chandeliers in lyrical combinations of slip-cast porcelain fruit and flowers, each of which holds a light, and branches cast in bronze. His Collage Chandelier combines branch and blossom elements with a hand-cut Czech crystal hanging lamp. These can be individually commissioned from R 20th Century Gallery in New York (all prices on request).

If all this still seems far too polite, the great German lighting designer Ingo Maurer has been cocking a snook at retrograde pretension for decades. Among his range of lights is the wonderful Porca Miseria, first constructed in 1994. Like an explosion caught in mid-air, the chandelier is made from pieces of broken china, light dancing off the shattered edges.

In a recent interview, Maurer credited the 1994 Design Fair in Milan with its inspiration: “I found too many designs there slick and design-conscious. Porca Miseria is partly a kind of revolt against that tendency.” His company still makes four of this design a year, to commission (price on request), as each one takes three people nearly five days to make, including gathering the commercial porcelain and then stamping on it. Lord Rothschild has one hanging at Waddesdon Manor – a contemporary response to the magnificent collection of grand 18th-century crystal chandeliers his ancestors hung throughout the house.

Inevitably, this master of invention is responsible for other chandeliers in alternative materials. Among Maurer’s more recent collections is the extraordinary lighting installation Lacrima del Pescatore (The Tears of the Fisherman). When it was introduced in 2009, Maurer explained then that he had been inspired by the fishermen’s nets he saw in Venice 30 years earlier, “covered in thousands of water droplets”. This light is made up of three layered nylon nets covered in 350 crystals, each suspended in the air and all lit by one 100-watt halogen bulb, creating a phosphorescent glow, as if you are dining underwater. It costs €1,200 but can be adjusted to fit different spaces. This autumn, by complete contrast, Maurer introduces the new design Oh Man It’s A Ray (price on request) – a witty play on the idea of the chandelier with conventional light bulbs (Maurer being a fierce defender of their aesthetic beauty) dangling from a mobile sculpture of plain wooden hangers.

For a less drastic but still witty riposte to our illusions of grandeur, the young Seattle-based designer Erich Ginder has invented the Mansion Chandelier ($3,700). Made of laser-cut aluminium, glass and stainless-steel aircraft cable, its shape pays homage to the traditional chandelier, with its curves and spikes, but using contemporary materials and halogen light bulbs. You can order one from his studio in either black or white, or request a custom colour. Even simpler, the Lite Brite Neon Studio, based in Brooklyn, New York, came up with its own teasing variation in 2006; the delightful neon Chandelier (from $2,400). The neon tubes themselves are twisted into the shape of a chandelier, with warmer-toned whites for the “candles” and cooler whites for the arms.

Back in the UK, another design collective, Ochre, has also made restrained glamour and an experimental approach to unusual materials the core of its approach. Founded in 1996 by Joanna Bibby and Harriet Maxwell Macdonald, they were joined in 2000 by Solenne de la Fouchardière, exploring together a subtle, muted palette (hence the name) and a range of handcraft techniques. The beautiful Coco Pendant Light (£940) is an elegant, lozenge-shaped chandelier, constructed from short strips of bleached coconut, hung from a rim like a chic miniskirt, in a uniform cream or black. The large Eclipse Chandelier (£1,850) combines a dark, circular, horse-hair rim with three circular tiers of rectangular horn drops – the 60w light bulbs creating a seductive shimmer. Ochre’s latest range includes the striking Eucalyptus Chandeliers in both a circular (from £2,726) and a linear version (from £3,361), the patinated brass or pewter frames support many handcrafted waterjet-cut metal leaves, inspired by the eucalyptus, which in turn reflect small LED lights with a warm, encompassing glow.

Ochre has showrooms in Paris and New York, as well as London’s Clerkenwell, and its team is willing to create variations on its standard designs (such as the 183cm-high Light Drizzle Spiral, £15,863) and undertake bespoke commissions. Clients include Corney and Barrow Bar and Restaurant, the Mauboussin jewellery house in New York and the exclusive property developers Candy and Candy, for a private residence in Gibraltar.

But perhaps my favourite chandelier of those that eschew the straightforward delights of glass is by Drift, the design duo of Ralph Nauta and Lonneke Gordijn. In an edition of eight, Fragile Future Concrete Chandelier (price on request) is constructed from a central block of concrete, surrounded by a delicate rectilinear network of LED lights and linked by bronze filaments. The magic of this piece is that each LED is surrounded by a halo of real dandelion seeds, each seed painstakingly attached by hand. The piece is exquisitely constructed and ingenious. The juxtaposition of materials and forms – vegetable and mineral; sphere and line; soft and hard – is as persuasive as poetry. You are reminded of our cities worldwide, burning their lights at night, but also of our fragile planet in its dimming galaxy. But far from preaching, this is a chandelier that beguiles.

For many people, however, there is nothing quite like glass. Indeed, there is something about the ethereal marriage of glass and light, both born of heat and flame, that transcends earthier combinations, and designers have been rethinking the original idea for decades. Glass artist Deborah Thomas has been making spectacular bespoke chandeliers from broken bottle fragments (from £10,000) since the early 1980s, indulging our love of glitter while deliberately setting a distance between her own recycling and the ostentatious wastefulness chandeliers once presided over.

Other thoughtful reinventors include Bob Crooks, whose gorgeously coloured one-off, hand-blown glass chandeliers are more individual sculptures masquerading as lights (from £950 to commission). James Lethbridge, a recent RCA graduate, uses both blown and flame-worked glass to create astonishing pieces (all price on request): the Red Mansion Foundation in London’s Portland Place commissioned the Virgin Chandelier, for instance, which consists of 12 opaque blown glass spheres covered in more than 8,000 flame-worked spikes, which resemble sweet chestnuts and are linked together by spiralling glass rods.

In a quite different mood, Brazilian design duo the Campana Brothers are currently exhibiting new lighting at Waddesdon Manor (until October 31); the result of a collaboration with the renowned Murano glass factory Venini. These include the Esperança series of chandeliers combining batch-produced glass hemispheres surmounted by brightly coloured blown-glass figures based on traditional Brazilian cloth dolls (from £29,500).

Also available through Vessel Gallery are two new lines by old, established glass manufacturers. Mediterraneo, a Murano-based traditional Venetian glass-blowing company, has just produced a new collection of five contemporary chandeliers, Intuizione, in collaboration with Vessel (from £5,000). Using a basic vocabulary of glass rods, brushed brass, chrome and convex coloured shades, in combination with tiny light bulbs, they exploit the geometry of lines and curves to create shapes never dreamt of in 19th-century ballrooms. Vessel will also exhibit a new range of lighting designed by Lena Bergstrom for Swedish manufacturer Orrefors. Orrefors abandoned lighting in the 1970s but has been persuaded by Bergstrom to try again.

“The new owner wanted to bring glass and crystal into new areas,” explains Bergstrom. “He gave me licence to invent new pieces. I wanted to try to modernise the crystal chandelier, using LEDs and these crystal-like icicles.” The Prismi (£1,590) and Prismo (£2,320) chandeliers each consist of a simple band of dark or light metal, either straight or looped round to make a circle, hung with large, identically sized drops of crystal cut in stark, geometric shapes. The effect is startling and dramatic.

Undoubtedly, a huge influence behind the revival of the chandelier has been crystal manufacturer Swarovski. Over 10 years it has sponsored the most innovative designers to come up with contemporary reinventions of the crystal chandelier. Besides the one-off lighting installations it has commissioned, it has produced Tord Boontje’s enchanting Ice Branch (£7,100 to £11,900) and Blossom (£7,100 to £25,400) chandeliers, and the uncompromising glamour of Austrian-born, London-based Georg Baldele’s Glitterboxes (£16,800 to £36,400). A spur to other creative designers, these works are the ultimately convincing argument to consumers too. Hook or no hook, you will want one.

See also

Lighting