Visitors entering the V&A’s ornate Norfolk House Music Room during last autumn’s London Design Festival found themselves surrounded by 264 suspended blown-glass bulbs, each apparently containing a single insect. As they ventured further into the rococo space, dazzled by reflections of mirrored and gilded walls glinting in the pendant glass, the encapsulated insects started swirling around, hitting the bulbs’ sides with a zing. It was an enchanting experience. Only closer inspection revealed that these excitable arthropods were, in fact, handmade bumblebees, ladybirds and flies, laser-cut from printed foil, with furry felt bodies. Curiosity Cloud, as this engaging installation is called, is a triumphant amalgam of technology, craft and design. As a commentary on biodiversity loss – it also includes newly discovered and endangered species – it is profoundly moving. “It’s about the relationship humans have with nature and about the moment when you approach a species too closely and it disappears,” says Katharina Mischer, of Viennese design duo Mischer’Traxler, who created this interactive piece.
Curiosity Cloud is part of a year-long collaboration between Mischer’Traxler and the champagne house Perrier-Jouët, whose iconic Belle Epoque bottle was designed by art nouveau artist Emile Gallé in 1902. A globally significant private art nouveau collection is housed at Perrier-Jouët’s Maison Belle Epoque, in Epernay, France, where Curiosity Cloud will eventually be displayed (visitors are not admitted, but an online tour is planned for the end of this year). “Perrier-Jouët’s heritage is closely interlinked with art nouveau, and they asked whether we could put that connection into a contemporary setting,” says Mischer. “We wanted to focus on insects because in art nouveau they were often used in marquetry and furniture designs,” adds co-founder Thomas Traxler.
Inspiration came from the sketches of flamboyant German artist and biologist Ernst Haeckel, whose discovery and illustrations of thousands of new species in the late 19th century prompted art nouveau artists to turn the creatures’ organic shapes into innovative designs in glass, wood and metal. “Haeckel’s work uses some artistic licence,” says Mischer. “His drawings are based on scientific ideas, but some elements are invented, and we liked this combination of realism and poetic interpretation. Insects are relevant for champagne production as they act as pollinators,” she adds. So Mischer’Traxler reiterated the theme on various limited-edition Perrier-Jouët bottles and champagne flutes, such as the Belle Epoque Vintage 2007 (£130).
Mischer’Traxler’s focus on endangered species continued at December’s Design Miami, where Brussels-based design dealer Victor Hunt showed the studio’s “Limited Moths – Catocala conversa” lamp (edition of five, €7,700), featuring brass moths flying towards a light source. Each of the 1,160 insects is numbered to represent a single moth of this species still alive in Austria (current numbers are estimated at 900-1,200). “Translating an abstract concept into a tangible object makes it easier to grasp,” says Traxler.
Nature’s fragility is also on show in Australian photographer Garth Knight’s stunning digital prints (limited editions of 10, from €3,800) of insect jewellery by Lorenz Bäumer, available from the Paris-based jeweller. And collectors, it seems, are attracted to decorative arthropods like moths to a flame. When Ingo Maurer’s JB Dragonfly hanging light, designed in 2012 and executed in 2015, with delicate, handmade dragonflies hovering around a central glass bulb, appeared in the Sotheby’s Design sale last November, it sold for £56,250, outstripping an estimate of £12,000-£18,000. “It has an innately poetic appeal, capturing the fatalistic beauty of insects drawn to light, only to be burned,” says Cécile Verdier, European head of 20th-century design at Sotheby’s. “With its combination of modern materials – 3D-printed plastic – and the delicacy of the handmade dragonflies, the work is a wonderful example of Maurer’s prowess in creating whimsical and covetable designs. Its success in this sale can also be attributed to the extreme rarity of this model, of which only five examples were produced.” This was the fifth.
Italian glass artist Pier Lorenzo Salvoni’s handcrafted lights are decorated with glass butterflies and dragonflies. Farfallona – in an array of sizes, from a 10cm tealight (from £815) to a 50cm electric pendant (£3,750) – was inspired by Salvoni’s move from Venice to the Italian countryside. “My first butterflies began as single elements in glass, but then I began to add them in greater numbers to a variety of lamps as I rediscovered the natural world,” he says.
Varieties such as the dramatic scarlet butterfly, deep‑blue periander metalmark, delicate glasswing, intricately marked tree nymph and pale-green, exotic birdwing are luminously captured in Suffolk-based artist Laura Hart’s Lepidoptera series of glass butterflies (from £2,250 each) with sterling-silver legs, antennae and proboscis. Each is mounted in a circular, museum-quality wall-hanging display case. “The meticulous detailing is driven by the desire to represent endangered and rare butterflies as vibrant, living creatures – beautiful, precious and delicate,” says Hart. “I create only one example of each species or subspecies, their uniqueness and fragility accentuating the real threat of extinction that these glorious creatures face.”
In contrast to the damage done by human touch to real butterflies, a lepidopterist’s cabinet of colourful butterfly specimens that respond to touch is among diverse interactive works created by Dominic Harris, founder and creative director of London-based Cinimod Studio, which specialises in fusing architecture with lighting design. His enchanting Flutter Wall (edition of eight, price on request) comes in two versions – 50 butterflies on a 58in UHD screen and 91 butterflies on an 84in screen – complete with custom electronics and software. Each features 40 species, including blushing phantom, painted jezebel, black veined tiger, malachite, sea green swallowtail and orange leopard lacewing. Activation occurs in various ways. Butterflies flap their wings when someone passes by the artwork; touch the screen and they fly off, then settle at random, while a mass exodus is caused by touching four butterflies in the screen’s corners.
This is just the latest manifestation of Harris’ fascination with butterflies; he has also created Baby Flutter (editions of eight, prices on request), an interactively controlled LCD artwork featuring single specimens. Harris has chosen his 10 favourites to portray, with each exhibiting its own mannerisms. Meanwhile, in Flutter (edition of eight, price on request), butterflies flash across a linear display of 88 separate screens on a virtual flight path determined by a viewer’s movement. “Butterflies represent different emotions and meanings in different cultures. They can be a symbol of life or death, luck or tragedy, nervousness or happiness,” says Harris.
Comparatively low-tech, yet just as appealing, are the porcelain butterflies within a flowery garland encircling Barnaby Barford’s Mirror Mirror (limited to five unique pieces, £31,200). Suspended on enamelled wires, they move gently when touched. “Bringing some animal life into the work gives it a different dynamic,” says Barford. The relationship between insects and flowers similarly intrigues London-based Myung Nam An, whose dramatic ceramic beetles took Tent London by storm last autumn. These one-off wall pieces (£3,000) are fantasy insects, designed to be thought-provoking rather than realistic. “I enjoy gardening and if you look closely you see that every insect is amazing in its own way, even the cockroach,” she says.
A fascination with biodiversity also inspired Schwarm, a collection of 12 beetle-shaped porcelain wall vases (limited edition of 10 sets, €5,660) created by two German artists, Beate Reinheimer and Ulrike Rehm, who studied at Amsterdam’s Gerrit Rietveld Academie some 25 years apart and produced this work under the name RaR. “Extremely small but important differences distinguish one type of beetle from another,” says design retailer Thomas Eyck, who sells similar vases individually (limited edition of 40 per design, €498).
“Beetles represent a bridge between life and death – they are a memento mori,” says Belgian artist Jan Fabre, whose work employs real scarab-beetle wings and shells. Influenced by his great-great-grandfather, the 19th-century French entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre, he created Heaven of Delight, a permanent installation covering the ceiling of the Mirror Room at Brussels’ Royal Palace with jewel-beetle wing cases. Visitors to his first UK solo show at London’s Ronchini Gallery earlier this year were intrigued by armour (€100,000-€120,000) created from beetle wing cases. “Fabre’s insect works are labour intensive, often taking hundreds of hours to complete,” says gallery director Lorenzo Ronchini. “His clear dedication to his practice, alongside the pieces’ inherent intricacy and beauty, holds a particular allure for collectors.” This autumn, Fabre will display works new and old at Saint Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, including some that use jewel beetles. Working with the iridescent material, he says, is “like creating light”.
Equally intricate are Humberto and Fernando Campana’s tiny bronze beetles and bugs woven – in a bold coalescence of Brazilian iconography and Italian technique – within the gilded filigree of their Lina armchair (limited edition of 12, £60,000) and sofa (limited edition of three, £120,000). And London-based furniture maker Andrea Felice’s technical virtuosity was likewise revealed at interiors show Decorex last autumn in his Beelzebub bar cabinet (similar cabinets £24,000), emblazoned with a giant, sculptural fly. “Beelzebub is mentioned in biblical sources as ‘Lord of the Flies’ and referred to as the demon of gluttony in other texts,” says Felice. “Using it to adorn a bar cabinet is an ironic statement about our daily overindulgence.”
More experimental is designer Chenbo Shi’s aluminium-framed Insect shelf (£2,100) and table (£2,100), made from Chinese rice paper and tissue paper, also shown at Decorex. The surfaces reveal their organic structures and, like an insect, the shelf clings to the wall with its legs, while its cover opens like a beetle’s wings. “I became interested in the morphology and structure of insects and how wasps make paper-like material to build their nests,” says Shi. “If you study dragonfly wings and beetle elytra [forewings] under a microscope there are fibres twining around the basic structure that form thin, lightweight yet strong shells and wings. I used the same method to create my furniture.” Though the pieces are currently more artistic than functional, Shi plans to cast them in bronze for future commissions. Insect-inspired designs, it seems, are rapidly taking flight.