The most poetic light I ever saw was by the rising young lighting star Paul Cocksedge. It consisted of a vase that was lit up when a flower was placed in it. Piero Gandini, then the owner and guiding spirit behind Flos, was as enchanted by it as I was and looked long and hard into ways of making it a commercially viable product. Sadly, it couldn’t be done. But I have never forgotten it and the poetry behind the combination of flower and light.
Of course, designers through the ages have been inspired by the floral and horticultural world, and perhaps best-known of all was Louis Comfort Tiffany, who at the turn of the 19th century created his famous lamps made from stained glass, almost all of which featured a floral theme. Much later, in the 1970s, Olivier Mourgue came up with his Flower Floor Lamp, which today is an established classic. An almost abstract idea of a flower, which is rendered in chrome-plated steel and adjustable enamelled aluminium “petals”, the lamp costs £2,900 at west London design mecca Themes & Variations, which occasionally stocks examples.
In more recent times, Tord Boontje famously devised a simple but beautiful garland of flowers acid-etched out of a light metal sheet that could be simply wrapped around a light bulb (still available from the Tord Boontje shop for just £20), an inexpensive version of the much grander Garland chandelier (£20,400) that he made for Swarovski. It was, as Boontje put it, part of his attempt “to create romantic and pretty objects that are completely contemporary at the same time”.
Today, perhaps the most blossom-obsessed of all designers is David Wiseman, best known for the 500 handmade porcelain lilies-of-the-valley he created in 2009 for Dior’s flagship store in Shanghai, and the porcelain cherry blossoms tumbling from the ceiling of Dior’s flagship store in Manhattan. He grew up in Pasadena, California, and credits his love of the natural world to a childhood spent in its lush landscapes, as well as the influence of Japanese and Chinese wood-block prints. I first came across his work at a small exhibition in Cape Town of pieces by international designers where Wiseman’s work stood out for its sheer beauty. Visitors were struck not just by the delicate trails of blossoms, branches and twigs he had traced in plaster and porcelain across a ceiling but also by his beautiful chandeliers, made using the same forms.
Wiseman – whose 2015 exhibition at R & Company, the New York gallery that represents him, was called Wilderness and Ornament – admits to being fascinated by ornament, a not always fashionable obsession in the modernist design world. “As early as I can remember,” he once wrote, “I have been interested in drawing patterns – geometries that repeat to create structures, tiles and borders, as well as abstracting trees and flowers to create flourishes and symbols.” His fully fledged works of art – the branch chandeliers’ branches are cast in bronze, the little buds and flowers of cherry blossom or magnolia are of handmade porcelain – are made to order through R & Company. Large illuminated pieces start at $85,000 (price on request); smaller sconces cost from $14,000.
In the same New York gallery is the work of glass artist Jeff Zimmerman, who was brought up in Colorado and, like Wiseman, was immersed in great open spaces close to nature. Zimmerman describes himself as somewhere between an artist and an interior designer and has been making glass pieces inspired by nature most of his working life, drawing on natural phenomena such as crystal caves, underground rivers, ice and snow. He, too, has created a collection of chandeliers, though in his case they are based on vines, with stems made from brass with delicate globes of blown glass (price on request). Available to order through R & Company, prices vary a lot but a large illuminated piece starts at $125,000.
The young German-born designer Marco Iannicelli, meanwhile, rescues branches from trees that have already been felled and would otherwise go to waste. Working with LED lights cleverly made to vanish into the branches, he transforms them into what he calls Little Tree Friends, each a one-off shaped from a particular branch. Iannicelli uses birchwood, brass and aluminium and there are two sizes – one a table lamp (about £1,760), the other a floor lamp (£2,500), both available from Mint.
Similarly obsessed by nature’s beauty, Studio Drift, founded in 2007 in Amsterdam by Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta, has devoted itself to “playing with existing and new relationships between nature, technology and mankind”. Its poetically beautiful Dandelight, painstakingly created by individually attaching dandelion seeds to an LED lamp, has taken as its starting point the dandelion flower, inspired by the childhood enchantment of blowing away the seeds. The result is sheer enchantment. Available from Rockett St George for £85 or £124 with a protective glass dome.
It was while studying how certain flowers open and close, a process that is known as nyctinasty, that Studio Drift came up with Shylight, a kinetic light fixture made from aluminium, polished stainless steel, several layers of silk, LEDs and robotics, which opens and closes just like a real flower. A collection of Shylights has been installed in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, but anyone interested in installing their own display should contact Pace Gallery which represents Studio Drift’s work.
Working exclusively in white “because it is the colour that most beautifully projects lights and shadows”, Japanese designer Chihiro Tanaka launched his eponymous lighting brand in 2005 and has since produced a range of ethereally lovely lamps based on that most quintessentially Japanese flower, the cherry blossom. With delicate handmade petals overlapping each other to create a soft, almost mystical light, Tanaka’s Sakulights (about £435 from Studio noi) have a delicate beauty, their pale charm reminiscent of blossom in the moonlight.
As the available technology grows in sophistication, we can expect greater numbers of contemporary designers to be inspired by the natural world and to come up with ever more beautiful, intriguing forms of lighting.