Drop-down gorgeous

Designers are turning stairwells into installation spaces with spectacular light sculptures that punctuate the vertical drop with maximum impact, says Helen Chislett

Eva Menz’s 7m chandelier made from hundreds of pieces of timber, for Candy & Candy, price on request.
Eva Menz’s 7m chandelier made from hundreds of pieces of timber, for Candy & Candy, price on request.

The stairwell is often one of the most neglected spaces in a home; there might be art on the walls, but the void itself is left a yawning chasm. However, interior architects and designers are increasingly viewing this vast, vertical space as a new canvas on which to create dynamic lighting sculptures. Technological advances have allowed them to make full use of multistorey atriums, installing lights that often spiral down several floors.

Sara Cosgrove, head of interior design at The Studio at Harrods, is a strong advocate of installing a light with wow factor at the beginning of the journey through a home. “It is all about setting the tone of what will be experienced in the rest of the property. You may not spend a lot of time in a hall or on the stairs, but the chances are you walk through or past them several times a day. Very often we are asked to create something dramatic and impactful that people will see as they enter through the front door – the first indication that they have arrived at a really special house. Traditional chandeliers now seem underwhelming in comparison with what we can create today.”

An Eva Menz design in Swarovski crystal, £41,400, for Taylor Howes.
An Eva Menz design in Swarovski crystal, £41,400, for Taylor Howes. | Image: Tom Sullam

Mat Carlisle, creative director of Candy & Candy, agrees: “The bespoke lights we design and commission for staircases are as much pieces of sculpture as they are light sources. They punctuate the vertical drop, opening up the interior, and also link all the storeys together. In effect, the stairwell becomes one big installation.”

He cites the example of a 7m, tiered design by Eva Menz that cuts through three storeys of an apartment in London (price on request): “It is made of hundreds of individual pieces of shaped timber, and is really 90 per cent sculpture, 10 per cent light source. It becomes part of the surrounding staircase due to the tonally matching leather panels and brass handrail that wrap around and frame it. A big, bright chandelier would not have been suitable at all, but these materials are very rich, warm and comfortable.”

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Menz counts a number of leading interior architects and designers among her clients. She began her business seven years ago, getting her big break when she was asked to create an 11m lighting installation for the spa at The G Hotel in Galway, which won a European Design Award.

Inhabiting the space between product design and sculpture, Menz does not categorise herself as a lighting designer. “Light is only there to make my pieces come to life,” she says, “you don’t necessarily see the light source, just the effect of it, as you would in nature.”

The interactive Flylight by Studio Drift, about €55,000, at a Moscow residence.
The interactive Flylight by Studio Drift, about €55,000, at a Moscow residence. | Image: Ralph Nauta

Her work for Candy & Candy includes the fantastic and fantastical Causing a Storm light sculpture in the lobby of One Hyde Park, inspired by the movement of wind through the leaves in the adjacent park. Made from more than 6,500 hand-formed glass pieces, half of which are lustred in 10ct gold, it stretches over 12m and graces the lobby with a 2m drop. Menz has also worked with horn, crystal, wood, bone, feathers, horsehair, porcelain, metal, vintage jewellery, even ice – the latter for a one-night event in New York – as well as a variety of collected objects, and prices start at £50,000.

“There is no perfect material, just a perfect material for a particular context,” she says. “You are not just filling a physical void, but an emotional one, too. The very first questions I ask are: What is this space about? Why would I be here? What should I be prepared for?”

Danny Lane etched-glass chandelier, price on request.
Danny Lane etched-glass chandelier, price on request.

At Studio Drift in Amsterdam, artists Ralph Nauta and Lonneke Gordijn have recreated a 7m, two-storey version of their Flylight installation, which was launched at 2011’s Salon del Mobile show in Milan, in a client’s home in Moscow. It is an interactive piece based on the swirling shapes of flocks of birds. When someone walks within the field of its built-in sensors, the light moves differently through the installation, mimicking those formations.

“In fact,” says Gordijn, “those patterns are caused by the fact that no bird wants to be at the front of the group or to the side, so they are constantly challenging each other for best position. We programmed the DNA of that idea, and replicated it through technology.”

Chandelier by Phillips & Wood commissioned by The Studio at Harrods, price on request.
Chandelier by Phillips & Wood commissioned by The Studio at Harrods, price on request. | Image: Tom Sullam

For those who would like their own site-specific Flylight, the cost is from about €55,000, depending on size, height, location and so forth. As Gordijn emphasises, there is a lot more going on here than meets the eye: “Flylight brings a lot of energy to a space because it is constantly changing and moving. It is a piece of art that also uses a lot of technology. Everything is produced by hand in our studio in Holland or bespoke to our specifications, because we wanted to keep everything as minimal and simple as possible. Normal electronics are not made to be beautiful, but in this case they had to be.”

The technological challenges of such huge pieces are part of what makes them so special. Joe Zito and Robbie Spina of Spina Design have become renowned for their dramatic cascades of crystal over the past seven years. However, Zito says that few clients realise how much engineering is involved: “They imagine a theatrical 6m drop, but they don’t want to see how you achieve that. Bearing in mind that some of our pieces weigh close to a ton, it is obviously essential to think through every element of construction and safety. And although a chandelier may be big, we don’t want to end up with something so glaring that it is like living with the Blackpool Illuminations.”

Niamh Barry’s Looped installation, from about €8,000, for Finchatton.
Niamh Barry’s Looped installation, from about €8,000, for Finchatton.

Although best known for crystal, Spina also produces spectacular creations in materials such as silver chain, glass, porcelain, mirror and semiprecious stones – notably jet and tiger’s eye – for anything between £10,000 and £250,000. Each light is made in sections, often with thousands of individual components, and then constructed on site over a period of up to a fortnight. Whenever possible, they persuade clients to allow the light to fall right to the floor for maximum effect.

Zito says their creations can produce some remarkable reactions: “We have people crying and saying it really is their dream come true. To have something created specially for your home can be a very emotional experience, and one that the client often loves to collaborate in. The stairway is the heart of the home, so where better to have one beautiful, grand, amazing sculptural piece?”

Jet and crystal chandelier, from £24,995, by Spina Design.
Jet and crystal chandelier, from £24,995, by Spina Design.

The choice of where to go to commission a bespoke light of this sort has never been greater. The recognised godfather of light sculptures is Ingo Maurer, who was honoured with a solo exhibition at New York’s Cooper-Hewitt museum a few years ago, and whose designs have inspired a new generation of artists to create work that is also rooted in functionality. For example, Danny Lane, an artist renowned for his work in glass, has created some mouthwatering lighting to commission (price on request), including pieces for Candy & Candy. Michael Anastassiades is another master of reinterpreting the traditional chandelier for contemporary tastes, including designs for Swarovski Crystal Palace.

Irish designer Niamh Barry has been producing bespoke lighting for 12 years but has now created a few select pieces to her own aesthetic. Among these is Looped, constructed from handcrafted circles of LED-encrusted aluminium in a variety of sizes (from about €8,000). “I’m very influenced by jewellery, particularly the facets of gemstones,” says Barry. “What is so satisfying about Looped is that it can be adapted so well to very particular spaces.”

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Proof of this is a seven-loop version that takes centre stage at the Finchatton development in Manresa Road, Chelsea, where the triplex apartment is currently on sale for £25m through Aylesford International. Alex Michelin, director of Finchatton, says a light such as Looped adds strength to a scheme: “The staircase and the lighting around it are crucial to the impact of a house, particularly in a duplex or triplex. A staircase needs to be big and beautiful – you need that sense of volume. Our clients are often powerful and impressive people, and a statement such as this reinforces that sense of importance.”

Karen Howes, founding partner of interior design firm Taylor Howes, echoes this sentiment, encouraging clients to budget in the region of £30,000 to £50,000 for a truly spectacular stairwell light sculpture on the grounds that it makes a serious statement. Taylor Howes has also worked with Eva Menz, commissioning a dramatic swirl of Swarovski crystal for a home in South Kensington (£41,400). “One big extravagant centrepiece communicates that you can afford to be generous with space,” says Howes. “It makes a house immediately feel grander. It is almost a secondary consideration that these designs are lights.”

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