Diamond Ring by Christopher Boots. Photo by Christine Francis. 

Contemporary designers around the world are transforming lighting fixtures from basic utility into artistic bling.

By Roger Grody

Talented interior designers compose seating, flooring and window treatments to complement each other like a wardrobe, requiring a delicate balance of fashion and functionality.  Lighting was once viewed as mere utility, but the fixtures produced by today’s premier designers represent the jewelry that sets off an outfit.

Drew McGukin, a New York-based designer with a national clientele, reports that although dramatic lighting can sometimes short-circuit budgets, its value should never be underestimated. “I think of lighting as an extension of the art in a space — a real opportunity for functional sculpture that immediately lifts a room,” says McGukin, who welcomes the myriad of innovative products currently available. Among the lighting designers he favors are fellow New Yorkers Lindsey Adelman, an industry leader, and Stephen Antonson, whose work is distinguished by his creative use of plaster.

Top: Bubble Burst in oil-rubbed bronze with clear globs by Lindsey Adelman, photo by Lauran Coleman; Bottom: Alex Pendant Chandelier by Fuse. 

“I’ve always surrounded myself with handmade things, art and antiques. They make good company because the maker seems to be present,” reports Antonson, who wants his chandeliers to evince this feeling and eschews polished, silky finishes. “No two are alike and you can actually see my hand in every one,” he explains. Indeed, Antonson’s plaster has a tactile, organic quality in which you can almost make out the artist’s fingerprints.

Adelman is the darling of world-class interior designers and architects, and her work—an extraordinary fusion of art, whimsy and electricity once reserved for Manhattan penthouse dwellers — has found a global clientele. She is as much a movement as a designer, and Adelman-inspired knockoffs are so ubiquitous that even suburban homeowners are unwitting fans of the designer.

At Lindsey Adelman Studio, the founder surrounds herself with a staff of metalworkers, architects and philosophers, all dedicated to pushing the limits of lighting design. Adelman says of her craft, “It’s structural and sculptural and you can test it immediately.” She also appreciates the unpredictable dynamics of anything that hangs from a ceiling, suggesting a chandelier’s relationship to gravity is far more seductive than that of static sofas or tables.

Adelman is inspired by the work of renowned architects Santiago Calatrava and Shigeru Ban. And although one can see the influence of those masters’ daring sculptural expressions in Adelman’s cantilevered fixtures, she humbly characterizes her personal style as simply “combining the practical and sensual.” 

Her studio’s first product was a modest version of Adelman’s now-signature Burst, an explosion of hand-blown globes and spikes inspired by vintage French jewelry and Medieval flails. The Boom Boom Burst, a spectacularly oversized edition of that inaugural piece, is priced well north of $100,000.

“I think that, more than ever, designs are driven by self-expression,” states Adelman, who notes this is still a nascent trend for products designed for mass-production, but quite prevalent among independent designers who self-manufacture. “Lighting is the perfect medium for this kind of expression,” she insists.

Across the country is Los Angeles-based Fuse Lighting, where founder Kevin Kolanowski uses semiprecious stones to elevate lighting fixtures into an haute couture of electricity. “Designing lighting has really been an ongoing exploration for me,” says Kolanowski, who, like Adelman, is influenced by Calatrava, as well as architects Carlo Scarpa and Zaha Hadid.

“I appreciate all types of design, but have such a passion for lighting because of how it can completely transform the mood of a space,” says Kolanowski. His work is a testament to how a thoughtful selection of materials and forms profoundly influences how light radiates through a room. “Lighting is art, atmosphere, structure, and function all in one,” says the designer, who has always been fascinated by jewelry.

“I wanted to play with this idea of adornment using organic materials in my lighting design, but with a contemporary twist,” says Kolanowski. The designer began incorporating semiprecious gems into sleek geometric forms, calling his work “jewelry for the home.” Like a jeweler, Kolanowski manipulates natural materials into art, using citrine nuggets or amethyst chips to suffuse and refract light in different ways. Fuse’s Alex chandelier features a curtain of stone surrounded by a metal frame, and a particularly compelling combination of finishes is amber-hued carnelian nuggets juxtaposed against dark oil-rubbed bronze.

Kolanowski contends the industry’s embracement of miniaturized and flexible LED bulbs has encouraged the use of new materials and a wider variety of intricate shapes in lighting design. He states, “The forms that I’m working with now usually follow architecture and are more fluid than ever.”

Unlike some commentators, Jason Miller, founder and creative director of New York’s Roll & Hill, does not believe lighting has yet completely morphed into art. “Design is design. Art is art. The goals are different,” he insists, but concedes, “I do think it’s fair to say that lighting has become more expressive, which opens up a whole new world of opportunity for interiors.”

Miller has assembled a team of designers — including his celebrated crosstown peer Lindsey Adelman — that emphasizes the sculptural qualities of lighting, customized to clients’ specifications.

The Brutalist movement-inspired Gridlock pendant from Roll & Hill, created by Philippe Malouin, is a handcrafted, symmetrical assemblage of brass trusses, something that might have been created from a very sophisticated Erector Set. In addressing new trends, Miller states, “I think there is a group of young designers working right now whose work has more in common with Memphis or design from the ’80s than other periods.” He notes, however, “That work is usually rejected as being ‘ugly.’”

“I’m very inspired by nature,” explains Gulla Jónsdóttir, who adds, “There are no straight lines in the human body so why should we live in square spaces?” The Icelandic-born designer is a successful hospitality industry specialist whose chic Parisian restaurants and serene Mexican resorts reflect her organic, seductive imprint. She also authors collections of furniture, including some distinctive lighting pieces. Her Nest chandelier — the fixture’s outer shell is a collection of “twigs” crafted from salvaged rebar, while an inner shade surrounding the bulb is created from polished tubular steel — reflects the designer’s penchant for reimagining nature.

Alexander Chandelier by Stephen Antonson. 

Among her peers, Jónsdóttir admires prestigious Italian furniture maker Henge — its polished silver-brass rings, seemingly floating in air, present an alluring minimalism — and Australian industrial designer Christopher Boots. The Sugar Stick pendants from Boots’ collection are delicate crystalline sculptures whose inherent energy is amplified through the flip of a switch.

Like Jónsdóttir, Boots looks to the natural world for inspiration. “From the formation of natural crystals and minerals over time to the molecular structure of organic matter, I’m always exploring the world outside the Anthropocene to drive my design practice,” he states. “I try and insulate myself from trends to allow my own visual language to develop without external pressures,” says Boots, who focuses on combining new technologies with traditional artisanal processes. He cites his quartz crystal-studded Diamond Ring and Prometheus chandeliers as reflecting his signature pairing of the unfinished or textured with highly polished edges.

From the perspective of an interior designer, McGukin offers, “There’s something beautiful about reaching to turn on a single lamp, or hitting a bank of switches and watching a room burst into a perfect glow.”

Nest Chandelier by Gulla Jónsdóttir. Photo by Jesus Banuelos. 

Masters of Illumination

Christopher Boots: www.christopherboots.com

Drew McGukin Interiors: www.drewmcgukin.com

Fuse Lighting: www.fuselighting.com

Gulla Jónsdóttir Architecture & Design: gullajonsdottir.com

Henge: www.henge07.com

Lindsey Adelman Studio: www.lindseyadelman.com

Roll & Hill: www.rollandhill.com

Stephen Antonson: www.stephenantonson.com