All About Glass

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20th Century Lighting

All About Glass

Lighting, which includes lamps, chandeliers, and other forms of architectural lighting, is a diverse category of glassmaking that often combines utility with art. The Museum’s collection ranges from fragile ancient Roman oil-burning lamps to majestic 19th-century English chandeliers made for Indian palaces. The small but fascinating collection of 20th century lighting, which is also international in scope, expresses a variety of stylistic approaches and themes, with examples of studio work in addition to industrial design. I have picked three fixtures, from different decades, to illustrate the broad subject of modern lighting.

Cypriot glass lamp with lustered ceramic base

A fine example of Art Nouveau lighting is the “Cypriot” glass table lamp with lustered ceramic base (79.4.117) that was designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany (American, 1848–1933) and Clément Massier (French, 1844–1917) between 1895 and 1910.

Tiffany, a painter, interior designer, and architect, is widely recognized for his famous stained glass windows, lamps, and iridescent art glass, which he produced from about 1875 to 1928. The leading proponent of the Art Nouveau style in the United States, Tiffany first became known for his interior designs and his architectural glass and mosaics. For his designs, he often drew on the rich artistic traditions of ancient Persia, Turkey, Egypt, and Greece, as well as the natural world.

Massier, a French ceramist, was famous for his glazes, which were inspired by 14th- and 15th-century Hispano-Moresque ceramics made in Spain. Tiffany admired Massier’s work. In 1895 and 1896, Tiffany exhibited his Favrile glass with Massier’s ceramics at the well-known decorative arts dealer Siegfried Bing’s Salon de l’Art Nouveau in Paris. Later, Tiffany displayed the pottery of Massier and other Art Nouveau ceramists alongside his own pottery in his New York showroom.

Tiffany became interested in ceramics partly because he needed to find a material for lampstands that would complement his glass lampshades. The Museum’s table lamp is an unusual collaboration between the two artists. When illuminated, this lamp created a warm pool of diffused light that was a welcome antidote to the unaccustomed brightness of the new electric light bulbs.

Hanging lamp designed by Gerrit Rietveld

The hanging lamp (96.3.41) designed by Gerrit Rietveld (Dutch, 1888–1964) between 1920 and 1924 is an icon of 20th-century Modernist design. After World War I, the Art Nouveau style quickly fell out of fashion. In reaction to its curving, colorful, and highly ornamental forms, Modernist designers favored clean, undecorated lines and a simplified palette.

Trained as a cabinet maker, Rietveld supplemented his apprenticeship with night courses in architecture and design. In 1911, he started a cabinetmaking business in Utrecht, and in 1918, he introduced his most famous design, the experimental “Red/Blue” chair. Inspired by the reduced, geometric forms of furniture designed a decade earlier by the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, Rietveld developed his chair with art and industry in mind. The sculptural forms of Rietveld’s furniture and lighting, with their open, angular construction, were made of the standardized sections that were increasingly demanded by industry.

In 1919, Rietveld joined the De Stijl group. This influential association of Dutch artists, architects, and designers created and promoted a new, harmonious, modern aesthetic in architecture, painting, applied arts, and interiors. In this hanging lamp, Rietveld stripped the fixture down to its essentials of light bulbs and wires, and then he reconstructed it. An untraditional lamp that is also a sculpture, it is the definition of the Modernist concept of form following function.

Folpo Nero (Black octopus)

Another untraditional approach to lighting is seen in the chandelier in the form of a large black octopus (2003.3.45) designed in 2003 by Maria Grazia Rosin (Italian, b. 1958) and made by the master Muranese glass sculptor Pino Signoretto. Born and raised in Venice and trained as a painter, Rosin has applied her inventiveness and humor to two of the most tradition-bound forms in Venetian glass: the chandelier and the table centerpiece.

This design is one in a series of lighting fixtures made in the form of octopuses and squids. Rosin’s choice of subject matter reflects a current trend toward the eccentric and offbeat in home furnishings, and the integration of the handmade in contemporary design. With its waving arms, murky color, and staring eyes, the octopus evokes the mysterious depths of the ocean. The theme is perfect for Venice, a city that has had a long association with the sea.

One of the tentacles of the huge octopus acts as the vertical shaft of the fixture, while the creature’s remaining arms are shaped into the traditional arms of the chandelier. The eyes are illuminated with fiber-optic lighting, and the deep black of the glass is enlivened with iridescent purple, blue, green, and gold sparkles. A red squid, attached to the octopus in some kind of symbiotic relationship that only invertebrates understand, trails decoratively from the bottom.

Published on September 22, 2011