‘Electrifying Design’ illuminates the art of lighting at High Museum

"Super Lamp," designed in 1978 by Martine Bedin  and manufactured circa 1981–1988 by Memphis Milano, is featured in the "Electrifying Design" exhibit at the High Museum of Art. 
Courtesy of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

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"Super Lamp," designed in 1978 by Martine Bedin and manufactured circa 1981–1988 by Memphis Milano, is featured in the "Electrifying Design" exhibit at the High Museum of Art. Courtesy of The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Table lamps, chandeliers and light bulbs shine as objets d’art

You only have to lose power for one night and spend an unpleasant evening in the dark to appreciate the security and ease of life with the modern convenience of lighting.

It’s staggering to consider a world without the electric light. Invented in 1808 by English chemist Humphry Davy, it is a technological breakthrough that has become intertwined with modernity.

But light is more than just a necessity that has transformed civilization. It’s also a design object that has allowed designers to play with material, electricity and form to create ambiance and effect.

You could say “Electrifying Design: A Century of Lighting” at the High Museum of Art was also a lightbulb moment for two longtime design curators, Sarah Schleuning, formerly of the High Museum of Art and now senior curator of decorative arts and design at the Dallas Museum of Art, and Cindi Strauss, curator of decorative arts, craft and design at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where “Electrifying Design” debuted in February.

Passionate about lighting design since early in her career, Strauss has been collecting lighting devices for the Houston museum for more than 20 years. She approached Schleuning about curating a lighting exhibition about six years ago while Schleuning was still at the High. Their intent was to encourage visitors to “look anew at light,” says Strauss.

An unprecedented survey of the design impact of lighting, “Electrifying Design” shows both the practical and the wondrous, magical side of illumination. Presented on the second floor of the Anne Cox Chambers Wing, it is a fresh look at a design feature that hasn’t had the attention that other designed objects — from sneakers to motorcycles to chairs — have garnered.

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"Mega Chandelier" (2018) by Moooi Works, mixed media. Courtesy of Moooi, New York

Credit: Handout

"Mega Chandelier" (2018) by Moooi Works, mixed media.
Courtesy of Moooi, New York

Credit: Handout

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"Mega Chandelier" (2018) by Moooi Works, mixed media. Courtesy of Moooi, New York

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

While other design objects can be rendered with some accuracy in images and books, lighting features are harder to appreciate when they’re not seen in person, notes Schleuning. “You can talk about them and you can photograph them, but you can’t see how they really alter the space in the same way.”

The timing of “Electrifying Design” is ideal, says Strauss.

“Since so many people were at home for significant amounts of time during the pandemic, there has been a lot of re-evaluation of domestic interiors. Lighting is something that can easily transform a space with little effort or intervention, so it has risen to the forefront,” she says. “While many people still choose lighting designs for their light qualities, increasingly consumers are prioritizing aesthetics and form.”

Illustrating lighting’s transformative stage craft is a key element of “Electrifying Design.”

“This exhibition surveys rare historic works alongside novel contemporary design to present the many different directions lighting has taken over the last century,” says Monica Obniski, the High’s current curator of decorative arts and design.

Nearly 80 rare lighting examples are on display from an international who’s who of designers, including Achille Castiglioni, Christian Dell, Greta Magnusson Grossman, Poul Henningsen, Ingo Maurer, Verner Panton, Gino Sarfatti, Ettore Sottsass and Wilhelm Wagenfeld.

The oldest design in the exhibit is Dutch designer and architect Gerrit Rietveld’s “Hanging Lamp.” Designed in 1922, it was made by Gerard van de Groenekan in 1982. Indicative of the Dutch De Stijl art movement, it is a strikingly contemporary design with a beguiling simplicity of form that features three rectilinear wood and glass tubes suspended from long cords anchored to a square black base at the ceiling.

The High Museum show largely hews to the same format of the Houston show, which features three themes: “Typologies,” “The Bulb” and “Quality of Light.”

“Typologies,” says Schleuning, focuses on form and function. It features lighting as object, including pendants, chandeliers, task lamps and floor lamps. This section breaks lighting down into its various design forms, from quotidian desk lamps to Gae Aulenti’s “Ruspa Table Lamp” (1967), an utterly whimsical device with an anthropomorphic shape that suggests the Looney Tunes character Marvin the Martian.

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Vico Magistretti's "Eclisse Table Lamp," was designed in 1966 and manufactured by Artemide circa 1970. Courtesy of Archivio/Studio Magistretti — Fondazione Vico Magistretti

Credit: Handout

Vico Magistretti's "Eclisse Table Lamp," was designed in 1966 and manufactured by Artemide circa 1970.
Courtesy of Archivio/Studio Magistretti — Fondazione Vico Magistretti

Credit: Handout

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Vico Magistretti's "Eclisse Table Lamp," was designed in 1966 and manufactured by Artemide circa 1970. Courtesy of Archivio/Studio Magistretti — Fondazione Vico Magistretti

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Like that universal shorthand for “idea” conveyed by a lightbulb over a head, “The Bulb” explores the idea of the bulb as a “kind of creative genesis,” says Schleuning. Objects include Ingo Maurer’s 1966 “Bulb Light,” a single light bulb encased in a larger crystal ball bulb, and Rody Graumans for Droog Design’s “85 Lamps,” a 1993 chandelier made from an enormous cluster of dangling light bulbs.

The third phase of the exhibit, “Quality of Light,” is centered on the artful ways materials from glass to metal to plastic to paper can mediate and change light. It explores “how light gets diffused through different materials … or reflected or refracted,” says Schleuning. One example is a piece from the High’s own collection, Donald Deskey’s sleek “Table Lamp” (1928), which uses diffuser lenses to produce a specific quality of light in a sculptural form.

What the curators tried to avoid, says Schleuning, was a chronological approach to lighting history. Instead, it is the connections across history and often, across oceans, that interest them. “You’re really kind of building a new narrative,” says Schleuning.

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"Bulb Light," designed 1966, metal, glass and bulb by Ingo Maurer, manufactured by Ingo Maurer GmbH. Courtesy of Tom Vack

Credit: Tom Vack

"Bulb Light," designed 1966, metal, glass and bulb by Ingo Maurer, manufactured by Ingo Maurer GmbH.
Courtesy of Tom Vack

Credit: Tom Vack

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"Bulb Light," designed 1966, metal, glass and bulb by Ingo Maurer, manufactured by Ingo Maurer GmbH. Courtesy of Tom Vack

Credit: Tom Vack

Credit: Tom Vack

Each of the three themed sections also includes what the curators call a “wonder” gallery, showing the expressive and artistic potential of lighting design. “There are many ‘wow’ moments in the show that delight and amaze visitors in a ‘magical’ manner,” says Strauss of what she calls the “alchemy of light.”

Immersive experiences will define a portion of “Electrifying Design” with contemporary works by Moooi, Drift and Noguchi, which particularly captivated Houston museum goers.

“I hope it gets people thinking about all the different creative ways you can approach an idea,” says Schleuning, “that there is not a single path. And so, something like lighting, which we always take for granted — until the power goes out — you just all of a sudden realize, ‘Wow!’ there’s such a range of possibility.”

And of course, the beauty of design is that it is practical art, so visitors can take home a piece of the exhibition in the gift shop, where works designed by Achille Castiglioni, Konstantin Grcic and others are available for purchase.


VISUAL ARTS EVENT

“Electrifying Design: A Century of Lighting.” Through September 26. $16.50 for timed tickets. Virtual Curator Conversation with Sarah Schleuning and Cindi Strauss, 6 p.m. Aug. 26. $16.50. Via Zoom. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St., N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-4400, www.high.org