'Electrifying Design: A Century of Lighting' debuts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
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'Electrifying Design: A Century of Lighting' debuts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Martine Bedin, manufactured by Memphis Milano, Super Lamp, designed c. 1978, made c. 1980s, fiberglass, enamel, steel, rubber, and 40-watt incandescent bulbs, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Museum purchase funded by the Design Council, 2020. © 1978 Martine Bedin.

HOUSTON, TX.- From the invention of the first electric light by British chemist Humphry Davy in 1808 to Phillips’s development of the “ultraefficient” lightbulb in 2011, lighting technology has fascinated engineers, scientists, architects, and designers worldwide and has inspired periods of creative expression. Electrifying Design: A Century of Lighting is the first large-scale exhibition in the United States to examine international lighting over the past 100 years as a catalyst for technological and artistic innovation within major avant-garde design movements. The exhibition presents 85 rare or limited-production examples by the world’s leading designers, including Achille Castiglioni, Christian Dell, DRIFT, Greta Magnusson Grossman, Poul Henningsen, Ingo Maurer, Verner Panton, Gino Sarfatti, Ettore Sottsass, and Wilhelm Wagenfeld. Their creations harnessed light’s radiance and beauty, resulting in innovative designs that extend beyond the purely functional. Electrifying Design is on view in Houston from Saturday, February 27, through Sunday, May 16, 2021 before traveling to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta in June.

“Lighting design has both transformed our daily life and influenced major design movements over the past 100 years. These novel creations blend advances in technology with artistic expression; they will open visitors’ eyes to innovative design in the everyday,” said Gary Tinterow, MFAH Director, the Margaret Alkek Williams Chair.

“Electrifying Design brings together exceptional objects that will delight visitors with a combination of innovative forms, practical applications, and fun,” said Cindi Strauss, exhibition co-curator and the Sara and Bill Morgan Curator of Decorative Arts, Craft, and Design at the MFAH. “Lighting as a field has often been pushed, literally, into the shadows. This exhibition highlights its role as a leading indicator of stylistic and technical change.”

“While the function and innovation is evident, lighting’s ability to delight transforms our experience,” said Sarah Schleuning, exhibition co-curator and the Margot B. Perot Senior Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at the Dallas Museum of Art. “Electrifying Design revels in the alchemy of these designs that continue to evoke wonder and inspiration for generations to come.”

Exhibition Overview

As scholar Bernd Dicke aptly described, “Lighting is a combination of romantic escapism and decadent aestheticism on the one hand, and reformist zeal with a serious attempt at finding suitable form for the industrial product on the other, distinguishing the discourse between the cult of light and the art of lighting.” Over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, architects and designers have consistently addressed lighting design, creating original objects that transcend their function.

Electrifying Design: A Century of Lighting focuses on lighting’s contribution to design history, illustrating how it responds to advances in technology and materials, and the development of functional form during changing aesthetic movements. Organized by theme, the exhibition examines lighting in three sections: Typologies; the Lightbulb and its aesthetic importance; and Quality of Light. Each section features works ranging from early expressions in the 1920s to current designs from the United States, Europe, and Asia. Amplifying the works on view, the exhibition features three large-scale immersive experiences.

Typologies reflect the evolution of function and design within discreet forms: task lamps, floor lamps, and ceiling lamps. Designed for specific functions—such as stationed on desks, tables, or pianos—task lamps are small-scale devices that respond to new ways of living by addressing glare; the need for focused, directional light and adjustability; and advances in efficiency and serial manufacturing. Evolving from the 17th century torchère—a stand for candelabras—floor lamps provide light to interior spaces from a fixed location, incorporating modern and innovative materials. Ceiling lamps—often called chandeliers—are focal points of any space, helping to define and break visual planes. Over the past century, typologies have forged connections between changing domestic and public uses, stylistic and material choices, and technological innovations in bulbs and manufacturing.

In lighting, the Lightbulb is integral to functionality. This section highlights examples where the bulb itself is both the light source and aesthetic element, exposing how the fundamental component has pushed form and function to new levels. One of the most common forms is the bulbous shape, a manifestation of “capturing light in a bottle”— an idea put forth by German designer Ingo Mauer and demonstrated in his Bulb Light (1966). Early Modernists stripped their designs to the most basic, functional elements, such as Jean Prouvé’s Potence d’Eclairage (Swing Jib Lamp) No. 602 (1952). Prouvé reduced the task lamp to a single globe bulb that projects a single blob of light to meet a user’s specific needs. Works influenced by Pop Art and the Radical Design movement introduced whimsical references. Memphis designer Martine Bedin’s Super Lamp (c. 1978) resembles a toy car: a rounded base crowned with similarly shaped bulbs in socket collars of different colors, showcasing how lighting can be playful and express a sense of wonder in addition to its utilitarian purpose.

Other designers employed the newly available tube bulbs to create spatial definition and punctuate environments. Gerrit Rietveld believed interior and exterior spaces were seamlessly connected, creating elements that emphasized harmony between planes, color, and function, such as his Hanging Lamp (1922). It features bulbs suspended from the ceiling in long, vertical and horizontal lines that intersect or bisect, yet never actually touch. Gino Sarfatti’s 1063 Floor Lamp (1954) was one of the earliest manufactured lamps that used a long tube bulb in a minimal composition. Its transformer serves both as a counterweight and a power source. Aldo van den Nieuwelaar’s TC6 Lamp (1969) takes advantage of the period’s new neon tubes, which could be bent into circular or otherwise shaped forms. More-contemporary lighting examples reimagine the use of tubular light, such as DRIFT’s Flylight (2015)—an installation that explores functionality while unleashing a performative capacity to animate the space around it. Comprised of LEDs and glass tubes suspended from the ceiling, Flylight responds to movement in the space around it in a programmed, yet randomized format to mimic a chaotic swarm.

Quality of Light considers the manipulation of light effects. Designers have long sought ways to diffuse, reflect, transmit, and express light—well before Humphry Davy’s discovery. Over the past century, designers have not only created new lighting forms, but also explored the physical and transformative, as well as the emotionally or psychologically stirring potential of light on its own terms. One strategy is shifting the focus of direct light through reflection or diffusion through mirrors or reflective surfaces—a tactic that has been used for centuries to expand the reach of candlelight. Donald Deskey’s Table Lamp (1928) demonstrates an early use of diffuser lenses to produce an even and specific quality of light, and Zahara Schatz’s Table Lamp, Model T-4-S (1951) employs a reflector to spread illumination across a surface. Inspired by Japanese paper lanterns, Isamu Noguchi’s Akari (1951) lamp series delivers a luminous and weightless glow through an immersive installation. More recently, Toyo Ito married spun fiberglass with nested globular forms to present a light-filled sculpture for his Mayuhana Mie Floor Lamp (2007).

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