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Written by 4:37 pm The Ledger

Electrifying Design: A Century of Lighting

Electrifying Design was the first-of-its-kind exhibition showcasing the art and science of lighting…
Installation view of Electrifying Design: A Century of Lighting at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.
Installation view of Electrifying Design: A Century of Lighting at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Photos by Will Michels. Photograph © The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Lighting is finally getting the recognition it deserves in the first major exhibition dedicated to the function, form and wonder of light fixtures. Electrifying Design: A Century of Lighting showcases pieces as more than architectural lighting elements but as distinctive objects worthy of examination and admiration. The exhibit explores key contributions from designers through three perspectives: “Typologies,” which inspects lighting as a functional object, “The Naked Bulb as Inspiration,” which highlights examples of a light bulb as both a light source and design element and finally, “Quality of Light,” which delves into the possibilities from light diffusion and manipulation. 

We asked exhibit co-curators Cindi Strauss and Sarah Schleuning to tell us more about the showcase and how it came to be.

Who conceived the idea for this exhibition, and why decorative lighting in particular?

The idea of the exhibition was conceived by Cindi Strauss over 15 years ago. The show evolved over time and when Sarah Schleuning joined the project six years ago, it crystallized into the exhibition we presented that explores a century of lighting designs for interior spaces through the lens of typologies, the bulb as a design catalyst, and the role of diffusion or quality of light.

Martin Bedin, Colorful, Super Lamp.
Martin Bedin, Super Lamp, designed c. 1978, made c. 1980s.

Describe your process for selecting the themes and pieces on exhibit.

This was a long and dynamic process where we tried to be expansive in our thinking and then slowly condense the list to works that explored a range of ideas, forms, makers, countries, time periods, etc. We also wanted to prioritize the originators of forms, presenting the earliest example of an idea rather than one that built on it years later. This was especially important with the historical period in the typology section. 

One of the major themes throughout the exhibition is light as alchemist in a space, specifically the element of wonder and the power of design to connote ideas. Each thematic section of the show has an area devoted to the magical effects of light.  

How did lighting change people’s lives as it developed over the last century? That is, what can we do/observe/appreciate now that we couldn’t before xyz light appeared on the scene? 

Overall, light was transformative and changed our ways of experiencing daily life. This is why losing power is always so jarring. We as humans have grown accustomed to electrified spaces and the possibility for work, play and home activities after dark.  

Installation view of Pendants in Electrifying Design: A Century of Lighting.
Installation view of Electrifying Design: A Century of Lighting at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Photos by Will Michels. Photograph © The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

What do you hope viewers will take away from this exhibit, from weekend art enthusiasts to design professionals?

We hope that visitors will gain a newfound appreciation for this oft-undervalued art form. The function of lighting is always present in people’s minds, but its power to transform spaces is profound. We also hope that people will gain a greater understanding of stylistic differences, material choices, and creativity in addition to functional aspects of lighting design.

Mayuhana Mie Floor Lamp by Toyo Ito for Yamagiwa.
Mayuhana Mie Floor Lamp by Toyo Ito for Yamagiwa, designed 2007, made 2019.

“The function of lighting is always present in people’s minds, but its power to transform spaces is profound.”

Electrifying Design: A Century of Lighting
Published by The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in association with Yale University Press, New Haven and London

Of the three themes to the show – Typologies, Bulbs and Quality of Light – which is each of your favorite, and why? Your favorite design or designer?

Sarah Schleuning: It is always hard to choose. For me, my favorite is the wonder elements of each of the three sections. I loved that we could explore the histories and design qualities through these lenses and then literally flip the switch and reexamine how these ideas could be explored at different scales, in multiples, in different materials with incredible wit and finesse. 

For me, my favorite design is the Eclissé [by Artemide]. It is the first lamp I bought. I love how you reveal and hide the bulb. Its purity of form and small scale always bring joy and wonder to me. It is pure magic and highly functional.  

Cindi Strauss: I agree with Sarah about the “wonder” section of each theme. I am also partial to the Quality of Light section – many of my favorite lighting designers are in this section and I love seeing the mid-20th century American and European designs that remain so vital and fresh today. One of my favorite designers in the show is Gino Sarfatti, an incredible Italian lighting designer who devoted his life’s work to the field. His use of color, syncopated rhythm of shapes, and usage of new bulb technologies are remarkable. 

Installation view of Electrifying Design lighting fixtures.
Installation view of Electrifying Design: A Century of Lighting at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Photos by Will Michels. Photograph © The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The book Electrifying Design: A Century of Lighting is available where books are sold and features some of the most notable names in lighting, including Poul Henningsen, Greta Magnusson Grossman, Verner Panton, Gino Sarfatti, Achille Castiglioni, Ingo Maurer and Christian Dell.

The exhibit debuted in May 2021 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and was shown at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta through September 2021. Lumens Trade Partners were invited to reserve free tickets to these events via their Trade Account Managers, one of the perks offered by the Lumens Trade Advantage program.

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