Katie Stout’s Angel lamp in the Brooklyn home of artist Ethan Cook. Photo by Max Burkhalter
By Hannah Martin
When one of Swedish-Chilean designer Anton Alvarez’s colorful, thread-wrapped floor lamps arrived at the site of Kelly Wearstler’s project, her generally up-for-anything clients weren’t sure what to do. “I thought it hadn’t been unpacked yet, but it turned out it was,” recalled the homeowner, comedian Sebastian Maniscalco, of the leggy fixture intended for his and Lana Gomez’s L.A. living room. “Lana and I were thinking, How are we going to tell Kelly we hate this lamp? It’s just too weird.” Wearstler, explaining the designer’s nuanced process, urged her clients to embrace its strangeness—and in no time, it was one of their favorite things in the house.
“Compelling design is often polarizing,” reasons the AD100 talent, who installed more striking lights by Misha Kahn, Katie Stout and Sean Gerstley, and Michael Anastassiades (as well as some equally eye-catching retro pieces by Michele De Lucchi, Ettore Sottsass, and Mario Botta) in that deliciously funky West Hollywood project. “I get excited by pieces that convey something we haven’t seen before. Why not have fun with it?”
In the years since AD published that project, collectible, contemporary design has edged into the decorating sphere as a logical extension of one’s art collection. With it, the approach Wearstler describes has become more ubiquitous. In galleries and homes around the world, sculptural lights—or conversation-starting jolie-laide lamps, as we’re dubbing them—are taking center stage: Katie Stout’s Arcimboldo-esque fruit-lady floor lamps, made of bronze, ceramic, and glass, dazzled at Venus Over Manhattan this spring, and Chris Beeston’s UFO-like lights, many of them made from of Dollar Store Tupperware, glow at Patrick Parrish. This week, Carmen D’Apollonio opens “Don’t Wake the Snake” at New York’s Friedman Benda, a show that includes monumental, loosely figurative lamps, and across the country at L.A. gallery Marta, Minjae Kim’s buzzy exhibition, “I Was Evening All Afternoon,” includes a memorable Douglas fir floor lamp wearing a delicate, quilted fiberglass skirt as a shade.
In certain well-heeled corners of the world, lighting and sculpture are inching ever closer to one another. Or as D’Apollonio told us recently, “Everything you do, you can always put a shade on it. That’s the beauty of a lamp.”
Of course, they are not always “beautiful”—at least not in the conventional sense. Some might even be called flat-out ugly. But for a certain audience, that edginess adds to the appeal. “Since many of our clients are art collectors, we see lighting as an opportunity to showcase art in another form,” says AD100 designer Julie Hillman, who recently hung a monumental Nacho Carbonell chandelier over a dining table in New York’s West Village. Carbonell’s tree-like fixtures, typically made of concrete, welded metal, and mesh that resembles chicken wire (two accented fashion designer Ulla Johnson’s fall 2021 show at Lincoln Center in February) are polarizing. AD readers took to Instagram to air their wide range of opinions, proving that regardless of how they felt about it, this light was something worth discussing—something people were paying attention to.
Watching the comments section turn into a fixture-focused critique thread brought to mind the words of the late collector, designer, and lamp-lover Jim Walrod, who used the word ugly as an unexpected sort of compliment, saying, “I like things that bother me.” And after so many of us have spent more than a year stuck in the same space with the same stuff, isn’t it high time to live with some things that make us feel something?
Of course, serious statement lights—many of which come with a hefty price tag—are not for the faint of heart. For the more practical question of how to use them, Wearstler gives some simple advice: “Lighting sets the mood for a space, so it’s important to have multiple sources to create dimension.”
For a less daring client, perhaps that means pairing smaller-scale statement lamps with something a tad more traditional. Steven Volpe, for example, recently flanked a Joaquim Tenreiro sofa in a Manhattan high rise with a pair of Carbonell table lamps, accompanied by a more refined Alberto Giacometti floor lamp. But of course, for the right client, more is more. Of that West Village project, Hillman recalls, “the more experimental we got, the more the client liked it.”