Chris Poehlmann’s Lighting Experiments

People / Products / September 9, 2014

Regina Connell’s interview with lighting designer Christopher Poehlmann continues today:

How do you stay fresh, with all your custom work going on?

I have valued innovation and exploration over financial concerns from the start. My early years were all about throwing caution to the wind and I never worried that most people didn’t seem to get my work. I found that there was always going to someone interested if I found it engaging.

You said a little earlier that you’d started as a furniture designer, only later going into lighting.

I became known as a designer of decorative light fixtures over a furniture maker accidentally. I brought a set of wall sconces made from melmac dinnerware I made for a found object solo show to the ICFF in the mid-90’s as a display element, and everybody loved them. I mean everybody. They were featured in at least 50 publications over the course of that year and featured in window displays in both Bergdorf Goodman’s NYC flagship store and the Museum of American Folk Art. This happy accident proved to me that my ideas and ways of seeing objects were valid and also that something else is at play with trends and the way people respond to things. On the flip side, one of the designs that I was most excited about was one of my unconditional flops, you just never know what is going to click with the clients and the press, so I continually experiment.

How do you work with lighting companies like ILEX?

About 15 years ago, the owners of Norwell Lighting decided to revamp their company and started ILEX Architectural Lighting. They approached me at the ICFF with the desire to buy the rights to my then super popular Popsicle Pendant line made from post-consumer acrylic that I recycled. Not wanting to give up my staple line, I convinced them to let me design a related series for them from glass, using a component approach in which I gave them a few basic parts that could be combined in a number of ways to create a variety of lamps. This economy of components proved quite successful and I have been designing for them ever since. By understanding what a company is capable of and using their strong points, the design process becomes a bit of a collaboration instead of the idea of designer forcing a vision on the manufacturer for better or worse.

I think that after a few years of “as long as it’s made by hand, it’s fine” is starting to shift to valuing a more refined sensibility that still incorporates the hand of the maker (the good ones). Agree/disagree? What are you seeing? What’s next?

Over the 30 years that I have been actively focused on studying the decorative arts, I have observed a roller coaster worth of changing tastes and ways of discussing craft and design. The intersection between art and design played a strong role in my development back in the mid-80’s to early 90’s with the exciting Art Furniture scene in NYC, LA, France, and London. That pretty much died down in the mid 90s and then was resurrected in the early 2000s with the Design/Art movement championed by events like Design/Miami and Collective in NYC. Craft and design intersect often but various factions within those communities don’t always play nicely together. The hardcore old school craft is all about the maker’s hand and the honor of material and the nature of the work. This is all fine and good when considering “craftsmanship” alone, but Design with a capitol D is often neglected in this realm as witnessed in some of the chunky and awkward work that is presented.

Then, of course, there is the controversy of the Museum of American Craft changing its name to the Museum of Arts and Design. This mainly pissed off the old school craft contingent while reeling in many from the design world. There is no reason that these factions can’t co-exist and in fact it appears that the new director Glen Adamson is doing a fantastic job of bringing the big picture of the decorative arts together. Handmade, machined, CNC and even organic forming methods are all ways to explore design and none should necessiraliy be discounted from a museum focused on the made object. Craft does happen in the virtual when designing for 3d printing in very much the same way that a jeweler or welder or ceramic artist will create a form, it is simply another way of exploring ideas.

I read this great phrase the other day: “Edison bulb exhaustion.” That was just so perfect in capturing that “look” that’s been having more than a moment.

I have seen so damn many slabs of old growth lumber simply plopped on top of a base with little or no thought of design, often just a careless nod to a historic precedent at best and outright plagiarism and laziness on the worst end. In response to this trend, I developed my LiveEdge series which takes its cue from George Nakashima in a very playful way. Aluminum or steel bases referencing pick up sticks, or roots or even plays on Nakashima’s bases along with plywood table tops with cartoon woodgrain laminate and a free hand jigsaw or CNC cut to mimic the idea of live edge lumber complete with perfectly round “knot holes” to make a very faux bois statement about the lack of meaning in most of the slab furniture on the market today. Of course, there are exceptions to this—Roy McMakin and Tyler Hayes have been creating some extremely lovely and thoughtful slab furniture for years, incorporating modern ideas like pixelation within the pieces which elevate the work to thoughtful high end design/art.


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Mike Welton

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