Luminous Transformation

A new exhibition from the Design Museum Gent showcases the greatest lighting design of the last century and anticipates creative possibilities of this most elemental form.

From the painters of the Italian Renaissance, through the Dutch Masters and the Impressionists, light and its effects have fascinated artists for generations. However, it is only in the last century that the power of light has been harnessed as an artistic and design medium in its own right. The invention of electric light has shaped the way people live in exponential ways, freeing people from the confines of the natural day’s cycle, which therefore increases productivity and unleashes years of pioneering design.

Lightopia at the Design Museum Gent, examines the evolution of lighting design and the use of light as an artistic medium, as well as its effects on contemporary issues and future potential. Undeniably, electric light has transformed our, lifestyles and working conditions, provided a catalyst of progress for industry, medicine and communication, and its continuing technological evolution has provided designers with endless opportunities to manipulate and mould the spaces and places in which we work and live. Lightopia showcases innovative lighting design from the past and present as well as anticipating its continued potential for evolution in the future. In doing so it plays with the idea of light as the most elemental but technologically complex form and demonstrates that we are only at the beginning of discoveries and potential for creating objects of great beauty.

Originally showing at the Frank Gehry-designed Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, the exhibition, curated by Jolanthe Kugler, is now moving to the Design Museum Gent to continue its tour. Dedicated to showcasing furniture and interior design from the 20th and 21st centuries, the Vitra Museum’s original exploration into lighting design began with its gift of a significant private lighting collection, of more than 800 lamps, seven years ago. Kugler explains: “It was clear that we wanted to create a suitable exhibition, but it was five years before we came up with an idea strong enough.” For Kugler and the curatorial team it was important not to simply showcase a history of lighting up to the present-day but to explore and anticipate the evolution of lighting design and its effect on contemporary living: “We didn’t want to make an exhibition about only classical lamps because the field is changing so much with new technologies that we thought it would be more interesting to talk about light itself, how it shaped our modern world and will shape our future.”

With a permanent collection of 1,200 pieces, the story of Lightopia is whittled down to 50 objects from the Vitra collection. Kugler says: “Our main interest was to portray the development of light and lighting design and how the two combine … It was a hard selection, but we chose pieces that explain the connection between technology and design principles, new materials and maybe also the spirit of the time.” The final exhibition includes around 300 works, ranging from mass-produced products and installations to archive photography and film, highlighting the overlap between art and design.

Separated into four sections: Living in Lightopia, Icons of Lighting Design, Colour, Space, Motion and Light of Tomorrow, Lightopia aims to take the visitor from an assessment of our own role in the world of electric lighting, through its history, present and future. Living in Lightopia is sociological in its approach to exposing not only how light affects our day-to-day existence but also the effects it is having on the environment around us and the impact of light pollution in our cities. Moving closer to the Vitra Design Museum’s comfort zone (and that of design museums internationally, including in Gent), “Icons of Lighting Design” is a comprehensive, simply presented display of the most important lights and lamps, including what Kugler describes as the “10 most important lamps” in the Vitra collection. With iconic examples such as the Wilhelm Wagenfeld and Carl Jakob Jucker-designed Bauhaus lamp and the George Carwardine-designed Anglepoise lamp, Icons of Lighting Design will not provide any surprises for fans of product design. For Kugler, however, one of the most important elements in the selection process was to tell the story of design and its evolution. The simplicity, effectiveness and economy of materials of both pieces speaks to the highest achievements of modernism and, against the curators’ wishes, exposes the length of time that has passed since such innovations were realised with such far-reaching consequences. Perfectly adaptable for study, atmosphere and always allowing the elegance of form over function, the display of these icons somewhat exposes the shortcomings of today’s progressive design and questions its motivations.

Moving away from this didactic exploration of light and its uses, Colour, Space, Motion takes a poetic look at the subject at the hands of artists and designers when creativity is given free rein over technological innovation. Although creatives have long been fascinated with light and capturing its effects, light art as a genre is a relatively new phenomenon. Kugler cites the “kinetic work of the Zero Group in Germany” (including Otto Piene and Heinz Mack whose Tribute to László Moholy-Nagy (2009) and 11 meters high light (1962) respectively are documented throughout the entirety of the exhibition) as “fantastic examples from the past”, but today’s stand-out light artists are world-renown artists Olafur Eliasson and James Turrell. Eliasson’s “incredible play with colours and light” is, however, only touched on in Starbrick, while Turrell the “big influential mastermind” is notable by his absence.

Given the transcendental qualities of Eliasson’s art, featuring only this mass-produced objet d’art seems a missed opportunity, but Starbrick (2009) references the very effects of everyday living that lie at the core of the exhibition, and align more closely with the Vitra Design Museum’s ethos than a large-scale Eliasson (or Turrell) installation would. Starbrick is versatile, and adaptable to different spaces, which brings the exhibition down to earth.

Kugler also references the Italian designer Cesare Casati as “particularly interesting because his whole life he did research into light and colour, and how they influence your perception of space and of yourself.” This manipulation of perceptions is most obvious in the Norwegian designer Daniel Rybakken’s piece, Surface Daylight (2010), originally commissioned for the windowless entrance hall and staircase of a Swedish bank. With a brief to create something beautiful for a fairly mundane space, Rybakken “decided not to do something decorative [because] he felt that the most important thing missing there was daylight.” Constructing a plate of more than 500 LEDs Rybakken “imitates the outline of light coming through a window, so when you pass the wall, visitors have the impression that somewhere sunlight is coming in and it is being reflected there on the wall.” With the intensity of natural sunlight Kugler praises “the force of this piece as really significant; it shows exactly what this new technology can do. It’s only technology but you can simulate the intensity, the colour and the quality of natural sunlight.”

This admiration of technology and its creative potential provided a challenge for the curators who wanted to maintain coherence through the exhibition. The Vitra collection is so large that “you have to decide what story you want to tell. For us the most important thing was to show how light has been and will continue to be an influence on our lives and how we should be very careful with it.” For Kugler: “light is also one of the most fascinating things we have – good for anything, for healing, for working. Without light we could not live and without electrical light the world would look very different.” Lightopia embraces the poetry of the medium by highlighting artists’ fascination with light in combination with movement and colour: “light is intriguing; it is very beautiful, but only when you put it together with colour and movement and maybe also with music. It can be the medium to communicate about political things and about society.” In this manner Colour, Space, Motion also documents some of the greatest performances and showcases of light, from Le Corbusier’s Philips Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Exhibition, to the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, which saw 15,000 people lit up and which Kugler describes as “the most incredible, spectacular event with light. I’m not sure if we’ll see anything like it again but it’s an incredible demonstration of what we can do today.” The use of archive photography enables the exhibition to overcome inevitable space constraints but also keeps control of any bleeding of works into each other as the travel of light is difficult to contain, which is a major consideration for the installation and planning of this exhibition in Gent. Although the works are often presented as discrete units, Kugler did play with the idea of displaying them all together: “We wanted to show how you can make a space out of light, with light. The whole exhibition design was also important so we tried to think of everything together at the beginning.”

Lightopia echoes the resurgence of interest in light and kinetic art most recently illustrated by London’s Hayward Gallery’s Light Show (2013), which enjoyed unprecedented visitor numbers. In spite of these exhibitions’ manipulation of natural elements through man-made technology, Kugler attributes their popularity due to the on-demand culture that we currently have in which society is experiencing so many things virtually, she says: “Being in a place is not so important any more but people are missing the physical experience of being in a certain space, at a certain moment in your life. And a light exhibition can only be experienced if you go there and feel it.”

Although Lightopia shows a huge range of innovation and artworks that highlight the transformative potential of electric light, Kugler is most excited about the future progress of Organic Light Emitting Transistors (OLETs) because of their flexibility of form. While LEDs (which form the basis of many of Lightopia’s works) must still be designed and shaped, an OLET “can be a powder, a liquid, something that you can print with a printer on your shirt then just have to put a cable to it to make it shine. We have no idea where it could go.” She adds that “the effects of daylight and coloured light on human beings is also starting to influence how we conceive our interior spaces. People spend all day in offices with artificial light, so this kind of research and invention will help improve our lives.”

The possibilities for these innovations filtering into our everyday life are exciting and manifold but difficult to contextualise at this stage because there are so many unknown factors. Kugler prophesises that the future evolution of electric light could have even greater effects than its original introduction at the start of the 20th century: “there are possible new ways of using light that we cannot even imagine today,” and hints at a promise of even greater things to come. She urges, however, that creatives should manipulate and explore the technology as much as electricians and engineers as it is only through this collaboration that these new innovations can realise their full potential: “there are already many technicians that are useful in a certain way but engineers don’t have the artistic feeling that is needed for this.” Kugler believes that it is only through artists and designers that the bridge between technology and society can be crossed; to imagine how these new technologies can thoroughly be exploited “is much more the work of someone who really understands how spaces should be made, so it’s more of an architecture, design or artistic role than that of a lighting engineer.” In order to take these innovations beyond the niche prototypes, “the most important thing would be to encourage lighting designers who design not only light but who think about how lighting can create and form spaces.”

The contradiction of the exhibition lies in the fact that its works take advantage of modern technology and progress while also using and showcasing one of the most basic, elemental forms – the really affecting works are simultaneously both primitive and modern. Kugler says, “I don’t like the word ‘timeless’ but that’s what light is.”

Lightopia is showing at the Design Museum Gent until 15 March 2015. For further details

Ruby Beesley