A light-bulb with wings. Many have seen it, a somewhat surreal desktop lamp attached to a tall, slender and spindly steel stand. And those who missed the original, created fifteen years ago by lighting designer Ingo Maurer, are likely to have seen one of the many attempts at copies that turned up later.
He has been called the poet of light, this German artist, now in his 75th year, whose installations and lamps with their wealth of colour and shade have revolutionised our view of illumination and lighting. The whole concept of a lamp, the traditional sort with a shade and base, was shaken to its foundations by his striking innovations, invariably both technically ingenious and visually decorative. He experimented early on with both halogen lamps and LEDs. His basic idea has been to transform the light source itself into an attractive object that allows the imagination to soar.
But Ingo Maurer, born on the island of Reichenau in Lake Constance and now based in Munich, still refers to himself as a self-taught artist. He actually trained as a typographer before going to NewYork as a freelance designer in the 1960s, where he encountered the vibrant American pop culture that became a major inspiration. After several years in the USA he returned home, set up his studio Design M in a courtyard in Munich and began making lamps.
The first one, produced in 1966 with the eloquent name of “Bulb” was already a great success. It is still regarded as a breakthrough, not only for Maurer himself but also in a more general sense when it comes to lamps. It looks very simple, just like an everyday light-bulb, but considerably larger and fabricated in mouth-blown glass with a screwon base in chrome. A real light-bulb is placed visibly in the large glass globe as the light source. A playful approach to outsized everyday objects, such as man-high sculptures in the form of a tube of lipstick, created an impact at this time in the hands of American pop artists such as Caes Oldenburg and greatly inspired Ingo Maurer, as he is quick to point out.
Innovative lamp designs have been a major theme in his work, with “Bulb” and “Lucellino”, the name of the winged lamp from 1992, among the highlights. Just like his oversized glass globe with its hint of “pop-art”, with the latter he again succeeded in transforming a naked light-bulb into a fascinating object with an affinity to bird life. This effect is created by the way in which the lamp lights up or goes off when its delicate wings are touched.
The other main theme in his work centres on eye-catching light fittings and installations – created in numerous shapes and for all kinds of environments over the years. He has worked on everything from public and everyday objects to the most extravagant and artistic creations. But Ingo Maurer’s solutions never lack the latter quality - even when the scene is a subway station, like Westfriedhof in Munich, where his eight giant light domes are suspended over the platform. Metallic on the outside but with striking hues of red, yellow or blue inside, they make the people moving into the light beams below them appear for a few moments like actors on a stage.
Or take the Atomium monument in Brussels that was built for the World’s Fair held there in 1958 but became worn and dilapidated with time.This giant model of an iron molecule was reopened in 2006, now lit up by Maurer and transformed into a radiant attraction. “A friendly invasion from outer space” was his own name for this light installation, where strongly illuminated “cosmic” points give visitors the feeling of being in a spaceship. An impression further strengthened by small robot-like figures dangling in the beams of light.
German design theorist Christian Burchard considers that Maurer’s influence on a new generation of lighting designers has been enormous.
“Purely in terms of form, he works with a diversity of expression”, he explains. “At times completely pared-down and minimalist, at times with decorative embellishments – but imbued with concise descriptive qualities throughout.”
Paul Warwick Thompson, Director of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, where the major Ingo Maurer retrospective “Provoking Magic” is being held this autumn, regards the designer as one of today’s most significant.
“The reason lies in his commitment to breaking down barriers and exploring new frontiers”, explained Thompson at the opening of the exhibition in September 2007. “Ingo Maurer infuses his work with wit and playfulness, and his installations invariably provoke an emotional response.”
The eminent light designer from a courtyard in Munich – now also with an honorary doctorate from the Royal College of Art in London – still manufactures his own products via his company Ingo Maurer GmbH. His main office is still in the same city even though the workshop has grown continuously over the years. Today, Maurer works closely together with his 70 or so employees. But he takes time off from his work with occasional trips to the Sakkara desert in Egypt, where he can absorb new energies and reflect on the innermost nature of light far from civilisation.
“Light can be sensual, comfortable, even dangerous”, he has said. “Light goes beyond science or nature, or even art – it is as potent as life itself.”