By Regina Connell.
Having interviewed a number of lighting designers, I’ve found that they’re a pretty talented, cerebral bunch. They have to be artisans and thus know about materials and design and all that, and they have to know a little something about practical things like electricity. But they’re also installation artists, sculptors of form, shadow, space and light. And that makes for an intriguing combination.
Philadelphia-based (and yes, a brainy pre-med in college) Christopher Poehlmann is one of those sculptors of light, but he’s a master of shadow, too—playing with materials old (often recycled) and new to do it. We love the moody simplicity of his work, high blend of organic and tech-edgy design (including 3D printing), and commitment to the making process—and to the process of making a very smart business.
How’d you get into the art and business of lighting? Where did your interest in craft and design come from? My mother went to art school to paint, her father was an inventor, and my dad’s parents were both commercial artists so it was kind of in my DNA. My mom cultivated my love of art and craft: I was cooking with her from the time I could stand, and spent hours on end with her doing craft and art projects. My little brother wrote stories and acted, my sister played with dolls and organized stuff.
I made things. I remember in high school getting frustrated with the shirts that I had available in the late 70s early 80s and choosing home ec over auto shop. That was probably my first glimpse of my ultimate calling to be a designer, but I did not have the language or even a clue that it was a viable life track.
I found photography early in high school and continued to pursue that craft until I shifted to 3D in the late 80s. I eventually realized that I was meant to be an artist, and after struggling through pre-med and a BS in psychology, craft, photography and design suddenly became what I understood as the meaningful thing to pursue, not money and security.
But making isn’t necessarily design. How did that love come to be? I fell in love with design while studying photography for a semester in Salzburg, Austria my last year of college. At that point, my only exposure to design was my Dad’s best friend Bill, whose home was filled with classics by Corbu, Breuer, Mies, and Castiglioni. We spent a lot of time at Bill’s so images of that stuff were embedded in the back of my head. Once I was in Europe, though, I suddenly realized that everyday objects could have so much more meaning and impact on our daily lives. Everywhere I went in 1985, there were new ways of looking at furnishings that I had never thought of in the States. Stores and showrooms became my museums and the decorative arts sections of the art museums became so much more attractive than the paintings, etc. This love of furniture and objects has never left me.
Did you head to design school after you had this epiphany? I am self-educated in design and craft. I fell into making after years of sketching more as a need to see my ideas in 3D than as a career move. But it instantly became a visceral need to make. Having no prior experience with making objects, I took a trip to the local hardware store and came home with copper pipe fittings and pipe. I learned to fabricate a wide range of functional objects and became an expert at pipe sweating after being offered a solo show and given a studio space to do the work in a short six months after a gallery owner in Milwaukee saw just a couple of my pieces.
Talk about working with clients on a custom piece like the newGROWTH light. The newGROWTH fixture series began about 8 years ago in Milwaukee, almost against my will. I was approached by a designer whom I had worked with before. She asked me to recreate a version of Tord Boontje’s famous Swarovski Branch chandelier—a commission that I instantly turned down, having had others knock me off before. She kept pushing me to and gave me the design brief indicating that the primary concern was a concrete ceiling with an off center j-box. I designed an asymmetrical chandelier that turned out to be too difficult to build and then had an “aha” moment realizing that the idea of a tree branch as a cantilevered fixture could be a great solution indeed. So, from the seed that she planted grew what has become my best seller and favorite fixture series to produce.
Every newGrowth light is unique to the client, so that means working closely with them.
What’s that like, and what’s your approach? The newGROWTH commission process requires feedback from my clients. Each piece is fabricated by my hand from aluminum pipe and solid rod. There are no forms or jigs used, just a rough sketch that I develop through email exchange with my clients. I ask them for the dimensions and general form that they feel would work best for their project at hand along with photos or plans of the space if available. In this way, they get to collaborate on the outcome and have more of a connection to the final piece. When I’m doing the sketches and also at the work bench, I’m always thinking about the organic form mixed with proper function—as if a tree were genetically predetermined to grow into a chandelier.
How do you stay fresh, with all that 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 and I had a funny exchange about the fact that you are one of these people who likes trade shows. That’s not exactly a thing I hear that often. A lot of people I know think that they can be one of those circles of hell that Dante never got to writing about. When I started working, I understood that in order to make a living, I needed to sell my work. I also understood that the way copyright law is written that there is very little protection available. So it became clear that I needed to make my work public.
First, it was galleries and street fairs, then fine craft shows where I often either stood out like a sore thumb or was largely ignored because of not falling into the traditional craft mold. There is not much that is more frustrating than showing work you believe in to an audience that doesn’t get it.
In ’93 I visited the ICFF and realized that it was the audience and type of exhibitors that I had been searching for, so I applied and was accepted the following year. These were my people! I was super nervous about playing with the big dogs, but when I arrived at the show I found instant acceptance and recognition. The publisher of the show catalog, Horace Havemyer from Metropolis Magazine, placed a full page photo of one of my lamps behind his letter welcoming everyone to the show. The attendees were not necessarily all interested in what I was showing, but they all had the language and training to understand what I was doing. Preaching to the choir can be a fantastic thing and the forum of a show like the ICFF allows the attendees and the exhibitors to show and see design in all its forms from classics to cutting edge. I use it as a market barometer, a branding exercise, and a R+D tool.
It is part of my marketing/advertising budget which takes the stress of expecting sales out of the equation. I get to talk about the work I do to an interested and engaged audience, many of whom will eventually specify my work for their projects. I want to educate the people who make the design decisions about the fact that I am a resource. Artists often have a hard time talking about what they do, but I got over that after my first couple of trade shows and now can convey the fact that I am truly excited about what I do without feeling egocentric about it. For me, the trade show experience is validation and great social interaction. Why not mix work and pleasure?
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.