By Regina Connell.
Making the rounds of design trade shows in the last year, I’ve seen a great deal of lighting. And most of it bored me silly.
The big problem was the utter sameness of it: an endless riff on the Lindsay Adelman chandelier that debuted a few years back. Back then, that chandelier felt fresh, exciting, bold: that perfectly balanced blend of industrial and organic. Unfortunately, its success (and subsequent editorial overexposure) has spawned endless versions of it: metal bars at varying angles with glass spheres (or cubes or cones) at the ends. Worse yet, that same design ripped off and cheapened as it heads downmarket. I loved and still do love that original series of chandeliers from Adelman. Those endless variations on it, not so much.
If you’re looking for lighting (as I have been, on and off), that’s a problem. There are, of course, a few who continue to have a strong and differentiated point of view, (see some of our favorites like Michael McEwen, David Trubridge, and David D’Imperio) but it leaves you wondering: is there something that’s actually truly original out there?
Yes, but it’s likely to be a bespoke piece, which means time, money, and yes, a certain self-confidence, a trust that you—and your design partner—can together get it right.
Which would be why you’d call Oakland-based glass artist Jess Wainer, a woman who combines the passion and imagination of an artist with the curiosity, discipline, and rigor of a designer. It’s a rare, rare combination.
RISD-educated Jess creates custom sculptures that just happen to illuminate space. Working at her light-filled studio in Oakland’s Fruitvale district; Glow Glass Studio, a glass blowing studio not far from Oakland’s Temescal district; and onsite with her clients, she creates pendants and larger installations inspired by art and mood and environment—functional jewelry that elevates the space.
Working with the glass blowing process, but also with sandblasting, etching, and alternative photographic techniques, Jess works as much with shadow as with light, creating lyrical poetry in space.
For Jess, it’s “ideas first, process second.” With many of her clients, the process starts with interviewing them about their desires, dreams, and use of the space. With that in hand, she’ll go back into her workshop and sketch, collage, research, ruminate, and create vision boards she presents to them.
Only then does she move onto models (using a wide range of materials, ranging from clay to paper, acetate, and string), and then final execution in the studio.
Raised in Cleveland, Jess spent her childhood with her hands deep in materials, learning to play and create art: by the age of ten, she moved onto her own ceramics studio in the basement of her home. Drawing also came easily to her. And when she was in high school, she took a class in glass.
Still, when time came for college, she almost went a math route. However, she ended up at RISD, but was unclear on whether she’d be going the fine art route or towards industrial design. Then, another glass class that she took early at RISD made her truly fall in love. “I realized I couldn’t do anything else,” she says.
After RISD, she moved out to California, and spent time working in Nic Weinstein’s studio, before moving on to producing her own work. She created her own line of work in glass, then moved onto doing custom work with designers. Then, several years ago, she began to work on private commissions. Since then, she’s done commissions in greater Bay Area (Oakland, SF, Atherton, Montclair, San Anselmo), Chicago, New York, Kentucky, Ohio, and Cape Cod.
Her light-filled studio (I was lucky enough to hit it at what Jess calls the “golden hour”) bears all the hallmarks of her journey, from her early work to her current work: inspirational sketches, those mood and vision boards, some shou-sugi-banned wood pieces, 3d models.
While the stereotype of the artist tends to focus on solitude, Jess’s practice is intensely collaborative. There’s collaboration with her clients, of course. Then, there’s the inherently collaborative process of glass blowing, and extensive work with electricians, metalworkers, and architects.
As is the nature of bespoke, custom work, the process is a big part of the final outcome. The right process helps you learn about yourself, opens you up to explore new avenues and express yourself in a way you never before thought possible. It’s a time of exploration, but also vulnerability, and there’s an art and science to being moved through each step. Finding that right leader who can take you there—and then creating a magical result—is not easy. But if you’re willing to go on that journey, Jess Wainer is that leader.