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Electrifying Design: A Century of Lighting

June 1, 2021 | Monica Obniski

July 2–September 26, 2021

Electrifying Design: A Century of Lighting celebrates lighting devices—innovative, practical, delightful, and fun. Over the past one hundred years, the field of lighting design has been a catalyst for technological and artistic expression.

This exhibition examines lighting as a transforming force in daily life and in major design movements. From the first electric light in the early 1800s to energy-efficient bulbs in the twenty-first century, lighting technology has fascinated engineers, scientists, architects, and designers worldwide.

Rare and limited-production examples by the world’s leading designers are presented in three sections, organized by theme. “Typologies” focuses on different types of lighting, from desk lamps to chandeliers; “The Bulb” addresses the importance and design of the lightbulb, from basic to whimsical; and “Quality of Light” considers the manipulation of light effects, including reflection, diffusion, and light-filled sculpture.

Amplifying the works on view are large-scale immersive experiences. Among the designers represented are Achille Castiglioni, Christian Dell, DRIFT, Poul Henningsen, Ingo Maurer, Verner Panton, Gaetano Pesce, Gino Sarfatti, Ettore Sottsass, and Wilhelm Wagenfeld.

Exhibition catalogue available for purchase at the Museum Shop and at Members receive 10% off Shop purchases.

Flylight (Basel) by DRIFT; Carpenters Workshop Gallery

Flylight (Basel), designed 2009, made 2015, hand-blown glass, wire, electronics, anodized aluminum, and LEDs, DRIFT, Dutch, established 2007, artist and maker; Carpenters Workshop Gallery, London, New York, Paris, San Francisco. © DRIFT.

PH Artichoke Hanging Lamp by Poul Henningsen; Louis Poulsen & Co.

PH Artichoke Hanging Lamp, designed 1958, made 1958–1965, copper, steel, enameled metal, and bulb, Poul Henningsen (Danish, 1894–1967), designer; Louis Poulsen & Co., Danish, established 1874, manufacturer; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, museum purchase funded by the Design Council, 2000, 2000.202 © 1958 Estate of Poul Henningsen. Photo by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.


Flylight (Basel)

High visitors will be aware of DRIFT’s Fragile Future 3.13 that has been on view in the contemporary design galleries (and will be on view in this show). Amsterdam-based DRIFT investigates the dialogue between humans, nature, and technology within its projects. Flylight is an immersive installation composed of glass tubes that enclose illumination. Its form suggests the movement and patterns of a flock of birds. It interacts with viewers by responding to their behavior, bringing humanity into a larger debate about our future.

PH Artichoke Hanging Lamp

Danish architect Poul Henningsen studied the quality of light in order to develop systems for directed and nondirected light, creating one of the most iconic sculptural lighting fixtures of the twentieth century. First installed in a restaurant in Copenhagen—where it still stands today—PH Artichoke is an enduring design that has become shorthand for Scandinavian design, a topic I am always excited to explore.

Table Lamp Model No. T-4-S by Zahara Schatz; Heifetz Manufacturing Company

Table Lamp Model No. T-4-S, 1951, aluminum, enameled brass, and incandescent bulb, Zahara Schatz (Israeli, 1916–1999), designer; Heifetz Manufacturing Company, American, active 1938–ca. 1970s, manufacturer; Milwaukee Art Museum, gift from the George R. Kravis II Collection, M2018.123. © Zahara Schatz, courtesy of The Schatz House, Jerusalem. Photo by John R. Glembin, Milwaukee Art.

Splight Table Lamp Prototype by Matali Crasset; the Museum of Modern Art, New York

Splight Table Lamp Prototype, 2005, metal, paint, blown glass, neon, plastic, and power cable, Matali Crasset (French, born 1965), designer and maker; the Museum of Modern Art, New York, gift of the designer, 2008. © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris. © The Museum of Modern Art/ Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, New York.

Table Lamp Model No. T-4-S

Israeli-born designer Zahara Schatz created this lamp for MoMA’s 1951 lamp design competition, sponsored by Heifetz Company, who manufactured this work. The lamp exemplifies modernist design principles: the narrow, upward-facing cone holding the lightbulb and the wider, reflective shade are both adjustable to manipulate angles and achieve a wide variety of lighting effects. For me, it will be like seeing an old friend in the galleries, as I acquired this work in Milwaukee several years ago.

Splight Table Lamp Prototype

French designer Matali Crasset’s prototype for a table lamp demonstrates her futuristic thinking. Splight—a name incorporating “spline,” the mathematical term for interpolation, and light—suggests an interconnectedness found within nature. This is manifested in its form: a cage of glass fibers that intimates muscle fibers or plant veins enveloping the central light source. Part of MoMA’s exhibition Design and the Elastic Mind (2008), the lamp could function alone or be combined in multiples to create an organic formation, perhaps even as part of a larger, interconnected splight city.


Virtual Curator Conversation: Sarah Schleuning and Cindi Strauss
Thursday, August 26, 6 p.m., Zoom

Exhibition co-curators Cindi Strauss and Sarah Schleuning will discuss the ideas, planning, and designers that are included in the show. This conversation will be moderated by Monica Obniski, Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at the High.

Visit for details.

This exhibition is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Delta Air Lines

Sarah and Jim Kennedy
Dr. Joan H. Weens Estate
wish Foundation

Anne Cox Chambers Foundation
Robin and Hilton Howell

The Antinori Foundation
Corporate Environments
Louise Sams and Jerome Grilhot
Elizabeth and Chris Willett

Farideh and Al Azadi
Sandra and Dan Baldwin
Lucinda W. Bunnen
Marcia and John Donnell
Helen C. Griffith
Mrs. Fay S. Howell/The Howell Fund
Mr. and Mrs. Baxter Jones
The Arthur R. and Ruth D. Lautz Charitable Foundation
Joel Knox and Joan Marmo
Margot and Danny McCaul
The Ron and Lisa Brill Family Charitable Trust
The Fred and Rita Richman Fund
In Memory of Elizabeth B. Stephens
USI Insurance Services
Mrs. Harriet H. Warren

Alfred and Adele Davis Exhibition Endowment Fund, Anne Cox Chambers Exhibition Fund, Barbara Stewart Exhibition Fund, Dorothy Smith Hopkins Exhibition Endowment Fund, Eleanor McDonald Storza Exhibition Endowment Fund, The Fay and Barrett Howell Exhibition Fund, Forward Arts Foundation Exhibition Endowment Fund, Helen S. Lanier Endowment Fund, Isobel Anne Fraser–Nancy Fraser Parker Exhibition Endowment Fund, John H. and Wilhelmina D. Harland Exhibition Endowment Fund, Katherine Murphy Riley Special Exhibition Endowment Fund, Margaretta Taylor Exhibition Fund, and the RJR Nabisco Exhibition Endowment Fund