Design's Shining Light

Ingo Maurer has been at the forefront of lighting design for 40 years. Blending art and commerce, he's a guru for artists and manufacturers alike

By any standard, the Sept. 11 opening gala of Ingo Maurer's new show at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Provoking Magic, was entirely conventional. Downstairs, a crowd of art glitterati and New York scenesters noshed and gabbed, little noting the design works around them. But, upstairs, where the German artist's striking light installations and sculptural pieces will be on display until Jan. 27, 2008, jaw wagging quickly gave way to dropped jaws.

The 75-year-old Maurer, whose light-bathed work ranges from macro-scale sculptures of flowing, gilded ribbons to chandeliers reconstructed from shards of exploded tableware, is a visionary—an artist as well as a technical and entrepreneurial innovator. For 40 years, Maurer has been in the vanguard of a technological and aesthetic revolution that has transformed lighting from a mere convenience into a high-cachet object of desire. In the process, he has worked with designers from companies including Chanel, Issey Miyake, and DaimlerBenz (DAI)—and become a guru to artists and commercial manufacturers alike.

With the help of his wife, Jenny Lau, Maurer runs a small manufacturing operation in Munich, employing about 70. He believes that even the most radical innovations can eventually lead to commercially successful products. "I work on different levels," he says. "By taking risks, we can bridge the fields of commercial products and what many people call art."

Art Meets Commerce

Industry insiders often liken Maurer to other stars of the design world such as Philippe Starck or Michael Graves, though he is less well-known to the public. And yet, anyone who has strolled down Fifth Avenue in midtown New York in wintertime has likely walked under his giant, gleaming Unicef snowflake, made of some 10,000 Baccarat crystals. Colossal hanging lamps, such as the ones he first installed in Munich's Westfriedhof subway station in 1998, have become a staple of high-end retail and architectural design. And he's working with style-savvy mass retailer Target (TGT) on a series of less costly products that could hit shelves next year. "I'm not just interested in creating for people who can pay," he says of that development project. "I have no hesitation in being commercial. It's what helps make the world go around."

"His work marks a turning point, a reconciliation of what have until now been different trajectories, on the one hand, pure art, and on the other, commercial production," says Ned Cramer, the editor in chief of Architectural Lighting magazine. "He's taken these threads and woven them together, getting the public, whether they know it or not, to embrace edgier design and more provocative lighting."

Maurer began his career in the early 1950s as an apprentice typographer. Eventually, he studied graphic design in Munich before working briefly in the U.S. He began experimenting with lighting after being struck by the beauty of a lightbulb in a Venetian pension, and in 1963, he founded Design M, later renamed Ingo Maurer. The design and manufacturing company has offices in the two cities Maurer calls home: Munich, where products are designed and produced, and New York.

Lighting the Way

Today, Maurer argues that while interest in lighting has flourished, too many designers are content to stay within fairly limited confines. In contrast, some of his designs, such as the Lucellino series—bare bulbs with soft feathered wings—or Wo bist du, Edison…?—an oversize hanging lamp with a lightbulb made of a 360-degree hologram—make him look positively anarchistic. "The mind must be provoked," he says. "Some [of my] designs are a kind of protest against really boring commercial expositions that are too slick."

But Maurer is not on the periphery of the industry. Rather, from an early age he focused on becoming a successful entrepreneur, developing new technologies to realize his visions. Products such as the MaMo Nouchies series and the Campari Light, a deep-red lamp composed of clustered Campari soda bottles, are now staples of posh, design-focused outlets such as Design Within Reach and are also available from his SoHo boutique, a retail store that opened in 1999. Pieces range in price from several hundred to many tens of thousands of dollars.

"He's in a category by himself because the fixtures are so unusual," says Bonnie Fogel, co-owner of the tony online modern furniture outlet "It's not a standard company because the lighting itself is an architectural element. It's more than light."

LED'ing by Example

In the 1980s, Maurer pioneered a low-voltage halogen lighting and cabling scheme, dubbed YaYaHo, which set the standard for the industry. More recently, he's been at the forefront of development of light-emitting diode technology, and his pioneering experimentation has led the way for others to follow. LEDs are quickly becoming a technology du jour, hailed for their longevity and relatively sustainable qualities and showing up in a vast array of new designs from the headlamps of Audi (VLKAF) cars to Herman Miller's (MLHR) award-winning LEAF lamp.

A series of Maurer's LED pieces is on display at the Cooper-Hewitt show, his first solo museum exhibit in the U.S. Some embed hundreds of pulsing lights in transparent tables and benches. For the first time, he is also showing a prototype of LED wallpaper, the material comprising an intricate pattern of the small, light-emitting semiconductors. Maurer claims it's the thinnest application of the technology in the world, and he is in talks with various potential partners to begin commercial production and distribution.

With the U.S. exhibition as a platform, Maurer has now turned his attention toward minimizing the energy footprint of some lighting. He is working on perfecting a more energy-efficient version of LED technology—organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs). These OLEDS could be embedded in thin, flexible materials and programmed to change color. Maurer champions this technology to counter the current trend for compact-fluorescent lighting. While acknowledging the need for energy-efficient developments within the industry, he believes compact fluorescents provide "boring" light—and move the industry in the wrong direction.

It's a characteristically strong opinion from a man who, despite having passed retirement age some time ago, refuses to slow down just yet. His status as an artist has been solidified by a series of worldwide museum exhibitions, held at artistic centers such as the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Museu de Arte Brasileira in Sao Paulo. And he remains a guiding light for other designers.