Photographer: Angie West
Art & Design

The Best Lighting in the World Is Cut Like a Diamond

With a new monograph out from Rizzoli, glass artist Alison Berger tells us her sculptural process and historic inspirations.

"The first time I saw how the glassblowing process works in person was in Dallas, where I grew up. I was 15 and riding my bike down an alley and through a chain-link fence, I could see them blowing glass. I was instantly fascinated. I ended up studying sculpture at RISD [Rhode Island School of Design], which taught me to use materials as a means to an end. You can get excited about making stuff, or you can have a narrative. … All the things I’m doing now are from years of fine-tuning what I learned then as a sculptor.

My narrative is about taking something so fragile, like glass, and making it heavy or carved.

Allison Berger.

Allison Berger in her studio.

Photographer: Monica May

When you first hear something is glass, you might assume it’s fragile, but glass used to be carved like stone. I’m heavily influenced by that era, between science and religion, when people in the 1600s and 1700s were developing these instruments—I mean, they created a vessel to determine air pressure and called it a barometer. And barometers were hand-carved, in glass and bronze.

I’m not really a lighting designer. I’d call myself more of an artist. I love the way a window looks rippled, and I’ll look for a way to compress that so a piece of glass will almost have this way of sunlight hitting water. I try to extend and capture that moment in these glassmaking forms. Sometimes the complexity I’m not even aware of.

Bow Chandelier.

Bow Chandelier (2014) aims to captures the tension and dynamic motion of an arrow about to be released from a bow. A graduated series of five arcs create a delicate, mobile-like structure.

Photographer: Jonathan Allen

There’s the Pulley Pendant—this idea of doing a pendant in which the illumination could be raised and lowered, but in glass—that took me about 10 years to develop. Sometimes things come together like a surprise accident, and it’s only a few months vs. a few years. If I knew every idea would take five years, it would be discouraging.

Other times we have to do it, because it feels so impossible. Some things we do to recreate the history of glassmaking, keep it alive, find an excuse to reproduce it in the here and now. I look at certain books full of historical glassmaking, and we’re scratching our heads saying how did they do this 600 years ago. But it could also be something my mom brought back from Venice in the 1960s, a piece I always loved and that I broke as a kid, and now it’s imbued with that memory. So if I can take that technique and recreate it in a new design, then it can keep that experience alive.

right: Chamber chandelier - Sterling Residence.

Left: Trough Light (2012) calls to mind a block of ice held in tongs, and ripples on the surface of the cast glass suggest wind caught in the freezing process. Right: Site condition for Chamber Chandelier, 2015, at the Sterling Residence. Pencil on trace, 40 × 24 inches.

Photographer (from left): Jonathan Allen ; Gianni Dalli Orte/The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY

Depending on the piece, each one is taken through a series of cutting and polishing to bring out the life, like a gem, like an uncut diamond, but when you cut it, that’s when the light brings its brilliance to a material. Every piece goes through a series of belt sanders that have various grits, and they start rough, but as the belts get finer, that brings the polish back. You start with something that is as rough as concrete to something as fine as baby powder. It’s 12 steps of cutting and polishing and finishing.

There are no shortcuts. Every piece goes through different phases of that process—some of them can take eight to 10 hours just to do that process. But I’m not interested in efficiency. I’m interested in the longevity of a design. If we make only 20 this year, that’s what we’ll sell.

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Chamber Chandelier (2011) is based on a botanical photograph of a stem taken in the 1920s by Karl Blossfeldt. The result is a series of chandeliers that feature a metal branching structure that hold crystal flower buds.

Photographer: Marc Woodcock/Kadlec Architecture + Design

Part of the process is that minor imperfections such as air bubbles and other markings get left in. A big education 20 years ago was that glass was so industrialized, all the bubbles got machined out. We forgot that there was wood grain.

But vintage glass shows you that they existed before the assembly-line process. Even sweat marks, those show up as little crackles, and that to me is really beautiful. I’ve gone to flea markets and found tools that are 300 years old. It’s like a thumbprint. When I try to recreate these processes, it’s part detective alchemy, and mad scientist, and old-fashioned stubbornness.

More recently, the pieces have gotten both more complex in scale and intimacy. Like any artist, the work is developing in a more complex language, getting more comfortable doing more complex things. But also there’s a faster level of appropriation in this day and age. It’s like in music. Someone comes up with a certain sound, and before long it’s like every song sounds the same. So whether unconsciously or not, I want to make it more complex so it stays unique longer."

Alison Berger: Glass and Light (Skira Rizzoli) is out October 11. To inquire about products and commissions, visit her studio Alison Berger Glassworks.

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Clock Chandelier (2015) mimics the gears of a clock. As one gear moves slowly, the other moves quickly—large and small, fast and slow. Its lighting components include filament bulbs, candles, and solid crystal weights.

Photographer: Joshua White

 

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