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Bending Light: Glass makes the turn at Salone 2015

[SPONSORED FEATURE] When glass, often understood as ‘immaterial’, becomes one of the most playful corporeal substances at the disposal of designers

It’s become rather a cliché to describe the production of glass objects as the design of ‘the immaterial’. In reality, with its weight and almost unlimited capacity to host surface and internal textures, glass’s literal materiality makes it one of the most corporeal substances at the disposal of designers. What is more, precisely because of its transparency, glass is able to flaunt its occupation of space with a teasing openness that no other material can rival. In spite of all this, this year’s Salone del Mobile featured a number of projects incorporating recent innovations in lighting and fabrication technologies that might just enable glass to finally live up to its immaterial image. 

Italian manufacturer Artemide led this charge toward intangibility with its Spectral Light display. The project began with the position that “the most important thing is the design of the electromagnetic wavelengths that compose the spectrum of light,” explained its Swiss designer Philippe Rahm, “and less the design of the object itself.” Although the light’s slightly contrived resemblance to an exploding centrifuge of test tubes prevents me from accepting Rahm’s apparent disregard for aesthetics at complete surface value, his concept of “electromagnetic Impressionism” is a compelling one.

Wavelengths of light for wellbeing and growth

Different species require different wavelengths of light for wellbeing and growth

Inspired by the pixel-based pointillist painting technique of Monet and Seurat, Spectral Light assembles the photons it emits from a selection of wavelengths specially chosen to promote health and efficiency. Avoiding the wasteful ultraviolet range – invisible to the human eye and responsible for the low efficiency of halogen and incandescent bulbs – its LEDs can assemble ‘recipes’ of electromagnetic energy tailored to the inhabitants of a room. According to Rahm, the system can boost wakefulness in humans by elevating levels of melatonin in the body or promote growth in plants by including extra purple light – it even deliver the specific blend of light best suited to a pet hamster’s needs, whatever they are.

Nendo’s Soft range of tables for Glas Italia

Nendo’s Soft range of tables for Glas Italia exploits the crystalline structure of glass to achieve gradients of bright colour its edges

Meanwhile, across town at Milan’s Museo della Permanente, Glas Italia revealed a number of designs also exploring colour from its latest collaboration with Japanese studio Nendo. The new Soft range of frosted glass furniture exploits the capacity of glass to carry light through its crystalline structure, as with fibre optic cables, to achieve gradients of bright colour along the edges of the pieces. The contrast of the soft transitions of colour against the tables’ rectilinear regularity produces a tension that animates the designs beyond their simple geometries, and again reminds one of the capacity of glass to contain space. The tables seem almost like boxes of smoke, with the contents mysteriously concealed from view.

Tavs Jørgensen’s Pin Bowl

Tavs Jørgensen’s Pin Bowl represent a blending of craft skill with digitally inspired fabrication techniques

Jørgensen’s Reconfigurable Pin Tooling fabrication

Jørgensen’s Reconfigurable Pin Tooling fabrication technique in action

This theme of containment was present too in the work of Tavs Jørgensen, one of the designers from Falmouth University exhibiting at their stand in the SaloneSatellite. His glass Pin Bowls read as fluid membranes pulled taut by the resistance of some unknown force. Unlike Nendo’s tables, they deal with light not the volume they occupy, but rather the space they inhabit – capturing and distorting the reflections of a room across their seemingly stressed surfaces. Ironically, the forces used to create them come entirely from the glass itself. Jørgensen has spent years devising and refining a “free fall slumping” technique, in which a round of heated glass is draped over a mould of metal pins to sag under its own weight, while slowly cooling in a kiln.

His recently perfected RPT (Reconfigurable Pin Tooling) technique represents a persuasive intermingling of the craft skills of artisanal glassblowers with a modern, digitally inspired aesthetic. This combination of historic tradition and contemporary technology-driven process speaks to a broader trend legible in all three projects. After the plastic boom that dominated mid-twentieth century design, with its great ecological and aesthetic fallout, this blending of old and new in a natural and sustainable material surely can only be cause for celebration. 

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