“Apologies to Milan and Tokyo.… But London is the design capital of the world,” wrote Julie Lasky in The New York Times after attending last year’s London Design Festival. It’s a feeling that’s been bubbling through Europe in recent months, even if few outside London are brazen enough to voice it.
So it’s something of a coup for the Vancouver-based lighting brand Bocci that directors of the London festival took a gamble on them this year to design the entrance of the illustrious Victoria and Albert Museum, a hub of the week-long event. The festivities – which began last weekend and wrap up on Sunday – have matured from a quaint collection of trade shows back in 2003 into a veritable circus, incorporating 300 events, thousands of spectators and millions of pounds in knock-on commissions, sales and backroom deals.
Bocci saw the bet, and raised it. Unveiled last week, the installation dominates the museum’s entry-hall cupola, extending from a height of 30 metres. A veritable galaxy of blown-glass bulbs, joined by copper rods like shooting-star trails, it drops through a three-metre opening in the old wooden ceiling and explodes into the foyer, its 280 bulbs in rock-candy colours.
“The challenge was to occupy the space in an aggressive way that defies restriction of that three-metre opening,” says Omer Arbel, Bocci’s creative director. To achieve that desired blast, he studied mobiles from the modernist tradition and experimented with stiff components used in the eccentric compositions of Alexander Calder and Manuel Marin.
“Our own version was quite complex,” he says, “because we had to develop a language with the copper rods – some stiff and others malleable. They formed a secondary narrative, which I love, because it allowed us to spread the piece out.”
Arbel, an Israeli-born Canadian who formed Bocci in 2005, has been experimenting with blown-glass shapes and techniques since his first lamp, the amber-tinged 14, received accolades that same year. “It was a fortuitous accident, ending up in lighting,” says Arbel, who trained as an architect before delving into glass art. “Lighting was our first project to be successful, and it generated more demand for itself.”
After appearing at the Milan Furniture Fair last spring with his 28 lamps, a series of distorted spheres that take on unique shapes with changes in pressure and temperature, he met with an old friend, Max Fraser, now deputy director of the London festival.
Then came a phone call: Fraser wanted him to reproduce the 28 … exponentially.
The lead time was less than eight weeks. Arbel crafted each one-of-a-kind bulb in his Vancouver atelier and designed the connectors out of some discarded copper plumbing pipes lying around the studio. When the shipment arrived in London, it took a group of specialists three days to fit them into place.
Landmark events like the LDF and Milan Furniture Fair are, says Arbel, “not the sort of things we can decide to do on our own. There’s been a vote of confidence from the community, a wonderful story of acceptance.”
The gamble has clearly paid off. Arbel’s cascading work – ambitious even next to Dale Chihuly’s enormous Murano glass chandelier, steps away in the V&A’s rotunda – is called 28:280, following Bocci’s tradition of numerical designations. It’s an uncommonly modest move for a designer, but Arbel justifies it. “[The numbers] establish equivalence across all our projects, regardless of the scale or the client or political circumstances,” he says. “And, frankly, it’s a way to avoid the combination of megalomania and deep self-doubt that designers display when they give pieces funny names.”
The 28:280, after all, could have been named much worse. “Contemporary designers are obsessed with lightness and grace, which is interesting,” he says, “but it’s fascinating to explore weight and awkwardness. What I love about this piece is that it’s quite awkward. Almost ugly.”