The Aesthetic of Exposed Bulbs

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Currently, people have embraced the aesthetic of exposed bulbs for interior lighting design. Often done under the label of an “industrial” fashion, these interesting hanging fixtures utilize “Edison” bulbs to further their stylization down this tract. This represents a shift in focus away from decorative housings towards the prefabricated components they are meant to hide – an idea very much in line with the modernist ideals of minimalism and functionalism.

Within the world of lighting design, I believe that more credit should be given to the late American artist Dan Flavin in laying the ground-work for this shift in taste in popular aesthetic opinion. Flavin preferred working with prefabricated rather than hand made materials (he mainly used fluorescent tube lamps) as a sort of liberation for his work, allowing him to focus on maximizing the phenomenological aspects of light and color, rather than focusing on the formal body producing them. It is somewhat ironic that his work would help popularize the inverse of this liberation, shifting the focus back toward the fixture, but with an aesthetic preference and appreciation for the prefabricated functional component instead of the decorative and superfluous fixture bodies of traditional lighting design. Donald Judd understood the significance of this liberation and its potential latent aesthetic consequences in his seminal essay, “Specific Objects” –

“Little was done until lately with the wide range of industrial products. Almost nothing has been done with industrial techniques and, because of the cost, probably won't be for some time. Art could be mass-produced, and possibilities otherwise unavailable, such as stamping, could be used. Dan Flavin, who uses fluorescent lights, has appropriated the results of industrial production.”1

The specificity and familiarity of industrially fabricated objects allows them to become molecular in nature – instead of seeing bulbs as heterogeneous conglomerates of raw materials, we take their existence for granted and unconsciously create in them familiar identities – familiar to the extent that we can look past their constructed nature and see them as basic building blocks or atomistic components of a greater whole. This unconscious abstraction has allowed people to see the beauty in bulbs – and to desire them as pieces within well regarded and well designed light fixtures.

This new aesthetic acceptance is delightful, even though it is likely that Flavin would be annoyed by the philosophical inversion that occurs at the core of the trend – I believe Flavin would prefer people be fascinated by the properties of the light itself and how it interacts with the spaces and objects it illuminates rather than to celebrate the bulbs themselves; this seemed to be at the core of his interest and the source of his inspiration as an artist.

Installation by Dan Flavin

Regardless, as proponents of functionalist, modernist and minimalist ideals we embrace the trend of exposed bulb fixtures and offer this selection of lamps featuring exposed bulbs.

The Helio Hanging Lamp features an exposed bulb within a black steel polyhedron.

The Molecular Hanging Lamp has chrome dipped exposed bulbs and red nylon cords.

The Gliese Hanging Lamp uses a bit of playful irony. It's lamp globe is in the form of an exposed bulb.

The Teramo Hanging Lamp has 24 exposed bulbs at the end of metallic tentacles.

The Pulse Hanging Lamp has 25 exposed bulbs arrayed around a spherical core.

Source: - Thomas Kellein, Donald Judd: Early Work, 1955-1968, New York: D.A.P., 2002. Originally published in Arts Yearbook 8, 1965.

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