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Switched on

Sarah Saunders illuminates the work of contemporary designers

These mysterious atmospheric forms are floor lights. Created by designer Georg Baldele, they can be seen at a sparkling, shimmering exhibition now on at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Part sculptural, part functional, their glowing organic quality transforms a dark space.

Georg Baldele emerged from the Royal College of Art in the late 1990s as one of a new generation of London-based designers, including Tord Boontje and Michael Marriott. Bored with functional forms, searching for different qualities of light and inspired by the possibilities of alternative materials and new technologies, these designers took a more witty and experimental approach to their work. In 1998, after graduating, Baldele exhibited "Fly Candle Fly" at the Victoria and Albert Museum, a magical installation of wax candles suspended on an almost invisible steel wire which made them appear to be flying through the air. The following year, he exhibited the installation "Caveman Lights", at the Institute of Contemporary Art's Stealing Beauty: British Design Now exhibition. This was seen alongside works by other experimental designers, such as Shin and Tomoko Azumi and the design partnership El Ultimo Grito, whose work offered a fresh alternative to the slick consumerist design of the late 1980s and early '90s.

Much of Baldele's work is characterised by a beautiful simplicity. "Almost every child played with a tailor's tape measure to create a cone. I still like to play and understand how things are working," he wrote. The idea for "Caveman", so called because of the stalagmite appearance of the lights, stemmed from this game with materials. The forms he creates are often inspired by nature, as can be seen in "Niagara ", another installation that consists of cascading lights created with a fabric constructed from glass beads embedded in resin. The material is draped over a Pyrex glass tube that houses a fluorescent light. When lit, it has the glistening appearance of a torrent of water droplets. The glass beads are a by-product of crystal production, another example of Baldele's interest in alternative materials.

The "Caveman" lights are made from a high-tech material called Nomex, developed by the multinational company DuPont. Nomex is a long-chain molecule fibre with an extraordinary combination of high-performance heat and flame-resistant properties. The fibre can be spun into thread and woven. When made into fabrics, the material is used to make heat- and flame-resistant clothing for firefighters, racing drivers and fighter pilots.

Nomex can also be made into paper, with industrial applications that include honeycomb constructions in train and aircraft interiors and insulation material for electrical wires in transformers. The paper proved an ideal choice for Baldele, as heat-resistant qualities are essential for safety. When light passes through the yellowish-coloured paper it produces a soft, warm glow. The thickness of each cone varies along its length, thus emitting different intensities and colours of light, from yellows through oranges to dark browns in places where the section is thickest. The spools of paper are pulled or pushed into conical shapes by hand. Just like naturally occurring stalagmites, the shape of each light is unique. The structure of the light is fixed by varnishing the inside of the cone with glue.

Light offers myriad exciting possibilities for designers. Since the appearance of the first commercial electric light bulbs in 1880, designers, craftsmen and engineers have been fascinated with light. Before the invention of electricity, natural light and fire were our only light sources, and this affected how people lived. Electric light at the flick of a switch meant working hours could be extended, but there was also a corresponding increase in leisure time. Light was used to entertain, for example in stage lighting. Today the possibilities of lighting to enhance our lives are numerous. From torches and flashlights to shiny disco balls and spectacular light shows, lighting has revolutionised the way we live.

The combination of compelling installations, irresistible objects and transformation of materials, of which Baldele's lights are an excellent example, make this exhibition fascinating, thought-provoking and fun. Other delights include Ingo Maurer's LED installation, Kazuhiro Yamanaha's light bulb-shaped fibre optics, Marcel Wanders' BLO lamp, which is switched off by blowing, and Hector Serrano's floating table lamps. Guaranteed to switch on even the most uninspired students.

Brilliant exhibition, until April 25. Vamp;A Contemporary Space, Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL.

Admission free but book in advance if taking a group.

Talking Design: Making Light of Things - a series of talks by designers in the exhibition. The talks, from 7-8.30pm, are suitable for KS5 students and teachers. Programme: March 17 Georg Baldele; March 24 Tord Boontje; March 31 Hector Serrano; April 7 Rachel Wingfield. Tickets: pound;8.50; students pound;5.50 (one free teacher place for every 10 tickets); concessions pound;3.50. Tel: 020 7942 2211

Sarah Saunders is student events organiser at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Designer-sculptor Georg Baldele was born in Villach, Austria, and studied mechanical engineering and product design before moving to England in 1996, where he trained in furniture design at the Royal College of Art under Professor Ron Arad.

Baldele works on the cusp of design, installation and craft, transforming industrial materials into sculptural lights and installations.


The Vamp;A's exhibition, Brilliant, provides many opportunities for curriculum links, especially for art and design students. It also touches on science.

Students can explore the materials and methods of fabrication used by contemporary designers from hand-crafted to high-tech, and see for themselves the technical and aesthetic potential of lighting.

Design and technology

Key stage 12

Make a simple light based on drawings and models of conical shapes, using a variety of materials. Refer to shapes found in nature such as stalactites and stalagmites, animal horns, flowers and plants. You could use rolls of paper to make different forms, and illuminate them with torches. Experiment with other materials and construction techniques.

KS 34

Students analyse products and create their own design briefs. They will gain a great deal from making annotated drawings of the objects in the exhibition. You could also take them to look at the museum's historical lighting collection in the 20th Century Art and Design Gallery (Rooms 70-74) to gain inspiration for their own designs. Back at school, they can explore materials, properties of light and the technical requirements of lighting. Many of the designers in the exhibition have used industrial materials or found objects in their work. This could provide the basis for a Damp;T project.


Brilliant: Lights amp; Lighting: Vamp;A Contemporary, by Jane Pavitt. Victoria and Albert Museum pound;14.99. This is the launch title for a new series of illustrated books from the Vamp;A based on conversations with designers.


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