Let There Be Lights

Until recently they were dusty relics of a bygone age, impractical, outmoded and unloved.
But chandeliers have hung in there and, reinvented, are dazzling once more
as the ultimate design centerpiece

Words by Rachel Loos
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Just over a decade ago, the chandelier was languishing in design Siberia, deemed a fusty form of lighting that had no place in a chic modern interior. But no longer. In a quite remarkable reversal of fortune, today the chandelier is one of the most exciting, challenging and sexy objects in interior design, and big-name designers are creating dazzling chandeliers that are light years away from the traditional designs of the past.


One of the latest to create a sensation is architect Daniel Libeskind, who won the competition to design the masterplan of the World Trade Center reconstruction. Unveiled at last year’s Salone del Mobile, the trend-setting design fair held annually in Milan, his Ice chandelier fuses mathematics with the centuries-old craft of hand-blown glass. Commissioned for the Czech lighting company Lasvit, the chandelier features a series of clear-glass, angular pieces that fall like icicles from a reflective glass plate. Light shines through each glass piece, illuminating the edges to give the chandelier a shimmering, ice-like luminosity. 


All of which is a far cry from the chandelier’s origins. The earliest chandeliers, in the 14th century, were simple wooden crosses with spikes for fixing candles to, raised to the ceilings of churches and monasteries by a rope or chain. Over the next two centuries the chandelier developed its more familiar shape, with arms to hold the candles, and moved from public buildings into private homes. Chandeliers in the houses of the prosperous were made of wood, wrought iron and tin. In wealthier residences, they were more finely crafted and fashioned from gilded bronze, known as ormolu, as well as brass. In palaces, precious metals, such as sterling silver, were used.


The creation of lead glass, or crystal, transformed the chandelier into an extravagant and glittering centerpiece. From the late 18th century onwards, hugely ornate chandeliers were found in the palaces of Europe and Asia. The Dolmabahçe Palace in Istanbul, built between 1843 and 1856, is dripping with chandeliers made by the French crystal company Baccarat, the most spectacular found in the Ceremonial Hall. A gift from Queen Victoria, it remains one of the largest chandeliers in the world, weighing 4.5 tons and featuring 750 lamps and hundreds of Bohemian crystals.


Today’s models are equally eye-catching – but very different in design. Take the Gabriel chandelier, for instance, designed by Studio Bouroullec for the palace of Versailles. Made to hang above the immense neoclassical Gabriel staircase that is the public entrance, the 40ft-long chandelier resembles an illuminated string of pearls hanging from the ceiling, the soft glow of the many crystal-encrusted LED bulbs changing with the daylight.


The Gabriel chandelier was made by Swarovski, the Austrian crystal-maker that has been at the forefront of the chandelier revival. Its Crystal Palace Project, launched in 2002 and curated by interior designer Ilse Crawford, had the ambitious goal of creating chandeliers with an aesthetic rooted in the 21st century rather than the 19th. The project got off to an inauspicious start. “At that time the classical chandelier was not taken seriously by the contemporary design set. Initially when I approached some well-known designers, most of them refused,” says Crawford. However, a posse of young designers took up the challenge, and their concepts were groundbreaking. One chandelier was made entirely of rose-pink crystals in the form of a haute-couture ball gown. Another was made of crystal prisms and resembled a glistening block of ice. Most unexpected was Tord Boontje’s Blossom, shaped like a flowering cherry-tree branch.


In the years since, many of the world’s most respected designers and even architects have realized the chandelier’s potential to thrill. “Manufacturers of chandeliers started to be interested in working with contemporary design rather than sticking to pastiche tradition,” says Crawford. The result has been some extraordinary creations. Award-winning architect Zaha Hadid’s limited-edition Fade, for example, incorporates 86 floor-to-ceiling cables, set at a 45-degree angle to create a fluted cone wrapped by 2,700 internally-lit crystals. Belgian designer Vincent Van Duysen’s Cascade is a series of LED-lit crystal strings that fall from the ceiling to resemble a torrent of water, while Beau McClellan’s Reflective Glow is officially the world’s largest chandelier. Suspended from a glass atrium between two office complexes in Qatar, it is 126ft long and lit by more than 2,300 hand-ground optical crystals and 55,000 LEDs.


Modern chandeliers also incorporate materials other than crystal into their design, such as copper piping and leather. Jo Whiting’s stunning chandelier for UK interior designer Abigail Ahern is made up of hundreds of small squares of porcelain, each of which has been hand-rolled in muslin for added texture. “Modern chandeliers evoke all the grandeur of the past, but have an edgy new update,” says Ahern.


No longer simply a light, the chandelier is now a work of art, too. “It is more fluid, more unique in design,” says Lisa Santana from Unitfive Design, responsible for the amazing rock chandeliers – 8,000 individually-made rock crystals suspended on hand-forged metal frames – at The St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort. “Now it’s possible to develop one-of-a-kind pieces that are a piece of art. They have become a reflection of one’s sense of style and fashion.”


Most recently, it is the development of the LED that has allowed greater scope. “LEDs flood the crystal with light, allowing it to do the talking,” says Billy Canning, chief lighting designer for the Irish crystal company Waterford. Although known for its traditional designs (its chandeliers are in London’s Westminster Abbey), Waterford stepped into the modern arena in dramatic fashion with a spectacular LED ball for the 100th anniversary of the annual Times Square Ball Drop on New Year’s Eve, 2007. The design of 672 Waterford crystal triangles lit by more than 9,500 LEDs made for a wonderful spectacle as it descended the flagpole.


However, even traditional chandeliers are enjoying a surge of interest as their star quality is once again appreciated. Baccarat’s Zenith 84 was also unveiled at Salone del Mobile, its glittering opulence a sharp contrast to the bare stone walls surrounding it. A reminder, if one were needed, that the chandelier has the power to transform even the most austere of spaces.


Your address: The St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort


Vincent Van Duysen’s Cascade


The Gabriel chandelier designed by
Studio Bouroullec for the palace of Versailles