German lighting designer Ingo Maurer chats with Leo Ryan about the importance of humour in his work and the somewhat temporal, mobile and transient effects of light. LR: What difference do you see between the lighting you do for a commercial audience and the more conceptual work that you do for fairs and other exhibitions such as la Villette (1999). How do they inform each other?

IM: It’s not my problem how I am described; I certainly don’t insist on being called an artist. To design commercial products needs another discipline that is different to when you have the freedom to create a work of art. In both cases you need discipline. However, the design and development of a product has different laws: production, price, the look of the object and especially the look of the light it makes. This is an extremely important aspect – that the light is good. Actually, the quality of the light is more important than the shape of the lamp. When I first started I didn’t care so much about the light –

I concentrated on shape and form, but I soon discovered that the light was more important. It has to make the people in the room comfortable and it can have quite an impact on how they look – and generally people like to look good! The two aspects of my work inform each other: they go back and forth. The ‘free pieces’ will have an effect that I will then transport to the product line. When you are working on what I describe as ‘free pieces’ you have the opportunity for much more expression and to learn about technique. For many years I have experimented with LED and as a result of that experimentation and research we are currently working on a project where the entire ceiling is defined with an LED pattern that floats across the expanse of the ceiling for Chanel on 57th Street [New York].

LR: Art and function – where do the lines cross and blur? Do they?

IM: Yes they blur. If you are familiar with the idea of Gestalt therapy then you would know the word ‘Gestaltung’, which is the German word for creativity. Design for me is a more impersonal process – there are lots of things to consider when you are actually designing. But the freer work, the work that’s in more Gestaltung, has a much more immediate expression. I call things Gestaltung when you are able to discern the person behind the work. With the design process, the person is hidden, it is not about exposing the person, it is about solving a design problem.

LR: How is the idea of Gestaltung more pronounced in your non-commercial work?

IM: We do these golden ribbons, where the work on the details is in 1:10 scale. The longest so far has been 16 metres; normally they are anywhere between five to 10 metres. The first one that we created was Paragaudi, designed for Gaudi’s ‘Casa Botines’, and the process of developing the concept for this was very much one of Gestaltung, of intuition. I feel more than I think when I start something new. I strongly believe that the purpose of our work is to serve the people. The effect of lighting can make you feel better or feel sad. It is the case that many lights in the open street can be quite dreary. Although a street might be well-lit, it still has a despondent feeling. With a little more thought it could actually be quite cheerful. And that doesn’t mean that it has to be a chandelier! It could simply create a carpet of light for people to walk upon. This is a common perception or misconception – people think that the light should come from above because daylight comes from the sun. But artificial light doesn’t have to be like this and we shouldn’t pretend that it is this.

LR: What is one of the more interesting functions that you like to produce lighting for?

IM: Exhibition lighting is one of the most exciting and challenging areas that there is to work in. We were asked to create the lighting at the Convent of St. Agnes of Bohemia, Prague/Czech Republic, for the exhibition ‘Magister Theodoricus’. We wanted to light up the whole exhibition with flames and the Czech President at the time was very much in favour of it, but the officials at the museum refused to allow us to do it for safety reasons.

However, it would have been a great example of what effects can be developed by lighting that is not trying to create an even wash of light, but rather is creating contrast and change with the use of light and shadow. The eye needs shadows to function properly, it needs to go from light to dark and back to the other to exercise the muscles. I have defined lamps with the shadow in mind, working at it from the opposite angle, looking at the light that will not be emitted.

LR: Moshe Safdie has spoken about the need for an architecture of place, of work that belongs uniquely to a place. Lighting is interesting in that it can play such an essential role in making a place and yet it is temporal, mobile and transient.

IM: While I agree with what he is saying, I’d also say that a space comes alive only with light and that his work is a great example of this. The Holocaust History Museum that he has completed in Jerusalem uses light in many ways to create what he refers to as a sense of place. Israel as a country has amazing light that is strong but subtle and this is accentuated by the construction of the houses all in the same stone and so there is evenness to the light.

LR: Does your sensitivity to light mean that there are some places you prefer to work in?

IM: I am very susceptible to light – like being near a river or a body of water – because of the reflection of the light and the effects that it can create. I have been playing a lot with light in this way at Fondation Cartier, taking elements from nature and using them to interact with light. We have been experimenting with smoke and dust and mirrors.

LR: How does the way that light appears in nature inform your work and the production of artificial light?

IM: In the Issey Miyake store in London, I have made a cloud with 3,000 silver leaves on a spring steel rod. These leaves are then moved with a gentle breeze caused by a propeller and the whole installation is lit from outside the store. This has been very closely inspired by poplars and olive trees, and the way that they move in the wind. This movement then makes the light come alive.

LR: Safdie has also quoted Philip Johnson, “There are no rights or wrongs in art or architecture only an incredible freedom”. What do you think? Shouldarchitecture be constrained more than art?

IM: I agree that architecture should be contributing more socially and that it can be more entertaining. I feel that sometimes architecture is too uptight – it won’t break the rules. It is the role of designers to always look for something new, to find a new way forward. All my things are very different in type and scale. Most recently I created a new UNICEF snowflake that is 7 metres in diameter and is made of 16,000 Baccarat crystals. It’s going to be hung in New York on November 18.

LR: You often use humour in your work; there’s a lot of wit in your design. How do you see the role of humour in your work?

IM: Humour is something you feel and do. But I don’t believe that you can consciously create humour. I consider myself a bit more on the brittle side, but in my work I like to have a gentle smile for people – never mean. The same is true for poetry; you cannot make it, it just happens. Most of all you have to feel it. If you construct it, it’s always going to be a bit fake.