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Publication Date: 2011-11-28

Behind the Design

Q&A with Jonathan Browning

The lighting designer Jonathan Browning’s space, where he lives with partner and company co-founder Marco Heithaus, is carved out of a former 1924 newspaper printing press, with raw concrete walls and original metal tracks embedded in the floor. Yet the interiors are refined, with floating oak flooring on the second floor; walls studded with his exquisite cast-bronze sconces; and antique tables laden with stacks of books that influence his work: tomes dedicated to subjects like shells, Art Deco, and grand former estates of centuries past (North Shore Long Island Country Houses, 1890-1950, Houses of Los Angeles, 1885-1919). On a fall afternoon, Browning—a passionate and rapid-fire conversationalist—sat down to discuss his inspirations, how he revived a 130-year-old Viennese company, and what goes into making a $36,500 chandelier.

Q: What inspires your lighting designs?

A: I always say I have two loves: the absolute minimalism of the industrial design movement, and the rigor and obsession of Beaux Arts Classicism. They’re the filters through which I see everything. I’m interested in taking the classical language and pushing it forward and making it original. I’m not interested in a riot of ornate detail. There’s always restraint to my designs—that’s where the beauty comes from.

Q: What is it that drew you to bronze, and the casting process?

A: It picks up detail better than any other material. You can cast natural objects, like my Shell Sconces or capture the grain of leather, as in the Perpignan Sconce.

Q: Take me through the process of designing and producing a light fixture.

A: In the case of my Calais Sconce the inspiration came from a seashell, a perfect spiral. So first I drew the sconce to scale. Then I met with my wood carver, Hector, to discuss it. He turned the piece on a lathe and hand-carved the details. Then we lacquered it to seal it, because it’s important to make the master model as smooth as possible since the casting process picks up every little detail. We work with several different foundries; this piece is made in Monterey, CA. They take the original wooden carving and make a rubber urethane mold of it, which they fill with hot wax. When the wax cools they take the mold apart and remove the wax model. Then they surround the wax piece with investment plaster. When the plaster dries, they put it in a kiln so the wax melts and drips out of the bottom. At that point we’re left with a negative in plaster.

Then the fun part starts! They melt ingots of bronze, which they heat in a ceramic crucible to 1800 degrees. Two people pick up this crucible with long rods and pour the melted bronze into the plaster mold. That goes into the kiln to cool slowly over two days—if it cools to quickly it can crack. Then we take a hammer and break the plaster. What we’re left with is a rough casting of the sconce. That gets cleaned by hand to get all the particles off it. Then we drill holes in it so it will fit with the other parts. Next comes the insanely detailed hand polishing, with blocks of progressively finer sandpaper to get the best results.

Each piece is made to order, and it can be done in any finish. Usually the Calais gets plated in nickel. Then we fit the piece onto the back plate and make a shade from a bronze tube. We fit it all together and then we package and ship it.

Q: Whoa! That truly is so much work. Do you have to make a new carving and rubber mold each time?

A: No, fortunately. The carving happens just once. The rubber mold usually lasts two to three years before it starts to deform. In the furniture industry, people often complain that it’s so unfair—people rip off your designs all the time. But that’s not been my challenge. Bronze casting is such an unforgiving process that no one else can knock it off. There’s no shortcut to making something that looks like mine.

Q: In 2008, the legendary Viennese lighting manufacturer Kalmar—founded in 1881 and still family-owned—brought you on as a partner and design director. Your goal was to update lamps from the company’s archives. Tell me about some of the resulting pieces.

A: I spent three days in Vienna going through family scrapbooks, photographs, and drawings on vellum. It was like looking into King Tut’s tomb. I found some exquisite things I could reinterpret. For example, the Hallstadt Chandelier. Back then it would have been done in oak with wooden rods, hanging from a chain. My version is made of rosewood with bronze rods, hanging from cloth-covered Kevlar wire. It’s a more refined fixture for today.

Q: What sort of room do you picture this piece hanging in?

A: It’s a somber, elegant piece, so I envision it in a modern, clean space—a room from an Edward Hopper painting, like that café at night. It would look killer in a strange green room like that.

Q: Any other Kalmar pieces you’d like to mention?

A: The Dornstab Floor Lamp recently won Best Product of the Year from Interior Design, and it’s the only original Kalmar piece whose form I didn’t change at all. It’s an ingenious thing, with three manual settings…Why didn’t I think of that? It’s so goddamn smart.

Q: Tell me a bit more about the way you work—do you usually create your own designs as you are inspired, or are they mostly commissions from interior designers?

A: About half the time an interior designer will come to me with something in mind. For example, a few years ago a designer approached me to create a piece for his client, who had a four-story oval staircase with a skylight at the top. I wanted something poetic. I pictured a dead tree hanging down four stories, with snow coming down the oculus. So I went across the street and cut off a few branches from a gingko tree and had Hector, my woodworker, graft together three different twigs to create the perfect complicated shape. We sent that to the foundry and they cast it in three hollow parts, which they welded together. The final piece was 32 super-delicate branches pieced together like tumbleweed, with hand-tied smoky quartz crystals and 128 one-watt LED lights adding sparkle. More recently I made a smaller version for my line, the Twig Chandelier. Due to the complicated production process it costs $36,500, the most expensive thing I make.

Q: What should people look for when buying lighting? How can they tell if something is high quality?

A: There’s so much throwaway lighting, so much garbage. Most lighting is made from cheap spun metal—it dents easily and you can’t get crisp edges. Ask the store: how is this made? Is it spun metal, or is it machined? Get up close and look at the finishing. Is it a faux aluminum finish, sprayed on, or is it actual brushed aluminum? Look for the depth in detail. Is it hand-worked, or was it stamped on a machine? To gauge the quality of a piece, pick it up. If it feels light and rickety, that tells you a lot.

Q: What’s next for you and your studio?

A: I’m figuring how to branch out at a more affordable price point, while keeping the aesthetic and quality I love. I don’t want to only sell to the 1% who can afford these pieces. It’s not easy. But there are ways. I’m currently developing a blackened steel version of my Ventoux Torchiere with a white paper shade that will be half the price of the bronze model.

Q: What’s the best design advice you’ve received?

A: Well it wasn’t design advice per se, but when I was in my twenties and working in fashion, I met Katrine Boorman [wife of Tom Conran] at a dinner party—it was an amazingly glam moment for me—and at one point she said: “You just have to follow your heart.” She was the most extraordinary woman, showing up at this party in white tap pants and a gold-sequin halter top when the rest of us were in jeans and Esprit t-shirts. But I took her advice to heart. When I started my own company I just wanted to do what I thought was beautiful. I decided to make pieces that excite me, that are heartbreakingly beautiful to me. It was a pleasure and a surprise to see that people respond.


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