Alison Berger, designer of highly alluring “conceptual” blown glass lights and other objects and furnishings, will receive a Star of Design award today at Westweek, the Pacific Design Center’s spring design fair taking place today and tomorrow. The award honors her 25-year body of work exploring the relationship between glass and light. Alison draws inspiration from historical tools and craft, saying her work “is about creating something old and new at once.”
Berger’s passion took root in her family’s glass-walled house in Dallas. She started blowing glass at age 16. She studied at the Rhode Island School of Design, and then joined the studio of the glass artist Dale Chihuly. She then studied architecture at Columbia University and wound up working for Frank Gehry in Los Angeles. She then left architecture for movie-set design and took up working with glass full time when her clients kept asking her to make pieces for their sets. All of her objects are blown in downtown Los Angeles, where she has worked for 20 years.
DnA wanted to find out more about the relationship between glass and light that informs her work, the historical pieces that she draws from and whether digital technology has changed her design process and philosophy.
DnA: Describe the relationship between light and your work.
Alison Berger: I am just fascinated by capturing different aspects of light and really glass is the conveyor of that. So my medium is light and the material I work with is glass.
I try to capture 9:00 AM light all the way through to the last glimpse of light as the sun is setting. In a way my pieces are all about different passages of light throughout the day. And sometimes they are about light as seen through the fog or as seen through the rain as well. Probably if I lived in New York it would be light as seen through the snow.
So if you think about the hours of the day and all the minutes that comprise the hour those are the endless possibilities that I try and create.
DnA: Are all of your pieces intended to be functional?
AB: I am not a lighting designer per se, I am an artist that works with light containing it and illuminating it in crystal. In that sense, yes, they are lights but they are not functional task lighting. It’s more about lighting that is soothing or meditative.
They all function but they function on a conceptual level of illumination.
DnA: Why don’t you want your pieces to be able to be mass produced?
AB: I’m trying to keep alive the history of glass blowing techniques through incorporating them into contemporary design. I’m trying to keep alive the history and technique of glass blowing as it was centuries ago.
Mass production would deny the hand quality that that process involves. So many of the pieces we do by hand couldn’t be mass produced because they require the finesse of the hand to create the piece. By having them not be mass produced they keep kind of the beauty of the hand in that they all have their own sort of subtle personality and beautiful fluidity of the form.
DnA: What are you working on now?
AB: I am working on a series of lighting pieces that encapsulate a more dramatic way to use light.
One series of pieces I’m working on creates a canopy of light within a physical space. Some of these chandeliers are based on the gears of clock and some of the structures are based on Galileo’s study of pendulums and counter weights. Another chandelier is based on a series of ascending arcs that create a trust system– like a delicate skeletal frame. They will be available through Holly Hunt, made to order. They will need to be reconfigured for site specific locations.
I’m fascinated by history and all of the different instruments and objects that societies used to calibrate time. A lot of my inspiration comes from looking at different societies and looking at their rites and rituals. Everything I make is narratively historically based.
But I never copy those pieces, I take the essence of them to create something new. I find endless inspiration; it could be a jewelers hammer, it could be a carpenter’s plumb bob, it could be the fulcrum on a scale, all of these instruments of measure inform the structure of my pieces. My work is about creating something old and new at once.
DnA: Are you still exploring the possibilities of glass or have you moved onto new materials?
AB: I am still deep in exploring the possibilities of glass. It is such a mysterious evocative material, I don’t see myself fully being able to understand it. My attempt to define it is what I find so exciting about it.
It’s the most challenging material that I know of.
Not only do I work with glass, I work with it in its clear state, I don’t color it. Because I’m still trying to understand how clear glass holds the light. There’s different tones of light that get transferred through the material that depends on its density. For example, as I’m sitting here in my studio, beautiful East light is pouring through the window, I’m looking at five or six different pieces I’m working on that all convey different tonality of light.
DnA: Has your philosophy of design and craft changed as new technologies — like digital design and manufacturing — have emerged?
AB: Yes. First of all, it has changed not only because of technology, but also because of the way we communicate. My perception of new technologies has allowed me to further perfect and define the craft aspect of the pieces I create. In digital and computer machinery, that has its own level of craftsmanship that in a way almost seamlessly blends with the hand. You would think it would be the opposite, but it’s not.
Technology has helped keep the pieces feeling more one of a kind and hand-made. Technology has allowed for a lot more diversity, and it hasn’t compromised the quality. The technology itself requires such a high level of craft, which is something not many people think about.
DnA: How do you use this technology in your work specifically?
AB: We use design techniques, we do 3D renderings, I use a great combination of new technologies and old design processes. We still build hand models in the studio, we use rendering programs to understand the programs themselves. They have both bridged to a new level of craftsmanship. We still draw by hand and we do renderings, and 3D printing,
We haven’t left one and adopted the other, we use both at the same time. With technology there’s a whole level of craftsmanship because, you have to be a skilled craftsman to run these technological programs.
It’s informed the design because they are so compatible. It’s brought my work to an even higher level of craft.
DnA: Is L.A. still a stimulating place for you to work?
AB: Yes. The mobility of the city, the quality of the light, the manufacturing, it’s all very inspiring. And the artistic community continues to grow and be inspiring to me; and because of the scale of the city there’s still a lot of places to discover. For instance, I got lost in downtown last week. I got lost in that area where they sell piñatas–an entire block of where people sell piñatas, it was fantastic.
There’s just still so much to discover in the city.