Author: Cara McCarty, Director of Curatorial

Playful, humorous, poetic, and humble are not words typically associated with lighting design. It is considered a serious discipline.  But the work of the prolific German lighting designer Ingo Maurer, who sadly passed this week, is just that.  His endless fascination with the “magical and mystical” qualities of light took him beyond functional light fixtures, bringing playful investigations and storytelling to his work.

Ingo was keenly interested in the emotional quality of light and took great joy when people were emotionally touched.  He said, “light can be sensual, it can be comforting, it can even be dangerous, it goes beyond science or nature or even art—it is as potent as life itself.” From an early age, he was fascinated by the light bulb itself and his career parallels the evolution from incandescent light bulbs to low-voltage halogens, to LEDs and lighting systems.  His inventive uses of new lighting technologies provided an endless source of experimentation, incorporating humble slips of paper, ceramic shards, Campari bottles, feathers, plastic toy figures, or circuit boards into the fixtures to shape, reflect, and support the bulbs. But it wasn’t just about the quality of light achieved. Ingo’s more than 200 designs were imaginative, singular, poetic objects in their own right.

In 2007, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum honored Ingo with a major exhibition, “Provoking Magic: Lighting of Ingo Maurer.” His fanciful installation design teemed with a broad array of his iconic and never-before-seen work that were remounted and reconceived specifically for the residential spaces in the landmark Andrew Carnegie Mansion.  The darkened historical interiors were enlivened with whimsical moments such as animated, whispering portraits of the Mansion’s original inhabitants, Louise and Andrew Carnegie, or “Tableaux Chinois,” which used live goldfish and mirrors to project shadows onto a wall, or, a full-scale wallpaper “which not only lights up, but where one can change the patterns and colors, soft or strong, just as you feel.”

Ingo smiles widely and clasps his hands in delight. He is an older white gentleman with shoulder-length silver hair. He is wearing a black jacket and a white button-up shirt.

Ingo Maurer at the opening of “Provoking Magic – Lighting of Ingo Maurer” at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in 2007. Photo by Virginie Blachère.

“We are all angels with one wing—only if we embrace one another we can fly.” —Ingo Maurer (1932-2019)

An elegant man, Ingo radiated a perpetual, warm smile. He was thoughtful and liked people. He had an infectious zest for life and was eager to engage people as participants in the lighting experience. Some of his iconic works, like the suspended cables of the innovative YaYaHo system, were designed to enlist the user, an inclusive gesture that let them set up and arrange the jewel-like components to their liking.  Like many spontaneous encounters that provided fodder for his lights, bulbs soldered to a power cord for a street festival in Haiti inspired YaYaHo.

A room with a wooden floor has a wall and ceiling that are painted indigo. About two dozen thin black wires criss-cross the room, like electricity cables. Suspended from these wires are whimsical assortments of square cut outs in yellow, red, and translucent materials. Dangling further down are small lightbulbs. On the floor is a white platform on which are a book and lighting components neatly organized.

Installation view of “Provoking Magic – Lighting of Ingo Maurer” on view at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum 2007-2008

Each year at the Milan Furniture Fair, a “must see” destination was always Ingo’s lighting installations, where his latest creations, environments, and even the designer himself and his team illuminated the darkened pavilion with surprise and delight. Throughout his lengthy career, Ingo depended on a loyal team of collaborators—first and foremost, his daughter and colleague, Claude, as well as an extensive group of talented architects, designers, and engineers.

Just imagine what our experience of lighting would be without Ingo’s legendary creations. After 50-plus years of creative work in lighting design, he has no rival. He had no formal education in industrial design: he apprenticed in typography and studied graphic design in Munich. Perhaps freed from the boundaries of product design, coupled with an independence of thought and a healthy dose of curiosity and intuition, Ingo opened up our experience of light forever.  He was a wonderful friend to Cooper Hewitt.  We will miss him dearly.

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