New York

Frank Gehry

Metro Pictures

Frank Gehry had a hunch, and it was a good one—to combine Formica, light, and the forms of snakes and fish to make a series of lamps. These fantastic, glowing beasts formed a menagerie in the darkened gallery, demonstrating that a place still exists for informed intuition in art and design. Gehry is not reaching for complicated territory in this series, or for any polemical peak; he has simply taken a material and applied it unconventionally to create shapes and images with personal resonance.

Gehry began this series of lamps two years ago, when the Formica Corporation invited ten architects to develop ideas using a new product called Colorcore. (The product is a laminate like Formica yet is colored throughout rather than only on the surface; the unsightly dark edges of Formica now show tints.) Gehry approached this marketing strategy with both dissension and verve. Instead of developing luscious, unbroken surfaces of the laminate, he chose to tear and break the material into jagged chips. For a product earmarked for offices, reception areas, and kitchen counters, his design methodology was peculiar and renegade. Gehry took his torn fragments, transformed them into scales, and created a fish that was lit from within. This first experiment was so intriguing and seductive that he felt compelled to make more.

It is a mistake to look for symbolism in Gehry’s choice of fish and snakes as forms for lamps. His decision was most likely based on personal association, and on the way the scalelike pieces of Colorcore corresponded with the textured skin of fish and reptiles. In spite of the limited motif, the lamps vary remarkably. Through the use of color, different bases and pedestals, and gentle adjustments of form, each lamp is both conspicuously unique and plainly a unit of the ensemble. One fish lies on its side on a board, as if anticipating its future as a fillet, but most appear more frisky and are perched upright. Some sit on simple four-legged bases which are gangly and oddly leaning. Others sit on pedestals that look like billowing hula skirts; layered fronds of Colorcore cascade toward the floor, where, like demurely raised petticoats, they expose splayed legs sheathed in the laminate. And one base hospitably includes a seat.

Some fish and snakes are known to glow luminously in sunlight, and Gehry’s lamps brilliantly capture this flickering and changing quality. In his creations, however, the light issues from within. Where it escapes from between the layered, overlapping scales it is seen as short, staccato lines, while it glows warmly when diffused through the laminate. As one moves around each lamp, the patterns of light are constantly transformed, suggesting that movement is not just a prerogative of the viewer but something imagined for and bestowed on Gehry’s creatures. Every snake and fish has white, glowing eyes which shine penetratingly and unflinchingly in contrast to the more ephemeral qualities of the animals’ bodies. The pieces also position light in surprising places: one snake lamp is a red wiggle of light across the floor; the fish in another piece sits on a tree-trunk as a snake coils predatorily around the perch. Light emanates from both creatures.

The installation of Gehry’s lamps in the gallery was exquisite. In the large dark space the works were sensitively placed to create a glowing field of animal icons of various heights and intensities. The environment was the comfortable armchair that art can occasionally construct when provocation takes a holiday.

Gehry is clearly playing the artist-as-entrepreneur, but he pulls it off with finesse. While creating a product for utility and sale, he exploits the opportunity to invent and to play. This faculty of innovation, sometimes serious and sometimes mischievous, is a characteristic that Gehry cultivates in every situation. In doing so he is able to elevate the standards of the marketplace while respecting those of art and design.

Patricia C. Phillips