Imagine you’d never driven a car before. A bike, sure, but never an automated vehicle — until one day the head of the Indianapolis 500 called you up out of the blue, inviting you down to the track to do unlimited test laps under the guidance of his star drivers. That’s pretty much what happened to Belgian designer Sylvain Willenz in 2008, except that instead of cars it was glass, a material with which he was wholly unfamiliar before arriving at the famed European glassmaking research center CIRVA, where he’d been hand-picked for a residency. Slightly less sexy than a Maserati, but a dream for a young talent like Willenz. “A lot of amazing artists have come through here: Richard Deacon, Gaetano Pesce, Sottsass, the Bouroullecs, Pierre Charpin,” he says, speaking from his room at the 27-year-old Marseilles facility, which is funded by the French government. “The idea is not to end up with something, but to try something. They’re very open to people coming here who don’t know anything about glass, like me — and that that’s what’s going to produce something interesting.”
In Willenz’s case, it would be a series of shapeless blobs blown into primitive sand molds at first, and then much later, the prototypes for his innovative new Print lamps for Established & Sons. It was his previous work in soft plastics — including his 2008 Torch lights for Established — that first caught the eye of CIRVA’s former director Françoise Guichon. “She thought it would be interesting for me to discover glass, because it’s also a liquid material that hardens into something different,” Willenz explains. “Except that with glass, it’s a liquid at more than 1,000 degrees that you can’t touch, and can’t put into contact with just anything. It’s a very alive material, something you really have to tame.” At CIRVA, he had plenty of help: four expert, never-say-no technicians, three glassblowers trained all over the world, including in Murano, and every tool one could ever need to make the impossible possible.
The concept for the Print lamp grew from Willenz’s desire to create a narrative link between his three projects for Established & Sons, each of which employs texture to change the experience of the light. Torch uses a textured plastic diffuser to mimic the look of car headlights, while the frosted polycarbonate inside the rubber housings of his road sign-inspired Landmarks series makes for a softer, almost cartoonish effect. With Print, the idea was to blow the glass onto a mesh that would imprint a grid-like pattern directly onto its molten surface; by incorporating a gradient of color at its top, Willenz could, in a single gesture, produce a light with a built-in shade and diffuser. “I tried quite a lot of shapes, but ended up with something quite normal that looks almost like Jasper Morrison’s Glo-Ball for Flos,” he says. “But where Jasper’s is all about simplicity and normality, mine is about color, details, and texture.” Here’s a glimpse at how he and the team at CIRVA did it.