The Making Of
Sylvain Willenz’s Print Lamp for Established & Sons

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.


Willenz's Print lamp debuted at the Established & Sons showcase in Milan in April, after a long process of research and development that he begun at CIRVA and finished under the British manufacturer's wing.


Willenz estimates he's spent nearly two months at the CIRVA workshops over the course of five visits, beginning in 2008. The center keeps an apartment above the shop where they can house one on-site artist at a time. "It’s an open, never-ending residency, which is great because I get to come down here whenever I have an idea or whenever I need to get away from the studio and do something more hands-on," says the Belgian designer.


The CIRVA facilities actually consist of two spaces, one for handling the glass and one for making wood and plaster molds and other tools. Shown here are glass-cutting machines, which are similar to wood-cutters but with diamond blades. “The technicians here are great because they never say no, that’s impossible,” Willenz says. “They very much like to be challenged and to do something they haven’t tried before, something that isn’t obvious for glass, and they’re ingenious enough that they always work it out.”


In the back of this image is the wet room, where the team polish, cut, and engrave glass using techniques that require water. The glass balls hanging on the left are color samples, and the clear tubing on the table is a piece by another artist, currently in progress. Even when the residents aren't on-site, the CIRVA technicians are constantly at work on their ongoing projects.


Wooden tools and molds submerged in a bucket of water, where they're kept between projects to keep them from drying out and cracking. "It's a very, very hard wood that doesn’t burn easily in contact with glass," Willenz explains.


Experimentation for the Print lights began here, with the blowing of a glass bubble directly onto a piece of wire mesh, giving its surface a textured grid pattern. "At first the texture was going to be engraved into the bottom, but that would have been too crafty and not very me," he says. "I liked the idea but needed to find a way of doing it all in one, so that's where the idea of printing came from." The man in the picture is a CIRVA technician. “I’m incapable of blowing glass. I never tried because I know it’s going to be very difficult, much moreso than playing the trumpet. It demands a lot of practice and skill, and I’d rather concentrate on the design.”


An early test, using a mesh that was too square for Willenz's taste. "It’s very basic mesh, which you’ll find at any hardware store," he says. "We tried a lot of different kinds, but with most of them you could tell that it had been printed in this way. I wanted it to look less obvious, more industrial."


A small, 5-inch test globe demonstrates the final, green-lit mesh pattern. "Very quickly I decided this was the one," says Willenz. "It looked like one of these big car headlights, having the feeling of a nice industrial light bulb or something."


A lit sample demonstrates the unique way the lamp's built-in diffuser breaks up the light.


“We also tried a lot of different shapes, testing which printed well and which printed worse. That’s the blowers that want to do that, because they want to find out what works best and at what temperature. It’s a very precise, scientific process getting the recipe right.” The team tried globes, flat bubbles, and even diamond-shaped geometrical versions blown into existing molds the studio had lying around from past projects.


Once Willenz settled on a shape that was somewhere between Jasper Morrison's Glo Ball lamp and an "upside down acorn," the process then progressed to the integration of colored glass. The pigment starts out more opaque at the top of the light and fades in a gradient as it reaches the clear but textured base. This creates a kind of built-in lampshade, shielding the viewer's eyes from the bare bulb. Willenz picked smoky greys, browns, and purples, which gave the already '60s-style shape even more of a retro feel. "I was okay with that," he says.


In the background of this picture are pieces by Ettore Sottsass, but on the table in the foreground, color experiments for the Print lamp join a sampling of all the work Willenz has done at CIRVA, including the very first blobs and vases he made in the sand molds. "Those are things I've never shown before because they’re not produced enough for me," he says. "They end up quite shapeless, so you have to make four of them to get one right. They're experiments which I’m not done dealing with yet."


For the Print lights, on the other hand, it was on to the team at Established & Sons, who set about putting them into production at a facility in Murano. Shown here is an intermediate mold; the casing will eventually be made of metal, but the bottom plate is finished. “At this point it’s not a metal mesh anymore, but a proper piece of steel that’s been CNC-engraved with the pattern specifically for the Print lamp,” says Willenz. “The glassblower makes a bubble, closes it inside the mold, then blows it until it reaches the bottom. Then he starts turning it to keep the shape perfectly round, so the metal part needs to be able to spin inside. In terms of molding glass, it’s quite unusual to do something like that.” The final lamp will reach the market next month.