Chandelier maker Michael McHale takes things that you wouldn’t think of as being capable of beauty—old gas pipes, steel cables, and bicycle gears, just to name a few—and transforms them into what he calls “structures that are new, but fit into a recognizable genre.” A former entertainment lawyer, McHale turned to lighting design not out of any particular passion for it, but because necessity is the mother of invention: He needed a new light fixture and couldn’t find anything he liked. The result? Work in which he asks people “to reconsider shapes that they see every day, and to see them as cool, beautiful and worthy of notice.” For more on the art of transformation—both personal and domestic—read on!
How would you describe what you do?
I make lighting. The signature thing we do is use gas pipes and fittings. We use the geometry of those things to make these new forms, which we then present to the world as lighting. Shape is important to people. Shape matters. We’re using things that our eyes are trained to ignore, and we’re restaging them. We’re using their geometry to make a new thing, and then we’re putting it in the middle of the room, and we’re saying, “This is the main part of this room—this is what you should look at.” And that can be a very satisfying experience for people. There’s sort of an “a-ha” moment for people when they get it. There’s a payoff. Usually, when people are unaware of what we’re trying to do, so when they see our work for the first time, they think, “That’s cool.” A split second later they think, “Hold on, is that made out of what I think it’s made out of?” which is then followed by, “Of course. That makes perfect sense.” That’s the feeling we go for, and we do it in a variety of ways.
What are the different ways?
The gas pipes were the first incarnation, but now we’re doing some similar things with different materials. We’re using 3-D printing, and we’re using more conventional fabrication methods.
You said that the idea for your pieces—or at least the placement of your pieces—is the center of the room. What motivates your aesthetic choices?
Chandeliers are always the jewelry of the room. They will always be what you look at first. I didn’t know this before I started my company—I used to be a lawyer—but chandeliers are where people’s eyes naturally go because our eyes are trained to look for sparkle. We’re hardwired to see it. Earlier in our evolution we were drawn to bright spots on the horizon because they tended to indicate the presence of flowing water, which was more likely to be drinkable. As a result, we are attracted to shimmering sparkle.
You mentioned that you were a lawyer. How does one go from there to being a lighting designer?
When I first started in 2007, the lawyer story was very interesting to people. It has become less interesting over the years, mainly because after 2008 the Great Recession kicked so many people out of the professions and turned them into beekeepers and Lego artists and artisan cookie makers. I trained in England, and I was originally at a huge firm, one of the top firms that does 20% of the world’s paperwork. And I hated it—absolutely hated it. I realized that I didn’t know what I was doing, and that I didn’t know what I had signed on for. I think a lot of lawyers sleepwalk into law, and I think in that way law is unique amongst the professions. If you go to medical school, for example, I don’t think you’ll find a lot of people who say, “You know what? I don’t really think I’m sold on this doctor thing, but it might be good for my resume.” I knew that I was good in school, and I knew that I liked to hear my own voice, but what I didn’t know was that I’m creative person. Creativity is not something that exists in the practice of law, and is in fact actively discouraged there. My brain is designed to look for the different thing, the unusual thing. As a lawyer, I would be presented with very typical legal circumstances that required a very typical answer, and I would look for the answer that had never been done before. There are some jobs where that is the better thing to do, but law is not one of them.
How did you end up in lighting?
I was in my 40s when this happened. It was a pretty late bloom. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I spent a long time in the wilderness. I tried different things. I worked on a book. I was an agent at a speakers’ bureau. I was kind of lost. In the middle of trying out these different things—trying and failing—I had a crappy fixture that I didn’t like in my apartment in Brooklyn Heights. I went to a design store to find something I would like better, and I hated what they had. I thought I could do a better job. I wanted something kind of long, but I didn’t know what materials to use, and then I had kind of a Eureka moment at a hardware store when I realized that standard sizes in lighting and standard sizes in plumbing were the same. I thought, “Well, I could use these things.” The fixture essentially made itself. There was only one correct way to do what I wanted to do.
What are the first three things that you consider when you designing a lighting fixture for a space, and why are they the most important?
- Framing. We make things that occupy airspace, so we have to consider how much airspace we can take. It’s all relative. If you’re trying to find a piece of light to put in the air, and you’re in a gymnasium, you would want an enormous piece. But let’s say that the piece is going over a small table in the middle of the gymnasium instead. Then your reference point is completely different. Your reference point is the table, not the gymnasium.
- What the eye expects to see. The principles of visual expectation don’t vary in any circumstances. If a table is X, the lighting should be Y. That’s an invariable form, like certain aspects of beauty. There’s a golden ratio—it’s what we have adopted, and it seems to work.
- Purpose. A lot of the brands that we compete with make beautiful things. But the difference between a lot of those things and what we do is that they’re not lights. They are sculptures that have light, but their purpose is not to allow you to read something at your table. Their purpose is to be beheld in all of their beauty. We’re not above doing sculptures, but we’re not artists, we’re artisans. We make useful things.