Design trends can be difficult to trace, but in the case of the recent vogue for chandeliers, the exact starting point is quite clear. In 2001 Nadja Swarovski, of the London-based crystal company, began looking for a way to boost sales of the firm's components—the drops and beads of cut crystal used to make chandeliers. She hired design guru Ilse Crawford (who recently created the interior of Soho House, the New York branch of the ultratrendy British members-only club and hotel), and together they produced the Crystal Palace Project, an annual traveling exhibition at which spectacular design-driven chandeliers commissioned by the company would make their debut each April at the influential Milan Furniture Fair.
For the first Crystal Palace in 2002, Crawford chose a small group of designers with vastly different aesthetics, including Tord Boontje, the Dutch wunderkind known for his playful, almost childlike creations, Hella Jongerius, a Dutch designer from the Droog Design movement, and a young Austrian named Georg Baldele, who was beginning to make a name for himself in London. Each was given crystals and free rein to interpret the chandelier as he or she saw fit. "The aim was to break down preconceptions regarding the role of the traditional chandelier," Crawford explains, "while at the same time capturing and perpetuating its fantasy and emotional impact."
The resulting collection—among the pieces, a suspended lamp shaped like a dress, a mammoth glittering rectangle box, and a chandelier with crystal drops hung on an invisible wire to create the outline of a horse—was a resounding success. The darling of the event was a pink chandelier by Boontje, called Blossom. Shaped like a branch, it was adorned with crystals and intermittently flashing LEDs. "Tord had a cherry tree in mind," Swarovski says. "The amazing thing about the design is that people think of crystal as austere and hard, but Tord made a chandelier that is organic and romantic. It hangs at eye level; it's part of your environment, not on top of it." Although the chandeliers were meant to be one-offs, Boontje and several other designers found themselves inundated with requests.
The chandeliers were then taken to Borough Market in London and installed over the stands of butchers and fruit sellers to contrasting and glamorous effect. Next, they moved to the Maison et Objet Show in Paris and finally were hung in Bergdorf Goodman in New York City.
By the following April, most exhibitors at the furniture fair in Milan featured some sort of hanging lamp, and soon after, both high-end luxury designers like Baccarat and mail-order companies like Anthropologie began highlighting the chandelier. (Crystal Palace has been a huge success for Swarovski. Sales of its components rose 62 percent last year.) Suddenly the once-shunned light fixture was showing up in the chicest shops, hotels, and restaurants around the world.
New York architect and interior designer Steven Sclaroff sees this as a natural progression. "It marks a return to elements that are more decorative in much the same way that bright colors are being used to soften the monochromatic minimal look that was so popular in the nineties." For Crawford, the reappearance of the chandelier signaled a long overdue aesthetic correction. "We've been through the whole 'less-is-more' idea," she says. "But for those of us doing interiors, there had been a gap. Things that are sort of sexy and emotional just weren't there."
Sclaroff, who also owns a Manhattan furniture store selling both new and antique pieces, notes how recent interest in chandeliers has translated into demand for vintage models, largely from the sixties and seventies. "It used to be that you couldn't give them away," he says. "Now they're very desirable and the prices have gone overboard." This is especially true for certain iconic designs, such as the shell chandelier by Verner Panton. "Three years ago you could get one for $3,000. Now it's more like $18,000," says Sclaroff.
Part of the chandelier's recent popularity may have something to do with the versatility of the new shapes and materials being offered. "For certain places, like hallways and dining rooms, chandeliers have been a given," Sclaroff says. "But now people are more open to using them in unusual locations, like the bedroom and even the bathroom." The trick to making it work is finding the right mix of proportion and surprise, he says. "It's important not to put too large a chandelier into a small space, for instance, and to put them in places you wouldn't necessarily expect them."
In her plan for the Soho House restaurant, Ilse Crawford used off-the-rack chandeliers (albeit in custom colors) from Italian company Lumen Mec. There, raw walls and rough plank floors serve to accentuate the elegance of the lighting. "It lets you keep the jangly bits off the walls and the furniture," she says.
The latest models, from designers working with Swarovski and other companies, feature high-tech gizmos—say, a motion detector and a device that receives and displays text messages. Designers have also begun incorporating materials and shapes far, far away from the traditional brass and glass so common in the eighties and nineties. "Technology enhances the traditional properties of the material," says Yves Béhar, who hung pieces of cut crystal around a sheet of electroluminescent plastic for his piece, Nest, which appeared in the 2004 Crystal Palace Project. "In the case of my chandelier, light surrounds the crystal rather than simply shining from a single point."
In New York Murray Moss, co-owner of SoHo design shop Moss, has created an exhibition showcasing the chandelier (on display through the end of 2004), presenting examples in themed vignettes such as "Fantasy," "Bling," "Ornament," and "Sculpture." "With the Crystal Palace Project, Ilse and Nadja expanded the idea of what chandeliers are and how to use them," he says. "They can be ornament or jewelry, which is how I'm showing them: An Edra tweed sofa, Prada pillows, and a chandelier overhead that looks like a brooch—it'll be a very couture moment."
For the 2004 show, Swarovski looked farther afield, tapping a fresh crop of designers—for one, Matali Crasset from Paris, who has collaborated with the likes of Dornbracht and Danese—and booking the show for stops in a number of other cities, such as Shanghai. "The goal," she says, "is to make the chandelier more modern, more fun, and more accessible."
"Nest," for the Swarovski Crystal Palace Collection, $90,590; 44-20/7016-6780. Venini's "Chandelier, 20 Arms," $22,900, and "Smoke" for Moooi, $995; Moss, 212-204-7100. "Deer Antler," by special order only; kwid, 323-951-7454. "Lily," $27; Habitat, 44-845/601-0740. "Light Frame," for David Design, $850; Matter, 718-230-1150.