Name the hubs for emerging American designers and you'll likely hear the usual suspects of Seattle, San Francisco, and Brooklyn. Look southward, too, though, for a crop of energetic young guns set on making their mark. One such designer, Atlanta-based Chris Hardy, enticed the iconic Italian lighting manufacturer FontanaArte to produce his new Wig lamp. After returning from Milan, where Chris debuted Wig, the young designer chatted with me about FontanaArte, the state of contemporary American design, and Atlanta's burgeoning design scene. "It's nice to see that design is infused in the culture here—even if it is on a small scale," he says speaking of a few streets named after historic design figures.
In Milan you showed a lamp you designed for FontanaArte, the Italian lighting manufacturer. How did an American from Atlanta link up with a legendary Italian lighting company?
It all started at a cocktail party in South Beach last September, where I met the General Manager of North America for FontanaArte. I usually try and have everyone I meet look at my work and it just so happened that one of my designs resonated with him. A few days later he sent images off to Carlo Guglielmi, one of the owners of FontanaArte, who was also interested in it. By December, I had my first face-to-face with Carlo in New York. We shook hands and from that point on, I began working with their team in Italy to get it ready for Euroluce.
Can you tell me about the design for Wig?
My intent for the Wig lamp was to create a design based on the idea of a culture. I wanted to take the concept of something intangible and visualize it through form. I was drawn to the idea of creating a single mass composed from smaller elements. It was important that the design have a lot of character and personality. During the prototyping phase, we named it the Wig because not only does it share a resemblance to its namesake, but it also carries connotations of fun and playfulness. It was fun to see people at the show pose for photos underneath the fixture as if it were really a wig.
The Wig as a product is not hard to manufacture, but it was difficult to figure out how to achieve the look while keeping it at a reasonable price point. We did this by using a single mold to create these petals and then trimmed them to different lengths. The shade is made of 40 curved aluminum petals, five petals per level, eight levels, eight different lengths.
What was the response from retailers, press, and the Italians?
I met a lot of FontanaArte’s retailers while in Milan and spoke with them directly about the light; the response was overwhelmingly positive. FontanaArte was excited with the feedback they received from it at Euroluce. They expect it to be one of their best-sellers so I'm looking forward to seeing the numbers after is officially goes up for sale in June. There has been a lot of interest with the fact that I am a young American working with an Italian brand as historic as FontanaArte. There were not many Americans showing with European manufacturers at the Salone, so it has brought some attention to my work. It's been gratifying to have my work noticed by the design community.
What projects are you currently working on?
Right now, I'm designing and working on furniture and lighting projects for clients. I have started to spend more of my time working on lighting ever since I started collaborating with FontanaArte, so hopefully I will be showing with them again. I am also working on producing some new prototypes to help expand my body of work and improve my skills.
I recently attended a lecture at the Museum of Arts and Design where the panelists, including American designers Fort Standard and Silva Bradshaw, debated exactly what "American design" is. Is there a philosophy or aesthetic in what some call an emerging American design movement?
I think it’s a really interesting time for American design, because for so long we have been associated with an endless amount of consumer products that are research driven, but the “emerging American design movement” involves us taking influence from European design culture—almost like Art vs Science, and they are very different styles. I think it’s wonderful that design culture continues to develop. There is a greater importance on the meaning and value of an idea and much more of an ethereal approach.
I hope that we also see a continued increase in American manufacturers that share these same ideals to help give designers of this movement a platform for their work.
The Chinese-inspired furniture pieces on your site are colorful and smart. Do you think they'll ever be manufactured?
Thank you very much. My goal is to have at least a few pieces manufactured in the future. I’m always looking for new manufacturing opportunities. When I created that collection it was more of a personal project I was doing to process living in Hong Kong, but it had a greater response than I was expecting. The collection's main benefit has been to demonstrate my thought process and design aesthetic.
What's the design scene like in Atlanta?
The design scene in Atlanta is small, but seems to be growing. We are the American HQ of some European brands like FontanaArte, Duravit, Dornbracht, and even the Italian Trade Commission. There is an emerging area of Atlanta called West Midtown, which grew out of an Industrial area, and it's very design-oriented, with some great showrooms and galleries. For example, in my neighborhood within West Midtown, all of the streets are named after famous designers and architects including the founder of FontanaArte, Gio Ponti. It is nice to see that design is infused in the culture here—even if it’s on a small scale.
What's your favorite design?
One of my favorites is the Mezzadro Stool by the Castiglioni brothers. It is so elegant and understated, but the thing I most respond to is how it references its context. When I see it, my mind starts to wander about how they came up with this idea because it very much is a statement about the time period and environment that they were living in. I just picture these two brothers spending time in the Italian countryside starring at a tractor and arguing about what it should look like.
And your favorite piece from the FontanaArte archive?
They have an amazingly rich archive, but if I had to choose, I would say in lighting, the Fontana lamp by Max Ingrand, and for furniture, the Tavolo table by Gae Aulenti. I would happily take any piece in their collection, though!