Lindsey Adelman with her new design, Paradise. Photo by Nigel Cox.

Dons of Design

Lindsey Adelman

For this instalment of Dons of Design, SCP's editor Duncan Riches talks to Lindsey Adelman, a pioneer on the New York design scene, whose mercurial talents tread the line between sculpture, industrial design and poetry.

Adelman, a native New Yorker, has produced a body of work in the last two decades that has profoundly influenced contemporary lighting design worldwide. Her large scale creations seem to effortlessly balance materials and forms in a complex kind of aerial ballet. One in which she manages to express ideas like composure, fragility and fluidity, all at once. It’s powerful stuff. But where does it come from? I was lucky enough to talk with Lindsey right at the end of 2020, to find out more about what drives her, how Covid has developed her outlook and what we can expect to see from her this coming year.

What fired your imagination as a child? What were you like? 

I was born in New York City and raised in the suburbs. As a child I think I was very similar to how I am now, which is basically sort of doing what I have to do to get the stuff I don’t like to do out of the way, so I can have private, free, creative time. I organised my life like that when I was little and I still do that now. I live comfortably motivated by getting back into that zone, whether it’s daydreaming, or making, or exploring, or experimenting – that’s pretty much what drives me.

"As a child I think I was very similar to how I am now, which is basically sort of doing what I have to do to get the stuff I don't like to do out of the way, so I can have private, free, creative time."

Lindsey Adelman
Paradise by Lindsey Adelman. Photo by Nigel Cox.

You first studied English and then later went on to study at the Rhode Island Design School (RISD). I know from a previous interview with David Weeks that the school was really getting something right with its students. What was your experience there and what did it engender?

I am really glad they took a gamble on me. I had a degree in English from Kenyon and I had worked at the Smithsonian for a couple of years. I had this real fascination about wanting to change my life. I was in my twenties at that point, and there was definitely nobody saying: “You know it would be a great idea if you went to art school”. Nobody was advising me. I actually applied to RISD without telling anybody, I did the application when my roommates were out at the bar. I was like “who do I think I am”, there’s literally no evidence that I would be good at this. I got my application in and it really changed the course of my life. It was based on an internal curiosity and I maybe just listened to signs, thinking about how I was going to work things out. I asked certain questions to certain people, almost like strangers. Asking people what they did and how they got into it. I discovered what industrial design was, I had never heard of it.

Honestly, my first day there was like “oh hello, my people”. It was the first time in my life when I was actually inspired and motivated by what I was seeing all around me. I think before, I was always not sure about everyone all around me. That was a release. I think with RISD, I am still so inspired by them. The president, her name is Rosanne Somerson, was in the furniture department when I was there. I am still inspired by her, I think of her all the time. The instructors care, they care so much. They are so honest, but when they are really honest they don’t abandon you. You get very direct feedback. People critique the work there, your peers, visiting critics. It’s a very vulnerable position. I remember one instructor saying. “Every project you do is really an autobiography. If you are cutting corners you might want to go back to your apartment and think about yourself. It’s not us cutting corners, we are just reporting what we observe. You are free to observe that as well.” It was such a beautiful way to learn. If you were hungry for more, they had support there, there was scaffolding everywhere. I had already finished all of the woodwork credits at RISD, so I had the freedom to study film and video, printmaking, I did jewellery, ceramics, I even tried glassblowing. I took a semester off industrial design, and studied sculpture, I got to cast bronze. We had a foundry, and I learned how to do arc and mig welding. Up to that point, I had lived life between my ears, it was so cerebral. All literature, history, mathematics, computers and so when you find this you activate your whole body, it’s such a different way of living life and I really felt that it was so much more rewarding.

Paradise by Lindsey Adelman. Images by Nigel Cox.

"At the Rhode Island Design School the instructors care, they care so much. They are so honest, but when they are really honest they don't abandon you."

Lindsey Adelman

I am interested in the fact that you seem to do everything on a one to one scale. It seems important in your work. Where did that first come from and why is that important to you?

I think I never had a different type of experience. I was never in an architecture class where you would make makets or small models. I only learned doing prototypes at one to one scale from the very beginning. Whether it was making cardboard chairs or when I was experimenting a lot with lighting. My studio space, which was a shared space, was a place where I would be standing on my desk and hanging things from the ceiling, connecting wires, I lit a few fires that was not great. But I didn’t know how to use a computer, that was really just being introduced when I went to school in the mid-90s and we used a programme by Ashlar Vellum called Graphite, which was rudimentary. I think because that was my original experience it never really even occurred to me to design things on a computer or to make little tiny models. I am also not that interested in the final aesthetics, I am much more interested in following the material story of accomplishing a purpose. I find the beauty too in something that works well. I would also say that the other part of it goes back to that vulnerability, to make something at a small scale, you almost stay too safe, and when you are making something that is larger than you, you can’t hide, it’s very powerful. It can boss you around, or you can collaborate with it if it’s bigger than you. It is a different experience, you can’t really manhandle it, or control it, you have to find the balance there. If you are working on something really small, it keeps you small. It keeps your brain small and makes you too timid. It shows in the work.

Drop System by Lindsey Adelman. Photo by Joe Feltcher.

You have said in the past that you kind of work on the fly, you have a busy family life, you work with a big team of people, you’re always sketching. I suppose I would like to get an idea of what your working process is like now.

I think one thing that is consistent is that I never force anything. In terms of developing new ideas, I don’t work according to an annual schedule. Truly, the only ideas I bring to market are like the ones I couldn’t contain. It was painful not to release it into the world. That is a very lucky position to be in. It’s usually when I get an idea that feels original enough in my mind’s eye to actually spend the time working on it. Sometimes if I start working on something and discover something in the world that is similar, I will abandon it, or I will work very hard to bring it into my own language. There are a lot of things that already exist. So, that is part of my process. I still do work on the fly. I’ll get most of my ideas on a Saturday morning, or taking a walk on the beach, or daydreaming and looking at clouds or something. I sketch ideas when they come to me, I have never sat down at a desk at work and have gotten an idea. Never in my life. I’ve never had that experience. Right now what is really moving me is sculptural work. I do have a lighting collection that we are launching in March. It was ready in 2020, but we made a decision to launch in the Spring, because of the craziness of last year. So, I will be launching a new collection, which is technically quite pared down and simple, but visually it’s super indulgent, flexible but kind of opulent. It’s flexible in terms of how you can install it in a home. So, that’s fun, but in terms of what I work on myself. I have a ceramics set up at the studio, and a kiln, and a lot of equipment. I am not very good, but I usually work on ceramics one to two days a week. So, I am getting better, but I am just making series of things. I just made bottles, maybe fifty of them. I find it so grounding and quiet. It’s like the last thing I should be doing, there is plenty of spreadsheets, and phone calls I should be making. I don’t think anybody would be telling me to make a load of ugly bottles right now, so I just take the time for myself, because life goes on and I am not getting any younger. So I do spend a lot of time making art for myself without an agenda.

 

Custom branching Bubble Chandelier by Lindsey Adelman. Photo by Lauren Coleman.
Lindsey in her NYC showroom. Photo by Stephen Kent Johnson.

Do you have particular materials that you like to work with?

Designing, I like metal and glass the best, but I don’t work with them much hands on. I guess when I work hands on, I go for much simpler stuff that I can handle. Ceramics is definitely something that you can enter yourself as a beginner. Something like glassblowing you really have to dedicate your life to it, to accomplish anything. I think right now my favourite material is porcelain, but if you asked me in a year it would probably be something else.

"I am not that interested in the final aesthetics, I am much more interested in following the material story of accomplishing a purpose. I find the beauty too in something that works well."

Lindsey Adelman

Could you explain a bit more about the “Department of Reality and the Department of Fantasy”? I would love to know a bit more about this.

It’s very similar to what I was saying about my childhood. How you get the must-do stuff done and then you can play. You give yourself permission to go wild, so it’s similar to that at work. In the Department of Reality we have to deal with annual reviews, operations meetings, shipping, customer service, that is just realer than real, and it’s a huge part of staying in business. In the Department of Fantasy I just shot a video in our LA Showroom which isn’t out yet, where I used Joan Jett’s cover version of Crimson and Clover, and it’s got this really fierce lovely ten year old dancer who dancers through the whole showroom. It was so much fun, and I loved how it turned out, I don’t know when we are going to put it out in the world.

What is this relationship with dance in your work?

It is there. I am not trained, like right now I am standing in my living room and my husband has a whole turntable DJ setup and maybe like five thousand records, it’s like one ton of records. It’s always been part of our life, throwing dance parties, going to dance parties, nothing serious. My friend Danielle Martinelli, who is officially now part of the studio, for years we collaborated, where she directed the music video, I made a show called “Show Me” and she was the head choreographer and lead dancer. It’s really fun to activate my whole team, for whoever wants to be part of that thing. I think I just love non-verbal modes of expression. Things that are temporal – I love just setting up a set that has to look good for a day. Then image making, it’s really an incredible escape from something like a light fixture that you have to engineer to last forever, that’s like a whole different challenge. I like the type of challenge, like setting up something and then just watching it go, and then energy just takes over. I know the feeling I want to capture, but the rest of it is really open, you just capture it on film. I am just really into the spirit of projects like that.

Paradise sketch by Lindsey Adelman.

I wanted to ask you about communication and what role it takes within your design practice?

I think my team would give feedback like: “I wish she would talk more, I wish I knew what she was thinking.” I probably talk more when an editor asks me questions. I think communication is an interesting thing. I think one of the reasons I chose design is honestly because I didn’t have to explain myself in words. Unlike art. You see the on switch, what else do you want to talk about? Someone who buys a light isn’t going to ask you about the concept. I think growing up I didn’t enjoy talking very much, I probably started talking more when I had my baby, who is now a sixteen year old boy. I remember I had never talked to a human that much, my voice was hoarse. It’s like you’re here all the time, I am not used to communicating this much, but I think that I learned how to express myself and I have always kept a journal, so I am very comfortable writing. I got tired of being misunderstood, I think that was the motivation. I was so tired of it, I have a new drive to set the record straight with what actually is going on in my head.

Journals are a great place to centre ideas.

I think it’s great too. The whole seventies book “The Artist’s Way” (by Julia Cameron) that a lot of artists have used over the years. I literally did the “morning pages” this morning. I just find it a great tool. I has allowed me to move out of a place of fearing judgement from others and then realising how harshly I judged myself. I am still really susceptible to that, to a place where you’re like nobody is going to read this, and sort of getting used to writing, when you actually really trust that it’s not going to come back to haunt you, and then it’s almost like baby steps to talking to other earthlings. It’s a risk at first. I think I harboured a lot of fear around expressing myself, for a long long time. Maybe now I’m older, I am in my fifties now, you’re like, urgh, what have I got to lose. When you are older, people are so into their own issues, they really don’t notice.

"Keeping a journal has allowed me to move out of a place of fearing judgement from others and then realising how harshly I judged myself."

Lindsey Adelman

From the outside, the last two decades on the New York scene have looked free and interesting, perhaps not weighed down by design history. What is the scene like now?

When I think about American, or New York design, a bit of it is just about being very naive about design history. Our country is very young, and being familiar with history is not so important. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we don’t feel a lot of pressure here to get our facts straight. It’s all about what is new, looking ahead and forgetting the past in many ways. I think that is what our country is going through right now with the whole Black Lives Matter movement. We’re like “this is not that long ago, this is still fresh wounds”. That is our country’s story. It’s so different from many other countries where you have this weight of many centuries, it’s just really different here. That’s why I wanted to found my own company, to have independence and freedom, it’s the American story. I don’t want a boss, I don’t want investors, I don’t want to be dependent on anyone, I want to make my own mistakes. I want to be responsible for every penny I make. I was so driven by not having ties to anyone. I think the spirit of the design in New York is very similar. People are like I know what I want to see come out of my studio. I don’t even know if people are that worried about making their mark, but I think a lot of people are just so excited to see a bit of them in the world, whether it’s lighting or another type of furnishings. I think a lot of New York designers are really driven and excited to see their expression exist and manifest in reality. It’s probably also like second nature, just in terms of our culture. Even if people’s work at the beginning of their career arc looks derivative at first, usually the people with staying power outgrow that, and in a way it’s just a natural process of finding their own voice. It just takes time, to experiment and develop ones own point of view. So, any designers with staying power have found that, it’s like a struggle and a joy. We are not comparing ourselves to anything, we don’t have a ton of awareness in many cases, I think it’s pretty naive in how we make work.

Onto the pandemic. How’s it been for you, the studio, your family, for New York?

One thing I have been reflecting on is the resilience of my studio and my team. Any time I would get overly worried or anxious, what I realised in that they want to keep this studio alive as much as I do, and so people very quickly amongst themselves figured out how we can continue to fulfil orders with all of these new regulations put on us from the city. When the studio had to close down and we couldn’t go in, people on my operations team and the director of operations, they within a matter of days came up with a plan. We anticipate this shutdown, we are going to gather up all of the jobs that are ready to be assembled and we are taking them out of New York City and found spaces in spots like Western Massachusetts, like wood-shops, where people had family there. Two guys who work in Harlem set up a production line in their kitchen. I don’t want to call our studio a cockroach, but if our studio can survive this, it can survive anything. They love their jobs, they want to be employed, the sales team just worked their butt off, and they are killing it. It really has nothing to do with me. I can get overly anxious about what is coming next, but I realised that their drive and energy, and they are all younger than me, is incredible. They are so resilient. Back in March, April and May, when we were all working from home, I posed a question to everybody. I said, I know it’s a time of uncertainty and we are all stressed, but if you could take time out to reflect on what are you loving about this time and what do you not want to give up? People all wrote in answers. So we compiled the responses, and we as a studio figured out what we could continue. To not lose the parts of the quality of life that people treasured. We allowed a lot more flexibility, with how people work with the hours, the number of meetings, with blocks of time people want to keep undisturbed, with how they can work and find time to be in nature, or with their families. We just didn’t want to go back to what it was. It wasn’t an optimal work life balance. So that has been an interesting change.

"I think I just love non-verbal modes of expression."

Lindsey Adelman
Catch Box by Lindsey Adelman, in development. Photo by Katharina Poblotzki.
Cherry Bomb Fringe chandelier by Lindsey Adelman. Photo by Black Steil.

What are your hopes for 2021?

I think the fact that I have been really blown away by the leadership within my company, and within my team, I think that I can see a lot of opportunities for just encouraging employees growth even more, I think that is very natural. For me to be able to rely on them more, and to go into my role. Which is just giving myself more time and space to explore new mediums, ideas and research. There are just a lot of things that I am really fascinated and curious about that I haven’t necessarily given myself space to explore because I have had to be pretty responsible. I think that is an exciting chapter to look forward to. In terms of my work, I am making a series of pieces, some are wall-mounted, some sit on the floor, some have illumination with a flame, some have electrical illumination, and some have no illumination. I can just envision an installation in a beautiful gallery space. I think I am just going forward with making this work and incorporating some video too. Not getting ahead of myself, with the “where is this going to be shown?”, “who is the audience?”. I am not going to put the cart before the horse, but instead get used to this new way of working that is a bit more private, hands-on and let yourself go through the awkward stage. Letting myself be a beginner again. It’s also been great involved in social change. I have become a reading tutor for underprivileged kids. There are so many super organised volunteer groups, who do things like deliver groceries to people who are home bound and things like that. That stuff just makes you feel so good, so I want to clear space for things like that and not find excuses. I am also really looking forward to seeing my team rise up.

"Due to the pandemic, we have been able to allow a lot more flexibility at the studio, with how people work with the hours, the number of meetings, with blocks of time people want to keep undisturbed, with how they can work and find time to be in nature, or with their families. We just didn't want to go back to what it was. It wasn't an optimal work life balance."

Lindsey Adelman

We would like to extend a big thank you to Lindsey for taking the time to talk. Her new collection entitled Paradise, featured on this page, launches on the 18th of March 2021.

Lindsey Adelman Collection

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