The Halo: A Ring of Fire in a Modern Ceramic Chandelier
John Ortved, 2010
Industrial designer Piet Houtenbos re-imagined the chandelier as an elegant ceramic ring with six flames, dubbed "The Halo." Inspired by the movement to phase out the world's 60-watt incandescent light bulbs, Houtenbos—who played with fire before with his hand-grenade oil lamps—has created an elegant lighting system completely free of electrical components.
Designed to function with all forms of candle oil, including ultra pure liquid paraffin (you can even use scented oil, if that's your thing), the Halo can burn for 20 hours before requiring a re-fuel—providing light for twice as long as a candle at one fifteenth the cost ($3/20 hr burn). Additionally, Houtenbos incorporated fiberglass wicks into the design, eliminating the need to ever replace them.
Raised in NYC by Dutch parents, the designer always enjoyed the inviting and relaxing attributes of candlelight, but was bothered how the form had been relegated to knick-knacks. Setting out to reinvigorate the primitive approach as a primary form of lighting, he experimented with floor lamps, but they always came out looking like accessories. A chandelier seemed much more like a fixture and the ovular shape (the ring flares slightly) and placement of the flames mitigated the effects of the shadows the lights would cast. Houtenbos formulated the brass armature to taper upwards from the ring, leaving empty space to highlight the complete lack of electrical intrusion.
"The connecting factor lately has been inspiration from our religious and royal past and then exploring the boundaries of modernism," says Houtenbos. Sounds intriguing, but big ideas aside, the designer candidly admits his true inspiration, "I wanted a bigger candle!"
JOHN ORTVED: What was your inspiration for the Halo
PIET HOUTENBOS: Over the years everywhere I go i see lots of candle light, and it always makes a space more inviting and relaxing but something started bothering me about the situation. Maybe its because I designed my own little Hand Grenade Oil Lamps so its always been on my mind. It was the realization that candlelight has been pinned to the realm of knickknacks and little accessories. Of course the doldrums of candlelight started over a hundred years ago when we started replacing it with electrical counterparts. I thought there must be something we could do to bring it back. It wasn't that people didn't like candlelight anymore it was just that it had been relegated as secondary. So I set out to make something that was physically substantial and try to turn a little candle into a full blown piece of furniture. The timing seemed oddly fitting as the world is talking about eradicating the 60 watt incandescent lightbulb in a few years.
That simple idea gave me a reason to do it. From there i poked my fingers in a lot of different directions and started designing mostly large floor standing oil lamps. Design after design I quickly saw that a floor standing piece still seemed like an accessory and realized I was going to have to figure out the physics of hanging this piece in a completely stable way with liquid inside. A lot of the main visual elements come from the physical necessities of what's going on and tweaking it and simplifying it. I tried a lot of cockamamy shapes and schemes but in the end it just wasn't necessary. It's that moment where I've learned not to push design for my own sake. You can press a design and give it some forward thinking styling and expression but you'll often go back and realize the simpler one was better. Its funny that hundreds of years later with all this new technology I arrived at a similar place.
JO: What is your design philosophy
PH: I think there are two main facets to designing something great. First is the formulation of the idea itself. I create a reservoir of thoughts about the thing I'm trying to do. I actually spend a lot of time trying to dissuade myself from the idea which helps me understand and later make decisions to solve all the little problems. A large part of being able to make the right decision is understanding every facet of what your doing so you can figure out what makes sense to you. If it doesn't make complete sense to you you're not going to get it right.
The second part is the execution of the idea, the physical design. There's always a struggle to try to hit new ground with any design. The drive to innovate is always there but it can be a tricky thing to tackle. There are so many new tools for designers to work with that sometimes you can get stuck showing off a process rather than helping the design. In the end designing something with longevity is still the hardest and best thing to do. I think the element of innovation is strongest when it drives the thoughts behind a product and the products execution is one of simplicity.
JO: Where were you educated?
PH: Well first off I was born and raised in New York by tremendously creative dutch parents. Those two things plus a great high school architecture teacher got me on my creative feet.
Then I went off to RISD for Industrial Design and got the basics. RISD breeds ambition. There are loads of talented and inspiring teachers, young designers, sculptors, architects, glass blowers, you name it they're there to hang out with. I think design school is there to teach you to develop your own design vocabulary because the are very few rights and wrongs. Some people make tremendous yellow things other people make tremendous red things and I'm orange so go figure. You have a big young head at RISD. I think if you create anything so early on you're just so proud you can do anything and you think it's great. It gives you great motivation.
I was able to really refine and understand my decisions at modernlink designing the onelink furniture collection. It gave me a much more in depth understanding of modernist values which I've held tightly because it seems the most open and honest approach to design.
JO: How does Halo fit in or distinguish itself from your other work?
PH: The connecting factor lately has been inspiration from our religious and royal past and then exploring the boundaries of modernism. On the surface old neoclassical mirrors, granite carvings and medieval torches don't seem like they have anything in common with todays modern aesthetic. But with just a little interpretation you can find some common ground and create something modern and completely new without shattering the inspiration. At it's core a modern design is simply a series of thoughtful decisions that ultimately create a sensible design. So for me It's not about creating a medieval looking chandelier, It was taking an old idea and making it familiar again. I think there are many more forgotten or underutilized crafts to explore and I find it really exciting to transform them a little. Its like reminding people of some of the great things we came from and presenting them in ways we can understand. I certainly don't mean to be a retro designer I've just been really inspired by all the old things lately.
JO: Who or what spaces did you have in mind when designing the halo?
PH: I think maybe just my house! I wanted a bigger candle! In reality, stylistically I'm always trying to design things that stay simple enough but have enough design embedded in them to work anywhere. Im always reminded by something my mentor at modernlink told me, "Remember Piet, people have to live with this every day.". You can imagine what I was trying to get away with back then. I'll always push forward to explore but I like to bring it back a little so it doesn't become distracting or annoying a year later. Theres a middle ground somewhere between jarringly radical and mundane. Thats sort of where I go. Lets go bold and say I'd love to see it hanging in the Met and at MoMA and see what the difference is.
JO: What features of the Halo are you most proud of?
PH: There was a happy accident when I was about to light an early prototype. I designed the ring to be wider on top and very thin below and I suddenly got scared the flames above would just cast a big shadow on the entire ring. But thankfully something else rather obvious happened. The outside of the ring remained in shadow as i thought but the inside was completely lit due to the flames on the opposite sides of the ring and the contrast was greater and more beautiful than I imagined. Thank you circle.
If there was one design element I had to pick it's the decision to create open space between the rising brass rods. It's the visual proof that there's no electrical chord and nothing external to make it work. It just works the old-fashioned way.
JO: Describe The Halo in your own words.
PH: Halo's seductive glow brings sexy back.