What light through yonder window breaks?
With all due respect to William Shakespeare, it's Philadelphia, not fair Verona, where the lights are shining brightly, thanks to the newest exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Called "Hanging Around: Modern and Contemporary Lighting From the Permanent Collection," the exhibit, which opened Saturday and runs through Oct. 10 in the museum's Perelman Building, is a display of 18 hanging lights.
But these are no ordinary household lights. Donna Corbin, the curator in charge of the exhibit, said it celebrates the artistry of what many people consider an unremarkable part of their homes.
"What sets these apart, first of all, is the whole idea of something being innovative, either in the design or in the use of materials or in demonstrating a new way of using a particular material," said Corbin, the museum's associate curator for the European Decorative Arts collection.
Corbin acknowledges that what constitutes a "good" design is elusive. Everyone has an opinion on what that can mean.
"I think in this case it's design that's innovative, that works on many levels," she said.
That works artistically, that is. Corbin said her department wasn't selecting items for the museum's collection based on effectiveness in conveying light.
Some of the lights in the exhibit, for example, are more about the wow factor than the wattage power. The "Tears of the Fisherman (Lacrime del Pescatore)" by Ingo Maurer probably wouldn't help someone who needed illumination for, say, reading a book. But for pure whimsy, Maurer's creation fills the bill: Three layers of nets contain 35 teardrop-shaped faceted crystals, all glistening in a shaft of light from a nearby lightbulb.
Another light certain to ratchet up the "ooh and ah" factor is Maurer's "Wo bist du, Edison? (Where Are You, Edison?)" lamp. The halogen bulb lamp features a little something special in its transparent shade: a hologram image of a lightbulb. The light socket is said to be shaped like Edison's profile.
"Maurer's lamps all have this ironic tone to them. We have three of his lamps in this exhibit," Corbin said. "I would say Maurer is really the leading designer in the field right now."
Corbin said most of the lights in the exhibit actually work quite practically as lights. She cited the lamps of Poul Henningsen as an example of how some designers focus on how their lamps reflect light as well as a whimsical spirit.
"Henningsen's PH Artichoke Lamp is this wonderfully elaborate design that includes a lot of little flaps and it really looks like an artichoke," Corbin said. "But he also thought a lot about how the light worked, and how the flaps would help to soften the light."
While they're being presented as works of art, Corbin pointed out that these lamps can be found in area lighting stores as well as at online retail sites that specialize in cutting-edge design.
And, Corbin added, those visiting the exhibit may be surprised to realize they own versions of some of these designs. The exhibit features three mammoth paper lights by Isamu Noguchi that he called Akari, which means "the light of illumination" and "the essence of lightness."
"You can find versions of the Akari lights in dorm rooms at any school," Corbin said. "I think everyone has had one of those paper lamps at some point in their lives."
One might wonder why something found in a dormitory would be in the collection of a prestigious museum like the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
"We have a very broad view of what art can be," Corbin said. "This museum was founded as a museum of decorative arts and applied arts, so we have had an interest from day one in good design in the broadest sense.
"Our founders were interested in presenting examples of good design for the American public to see and appreciate. This exhibit carries on that tradition."