Lighting isn’t just some utilitarian feature. It also provides ambiance and comfort, changing the look and feel of whatever room it’s used in. It can be harsh and institutional, overly bright and subtly strobing in a way that can be a subconscious irritant, or an amorphous glow, echoing the soft candlelight and firelight our ancestors enjoyed for millennia. It can be industrial, or it can be art.
It’s the latter characterization that interests Yuko Nishikawa, a Japanese designer and contemporary ceramicist based in Brooklyn. Her new lighting collection, “You See a Sheep,” is just as much a sculptural installation as it is a series of hanging lamps with organic shapes. If it feels a little disorienting to be surrounded by these strange objects, all the better.
The bulbs are housed within hand-built ceramic shells and suspended by thin metal wire so they appear to float in midair. Holes cut into the paper-like surfaces emit “a mysterious yet warm glow,” and the effect changes depending on how you arrange them, which ones you pair together, and how many you install.
“The title You See a Sheep is inspired by two stories. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, where The Prince finds his favorite sheep in a drawing of a box, and Model T Frankenstein by Hideo Furukawa, which opens with the line “You see a goat,” suggesting that it is in our perception that the goat exists. I mix paper fiber in a wet clay body to achieve strong lightweight shells, using a coiling technique to emphasize the uneven surface and the irregular enclosed forms. Then, once the clay firms up, I cut out the holes. Next, I apply color clay to the surface, and then finally fire them in an electric kiln.”
“This chandelier that you see with 24 ceramic shells was made for the group exhibition ‘In Good Company,’ held in Fernando Mastrangelo Studio | FM/S in New York in September 2018. I saw this exhibition as a celebration of art and design and an opportunity to build a supportive community of the designers and the users. So I designed this chandelier with some shells hanging low to the ground, others floating high, altogether creating a conical volume. It becomes an environment where people can walk through and physically engage with the installation.”
Each one is handmade without a mold, and although the artist roughly reproduces individual designs, they’re all slightly different. They’re especially striking in large installations, but notable alone as well. Each one is also available for purchase. Hoh-Tel, for instance, is a pendant lamp consisting of three “You See a Sheep” ceramic shells — the Hoh-Tel, Key-Low, and Wun-Wun designs — installed with a single canopy. Cables hold the shells aloft while their electrical wires flow a little more loosely, becoming a part of the overall composition.
Nishikawa specializes in “fantastical installations, whimsical lighting, and collectible objet d’art,” all of which perfectly describe this collection. She was raised in a beach town in Tokyo, which clearly influenced her sense of aesthetics. She currently works out of a studio full of furniture handcrafted by her friends and herself in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.