Fred Cohen: Looking Back to Move Forward

enLIGHTenment Magazine talks to lighting and furniture design veteran Fred Cohen about his inspirations and the new lighting collections he is debuting in 2013.

Enlightenment Magazine: How do you bring something fresh to market?
Fred Cohen: In creating new ideas for lighting and furniture, sometimes a look back in time allows me to free my imagination and see things in a new way. For example, in my design research, I will look at a specific era and analyze everything from the fashion, automobiles, art, architecture, and politics to the cultural developments.  The focus depends upon the project I am working on.

EM: Tell us about one of your new designs.
FC:  I was just developing finishes for glass that will be used on a new lighting fixture line.  For inspiration, I remembered seeing glass artifacts in the Cairo Museum several years back while on a trip to Egypt.  What amazed me about the artifacts was how the light reflected through the glass and changed color as you walked around it.  This was accomplished by skilled artisans with simple equipment; they were the first to work with glass 2,000 years ago! The fixture I am designing will be very simple with straight lines, however, the main focus will be on the glass.

EM: What other objects have inspired you?
FC: Actually, much of my work is inspired by vintage collectables and one-of-a-kind objects – the kind that shows unique details and craftsmanship from bygone eras. For example, I am fascinated by a collection of vintage jewelry and jewelry boxes made of 18 karat gold with enamel and set with jewels. These particular items were made by Louis Comfort Tiffany at the turn of the century and exotic glass, jewels, mosaics, and intricate bronze work with patinas became his trademark.  Along with those items was a very unique vase that so inspired me that I later created a lighting collection using similar details.  [In my interpretation], the body was an intricate peacock-shaped blown glass inside of a bronze openwork frame.  Manufacturing it was difficult, but by making some small changes I became very happy with the results.  I have worked with this format of trapped glass many times and have taken the idea forward into Art Deco and Contemporary looks.  Some of the glass techniques I am using involve distressed silver finishes complemented with aged earth-tone patinas on metal.

EM: Have you ever been influenced by architecture?
FC: I love metalwork – from ornate gates to railings, and especially using forged or cast metal elements.  There are many examples of these techniques that are documented from the Early California Mission era that I have used when designing chandeliers. One early 1920s gate on the old Howard Hughes estate became the groundwork for several chandeliers, accent tables, and outdoor lanterns I designed.

EM: What about classic films?
FC: Oh, yes. The old Hollywood movies by director/choreographer Busby Berkeley have always been fun to watch and have inspired me with their attention to detail.  During the 1930s, he was the first to use the camera in new and different ways that had never been done before.  Some scenes look almost impossible to shoot.  One of my favorite scenes is from the 1930 movie Whoopee! and is shot overhead [looking down on the dancers below] showing kaleidoscopic patterns and geometry. The simple use of angles, Art Deco decoration, and great costumes of the time have given me ideas for contemporary lamps and ceiling fans.  Looking at Berkeley’s films today, you can see how trend-setting he was with many new “modern” innovations of the time.

I also look at costumes and fine vintage collections.  What excites me is seeing the interesting application of materials, finish, color, and form.  I have actually purchased several Tiffany pieces which have given me ideas for a multi-faceted glass shade in a chandelier family.  I am currently working on a new portable series, translating the look into wood and metal forms that will have a Machine Age contemporary feel.

EM: Can you think of some unusual things that have inspired you?
FC: I travel quite a bit for the manufacturers that I work with and am inspired [wherever I go], however, most of my time is spent in and around the Los Angeles area.  I have a backyard of downtown galleries, TV and film studios, prop houses, and funky resale shops to draw from.  One of the treasures I found were these plastic artichoke-shaped salt and pepper shakers that later became the idea for an aged terracotta artichoke-shaped lamp I created.  In another example, an old Moroccan teapot that my wife brought back from Marrakech many years ago became a silhouette of a chandelier column.

I’ll also leaf through old magazines, where I’ll get an idea for decoupage under glass for lamps and accessories.  In addition, I collect vintage Bakelite objects; these have great potential for future designs because of their beautiful colorations and simple geometric forms.

In another case, a collection of vintage PEZ® candy dispensers that were used in a film my daughter  directed – Pez, The Movie (I had a small part) – gave me an idea  to implement sculptures with LEDs for a future project.

Some of my inspiration has come from 2011 Oscar-winning movie The Artist. Many of the scenes in the movie were shot in and around real neighborhoods here in Los Angeles. The early Hollywood style is always fashionable and brings a glorious, romantic feel to a bygone era. I loved seeing the architecture, the cars, and the fashions of the time [depicted in the movie] which are always an inspiration to me because they are classic.

I am even inspired by TV shows such as American Pickers and Modern Family. One night, my daughters were watching Revenge, which takes place in The Hamptons.  What I got from watching that episode was the mix of older formal tradition being influenced by a new beachy modern coastal lifestyle.  I love using natural elements and textures to create accents with this look. The architecture and the small personal items on the sets have given me many ideas for this lifestyle.

I can also be inspired by music. For example, Beatles music will never go out of style. I always start working with a blank piece of paper. Ideas and concepts flow and the sketches take many shapes and forms.  I find that music can often set a mood and bring out the artist inside you.  Two of my favorite Beatles albums are The White album and Sgt. Pepper. John Lennon’s song Imagine has really grown on me, especially now that we live in a global environment where we need to think about how to make the world a better place. I never tire of listening to any of the early Beatles music when I need to be creative, including anything with a Little Richard-style rock and roll beat.

Believe it or not, the biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson has also influenced me. It showed the many sides of his intense personality and his passion for perfection.  He was a master at combining creativity and function with technology and put nothing off limits.  What resulted were life-changing products in six industries that set the stage for the 21st century lifestyle.  Keeping an eye on innovation is key in all areas of design and product development, and Apple products have raised the bar and can inspire everyone in our industry.

EM: Where can lighting buyers see your product designs?
FC: I have designed for Hinkley, Kichler, and Hampton Bay among other manufacturers. I am currently working on a lighting series for NOVA.

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