New Face of American Design: How to Sell European & American Style

European Residential Lighting Style

Experts explain the differences between Modern lighting design in America versus Europe and the changing landscape affecting both markets today.

 European Residential Lighting Style

Although steeped in a cultural heritage centuries older than the U.S., Europe has long enjoyed the leading role in shaping the contemporary design direction of lighting while offering a bold and playful approach to the medium. 

Lately, however, American artists are making waves across the pond with their fresh, modern approach. Just as continental designers embraced halogen to give new dimension to their creative vision, a cadre of North American artists are inspired by such diverse influences as nature, repurposing products, and providing a retro/industrial character to bring excitement to the field.

Michael McHale Residential Lighting Designer Michelle Steinback Residential Lighting Designer
Michael McHale has turned lighting, crystal, and industrial piping into symphonies of refracted light and glamour Michelle Steinback was spurred to create her own line after a futile search to find lighting suitable for her Eichler-style home.


“Europe is essentially the birthplace of contemporary lighting,” asserts Kara Manning, CLC, and showroom buyer for mega-retailer Lightology in Chicago. “A lot of the European designs are very streamlined and minimal; there is a movement to emulate these contemporary looks in the U.S., but the most current American designs I come across are more transitional or modern.”

“It is a really exciting time to be involved in lighting design because there is so much talent and a lot of new forms introduced each year,” says Bret Englander, a member of the creative trilogy behind design studio/manufacturer Cerno Group in California. “Cerno’s products attract modern and contemporary design enthusiasts from all ages,” he states. “Our goal is to deliver fresh and timeless forms that are highly functional — and I think that is what contemporary design fans are looking for. The products that stand out for me are not super derivative of past designs, but rather something completely new.”

The “New” Look in American Design

Retailers and designers agree that while lighting reflects the unique vision of each artist, there are some shared elements in new American designs.

“Even though recent styles and designs have become more global, there is definitely an ‘American look’ in the mid-end fixtures. At the high-end of the market, I feel this distinction is less true,” says Sam Jwania, owner and president of Lumigado, an online retailer of contemporary lighting based in Michigan. “American style is warmer and recognized by the use of rustic colors, wood, and metal finishes such as plated copper, forged steel, and bronze. The designs have more curves and extra decorative details. American fixtures also create a larger feel, with more grandeur. By contrast, European style is cleaner, minimalistic, and built up by straight lines and simple shapes, often using chrome, brushed aluminum, black, and white,” Jwania remarks.

Residential Lighting Designs - Industrial Design Group Cerno Industrial Design Group Cerno - Valero Floor Lamo
The industrial design group Cerno was founded in 2009 by (left to right) Nick Sheridan, Bret Englander, and Dan Wacholder The Valeo floor lamp is designed and manufactured by Cerno.

Scale is also a differentiating factor for Elstead Lighting, the European importer of some major American brands. “As export partners to the USA brands Feiss, Hinkley, Quoizel, and Flambeau, we selected and launched 300 products into the European, Middle East, Asian, and Australian markets during 2013,” explains Jonathan Lucas, managing director. “Typically those transitional and semi-modern products that are a little chunkier and larger in scale than European models have worked very well. With European influences and an added upscale interpretation that North America typically likes, this generation of products feels fresher.”

For Michelle Steinback, former design director at Schoolhouse Lighting and now launching her own manufacturing company (Cedar & Moss in Portland), American design is also about adaptation. “Scandinavian lighting design won the hearts of Americans decades ago and is still an important inspiration — particularly for urban audiences. I see late mid-century Italian lighting influencing that market, too. Suburbanites appear to prefer the more romanticized Old World European influence, but it certainly seems like there are diverse trends for different markets — and even in the same country.”

Residential Lighting Designers: Seth Grizzle - Jonathan Junker of Graypants Greypants: Steplights Ceiling Lighting
Seth Grizzle (left) and Jonathan Junker of Graypants The company produces its top-selling Scraplights from laser-cut recycled corrugated card and the Steplights (above) from recycled aluminum.

Manning agrees, observing, “I wouldn’t say there is just one look. While there is still a huge market for traditional lighting, there is an obvious trend toward transitional and contemporary looks and a resurgence of Modern design. There are companies like Fine Art Lamps that have been known for traditional styles now offering more contemporary lines. There is also a handful of newer companies that are starting off modern like Cerno with their clean lines and wood elements and Michael McHale out of New York, who is doing something
completely different: Industrial-chic chandeliers with pipe arms and delicate crystal drops.”

Jwania also cites Cerno as a major contributor. “In recent years we have noticed some upcoming American design houses delivering stunning works. Cerno is, for me, the flagship of this trend but there are many designers all over the country. The American style is best represented by Hubbardton Forge, Fanimation, and the modern collections from Hinkley and Kichler. I like how they are able to capture a contemporary feel using traditional shapes, materials, and colors without being too classical or too European. Last but not least, I think it would be unacceptable not to mention Robert Sonneman, who is the founding father of American modern lighting.”

Hubbarding Forge: Aura Hubbardton Greypants LIghting:  Scraplights
Aura By Hubbardton Forge: “I was blown away the first time I saw the Aura by Hubbardton Forge,” says Sam Jwania of Lumigado. Greypants Scraplights: Made from salvaged pieces of corrugated cardboard, a scraplight’s lively play on light and shadow invigorates once lifeless materials.


Manning also puts Hubbardton Forge on her list. “Hubbardton Forge [makes] beautiful wrought iron pieces with some glass details in Vermont, and Greg Kay [founder of Pure Edge and Tech Lighting] has been a huge inspiration with everything he has accomplished in the many companies he has created over the years. There are also a lot of transitional and traditional companies that offer unique looks such as the fabric fixtures of Stonegate Designs or companies like Varaluz that specialize in recycled materials,” she adds.

“I think each designer is unique, but not necessarily because of where they reside,” Englander notes. “When you look at Flos, Artemide, Moooi, Marset, or Luceplan to name a few and compare their designs to the American contemporary designers such as Pablo, Peter Stathis, Lindsay Adelman, Bec Brittain, Rich Brilliant Willing (RBW), and Graypants I think you will find shared design principles, but all of the forms are unique. There are specific characteristics that seem to be more prevalent in different regions around the world, but there are too many exceptions to say that the Europeans design one way and Americans design another way. Most of us share a common goal, which is to deliver products that marry form and function [without] compromising either one. The process and toolbox are probably the biggest influences on the end products.”

Part of that aforementioned toolbox includes LED and OLED technology. “LEDs liberate the design process and it’s really inspiring to see how all these talented designers and engineers are embracing the technology differently. LEDs are a disruptive technology that are shaking things up and yielding a ton of amazing new products” Englander comments.

Jwania, an electronics engineer and alumnus of Philips Lumileds, agrees, “The role that LED plays is big. Thanks to this technology the design possibilities increase exponentially and manufacturers use this to break out of traditional patterns.”


Eye on the Future

The elements that characterize today’s designs are constantly changing. What’s next?

“I think the Industrial look is on its way out and more refined materials and styles are gaining popularity,” Steinback predicts. “Brass and gold are back, but [in] a more natural and raw finish and not the brightly polished and lacquered brass of the ’80s. Mix the refined material finishes with simple clean design and something balanced and sublime happens. French women say wear either earrings or a necklace, but never both at the same time. I think that advice works well for design, too. Hold something back.”

“We will see more of the rustic features with warm colors expressing the material itself, using forged steel or wood in contemporary American lighting,” Jwania muses. “These characteristics pair well with many natural elements like earth colors and hardwood flooring common in contemporary interiors. Shades are long from gone and the use of bright colors and prints modernizes their decorative element rather than controlling the light, which is easier now with the use of LEDs.”

One thing is for certain, today’s American lighting design studios are offering a unique blend of natural, modern, and refined appeal that will serve a growing consumer base.

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