Being connected in the design industry is a luxurious experience—products pour into the inbox like a lively waterfall of inspiration flowing over a cliff, and from a surprising array of professionals. When the talented photographer Michael Biondo sent me images he’d taken of Dwayne Lawler’s Shapedwood Lighting, which illuminate storied mid-century modern architecture, I couldn’t wait to feature the artisanal lamps here on Productrazzi. When I say storied, I mean it: Lawler’s floor and table lamps glow within the second home Bauhaus maestro Marcel Breuer designed in New Canaan, Connecticut, dubbed Breuer House II!
Lawler is a sculptor who lives and works in Connecticut. He sells his lighting directly to his clients, serving individuals, the trade and retail. His signature pieces are highly customized, which makes them virtually one-of-a-kind, so prices vary and are available upon request; and his lead-times range from two-to-six weeks. Now that I’ve gotten the basics out of the way, I thought I’d share a bit about how he hit upon the idea of using hand-cut blocks of wood for his lampshades, a notion that came to him during his studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina.
SH: How did you hit upon the idea of designing the lighting with the repurposed wood pieces?
DL: The initial idea for Shapedwood Lighting Designs stemmed from a sculpture project I did many years ago when I was in college. Someone had thrown away a pile of randomly shaped pieces of wood—they were basically triangular shapes cut from a 2×4. I started to play with them and to see how they fit together. I glued them up and showed the piece as a wall hanging for my class assignment that week.
I always liked that piece and it bounced around in the back of my mind for many years until I started looking for an art project to do. I eventually decided to revisit that idea, but this time using smaller pieces of wood. I didn’t have a lot of money at the time so I used the reclaimed wood out of necessity. It turns out I could get very high-quality wood from furniture and cabinet makers—species like mahogany, red and white oak, maple, cherry, and black walnut. The material they throw away as scrap is ideal for my purposes.
SH: Is it more time-consuming to put fixtures together this way since each one is a veritable puzzle of randomly shaped blocks?
DL: It’s quite time-consuming to build the fixtures. Because there is no internal support structure the pieces have to go together in such a way as to create not only visual flow and balance, but to create structural integrity throughout. As such, sometimes a single “building block” needs to connect to two or three other pieces around it. People are usually surprised to learn that the blocks go together to create their own independent architecture. It can be complicated to achieve, but that self-supporting aspect is part of their magic.
SH: When you begin a fixture, is there a mapped-out process or does the design reveal itself as you work?
DL: I use a form to help me maintain the basic overall shape as I build. For example, if I’m building a round fixture for a table lamp I have a tube I use to help me stay cylindrical as I go. In terms of the pattern of the individual pieces and how they fit together, no, there is nothing mapped out. Essentially I get into a rhythm and the pieces start to go together.
SH: Do you ever have any surprises happen?
DL: There are always surprises. Early on in my experimenting with the technique of building the lights, I viewed these “surprises” as mistakes, things I didn’t want to happen. Now I love them; I welcome them. Through these surprises I learn what the material can do, how the form can be evolved, and what new possibilities might be achieved.
SH: When you made your first prototype, did you have any idea the light would glow so beautifully as it reflected off the warm tones of the wood?
DL: Strictly speaking, no I did not. As I mentioned, I had begun putting the pieces together with the idea of making a wall-hanging along the lines of the piece I’d made back in college. Right after I’d completed a small section of that project I was walking in the woods near my house. It was late August and the sun was shining through the leaves of the trees in the canopy above. It was a really brilliant, dappled light. It struck me in that moment that if I introduced a source of light to the wood pieces I might achieve a similar effect.
As soon as I returned home, I tried it and loved it. At that moment I began building my first lampshade, and Shapedwood Lighting Designs was born. So in that respect, the first shade I built was absolutely designed with the light effect as the goal.
SH: What are you most proud of with this collection?
DL: I’d have to say I’m most proud of the Breuer House II commission. It was such a huge honor for me to have the chance to create a piece for such an architecturally significant space. Toshiko Mori had just completed a significant addition to, and renovation of, the home so her involvement added another dimension to the energy and excitement around the project. And the clients are such great people, as was the interior designer who brought me into that project, Victoria Lyon. It was just great all around.
And I know you likely meant what one thing I’m most proud of, but I have to say that a very close second to this was the commission I did for a collector who was looking to auction his pair of Philip Johnson floor lamps. He wanted something to replace them and he selected a pair of Shapedwood tripod floor lamps. What’s so special to me about this project is that my pieces sit on either side of a bust by Isamu Noguchi. I could go on for a very long time about all the ways I’m inspired by Noguchi!
SH: What else would you want readers to know about you and/or your products?
DL: One of the things I like best about the Shapedwood fixtures is that they produce a quality of illumination similar to that of the light in the forest, which I talked about earlier. For me this quality of light is not only aesthetically beautiful, it is compelling at a deeper level. One of the main reasons I go to the woods is to find quite; to relax and to reflect. I believe that at their best the Shapedwood lights create a similar ambiance and have the potential to bring some of that atmosphere—some of that deeper peace and quietude—into the lives of people who experience the fixtures, even if it’s only in some small way. Perhaps this is a bit lofty, but it’s my hope nonetheless.
I’d like to thank Dwayne for sharing his process and inspiration with readers of Productrazzi and Michael for putting these unique lamps on my radar. If you haven’t seen the stunning book Midcentury Houses Today, a collaboration of Biondo’s for which he produced the breathless photography, you should take the time to check it out. It’s an important volume that should be on the bookshelves of all designers and architects who care about historical design. I would encourage furniture manufacturers to have it in their libraries, as well.
Text of Lighting Gets Into Shape © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon Henry is an author, poet and journalist based in New York City. Books include Anywhere But Here and Stranded on the Road to Promise. She also produces The Diary of an Improvateur and is a columnist on Architizer.