New Orleans is rich with flavors – culinary, cultural, and architectural. Flambeau embodies the bon vivant spirit of this unique city through its lighting designs.
Before there was electricity, New Orleans’ famous nighttime parades were led by flambeau – costumed torchbearers who could be seen in the darkness and whose presence signaled that the festivities were about to start. That image is what president Joe McKearn envisioned when he founded Flambeau Lighting 11 years ago as a division of Dauphine Mirror. “I saw this company as leading the parade,” he remarks.
Certainly, when it comes to presenting head-turning lighting with touch-me finishes, Flambeau has established a niche that has made it a favorite of interior designers nationwide.
A large portion of the line’s charm is the authentic New Orleans and Southern-infused style that are the hallmarks of long-time Flambeau designers Paul Grüer and designer Benjamin Burts (formerly of Burts-Cason). Their work has created a signature aesthetic that has set Flambeau apart.
Grüer’s penchant for, in his own words, “over the top” style harkens back to his roots as a jewelry designer. “New Orleans had a big market for contemporary craft way before most people were aware of craft jewelry,” he recalls.
His distinctive, oversized jewelry featuring papier mache paired with vintage glass stones and lots of gold leafing became highly sought after in the community. Grüer hadn’t considered lighting as a medium until a client who avidly collected his jewelry asked him to create a chandelier for her home, likening the daunting process to “making a bigger earring.”
Rising to the challenge, Grüer commissioned a local metalsmith that specialized in iron gates to help him bring the client’s vision to fruition. “I hand-wired large gemstones on it, and it really did look like a giant earring,” he recalls. During a dinner party at the client’s house, guests were so taken with the custom fixture that Grüer received five phonecalls for similar fixtures within the week. “Then I began getting requests for sconces and table lamps,” he adds.
The leap between making jewelry and lighting isn’t all that steep. “Lighting is jewelry for the home. It’s the pin on a dress,” Grüer states. “It’s decorative art and very functional, which is great fun.”
Meanwhile, at Dauphine Mirror, one of the company’s reps happened to collect one-of-a-kind designs by Grüer. A meeting was arranged between McKearn and the designer and the rest is history. (Flambeau is no longer affiliated with Dauphine Mirror.)
In order to manufacture and safely ship the intricate lighting fixtures, Grüer had to adapt his methods for Flambeau. Whereas he would hand-carry one of his custom, delicate chandeliers from his studio in the French Quarter to a customer’s home, Grüer has had to simplify his designs for wider-scale production. His signature finishes remain the same, however. “I’m known for my finishes,” he points out. “In New Orleans, everything is distressed and patinated due to the climate, therefore everything I do is distressed and patinated as well.”
His enthusiasm for over-the-top design has also meant that “for every piece in the Flambeau catalog, there are three or four that didn’t make it into the line,” Grüer comments. Those admittedly “out there” pieces are added to his cadre of one-of-a-kind lighting for clients, a segment of his design business that remains steady. After all, some of his commissioned chandeliers measure eight feet high. “We downsize some of the styles for Flambeau,” he admits.
Inspired by antiques, Grüer loves to make a chandelier look as if it were made for candles. “When you look at it, you can’t tell it’s electrified,” he says. For those who are familiar with Grüer’s work, it is probably no surprise that he counts Dr. Seuss books among his favorites. “My signature is alternating stripes,” he notes. “That’s been a constant thread through my jewelry designs as well as my lighting. I also love organic looks, spiky blossoms, ferns, and the unexpected beauty of how you can find something beautiful popping up through the cracks in a sidewalk or wall anywhere you look.”
Another unusual attribute of Grüer’s designs – whether for Flambeau or his own clientele – is that he doesn’t create collections. “Every piece is unique. I’ve always been more of an artist than a product designer. I approach each lamp or fixture as a stand-alone,” he explains.
Both private collectors and Flambeau fans appreciate that uniqueness. “I’ve had people tell me that they built a room around one of our lamps,” he says. In fact, a recent sale of a New Orleans home was contingent on the Grüer chandeliers being included in the deal. Similarly, he has had clients who have taken their custom fixtures with them when they move.
This month, visitors to the High Point Market in North Carolina will witness the unveiling of a new collection by Flambeau: the Benjamin Burts Collection. Although Burts has been designing for Flambeau for many years, this is his first named collection for the company.
While Grüer’s favorite medium is papier mache, Burts is a sculptor and ceramist at heart. After majoring in Fine Arts and earning his MFA from Tulane University, Burts was happily teaching art at Southeastern University and Nicholls State University in Louisiana.
“I never planned on being a designer,” Burts remarks. “Teaching and exhibiting in galleries was my ambition. I first started making columns on shrines for a group exhibition with an angel theme,” he recalls. “My idea was to make a shrine with angels and columns. One of the gallery’s customers asked if I would make a pair of candlesticks like the columns in painted relief that I had made for the shrine.”
Burts immediately took up the challenge. “What needed to be done differently was to make the candlesticks free-standing with 360° finishes. I guess you could call that incident the beginning of my design career.”
His foray into lighting came about the same way it did for Grüer. “A customer wanted table lamps that resembled those candlesticks,” comments Burts, who found the prospect of designing lighting exciting. “This added a new dimension to what I was designing. Now I had to think about my creative work in terms of lamps fitting into an environment and illuminating areas of that environment. Lighting has so many possibilities, and the ideas are endless!”
When considering a sculptural form, Burts begins with function: What type of lighting fixture will it be, what kind of environment will it be placed in, and how much illumination is needed? “My second thought is the fundamentals of design elements such as form, texture, light, and space,” he remarks.
Though Grüer and Burts work in different mediums, they share a love of rich finishes – a commonality that unifies the Flambeau look. “I especially like working with paint, metal leaf, and patinas,” Burts states. “These materials allow me to translate what I feel is most important about working in clay. Metal leaf and acrylic paint are thin bodies, allowing the clay texture and imperfections to show through. Patinas collect in the valleys and crevasses which bring out the texture and create contrast,” he explains. “I also use the same material to create decorative patterns with color backgrounds. All of these elements work together harmoniously, creating a visual language that says how beautiful a ceramic lamp can be.”
Not long after the angel exhibit at Cason Gallery in Baton Rouge, Burts began working with Kay Cason, who was decorating large olive jars with fabric and gold and silver leaf. “I asked if she would teach me how to apply metal leaf to the candlesticks and she was happy to help,” he notes. “For several years, we were collaborating artists, each working in our own studios. Later on, we combine our talents to make beautiful art forms as functional lighting under the name Burts-Cason.”
Just as Grüer appreciates antiques and vintage finds, so does Burts. “I love sculptures that are rich in texture,” he says. “I use the clay’s natural texture to create an aged effect by applying stress to the clay in various ways while it is wet. This texture is combined with forms that are slightly tilted off-center and appear as if they have settled over a long time.”
Burts also likes to anthropomorphize clay forms. “For example, the urn’s body may be bulbous, as if holding a deep breath. This, in a way, adds life to it. A lamp’s handles may droop, appearing like arms. These types of things are done in subtle ways so as not to be too whimsical and yet still retain their elegant shapes. With the age look of patina added on gold and silver leaf, the overall appearance of my designs is as if they came from a forgotten time.”
The initial series of lamps in the Benjamin Burts Collection feature Heraldic surface patterns on backgrounds of earth colors that bring out the patinas and warmth of the gold and silver leaf motifs. “I love scrolls on the lamps,” Burts says. “They help define the Ionic columns as having their own unique personality.”
According to Burts, the forms will evolve as new designs are added to the line. “This is primarily due to my philosophy of a hands-on prototype. I take an idea and redefine it in the medium of choice. The column shape is made from clay on the potter’s wheel; that’s what gives the column shaft a full hollow body. The capital is shaped on the wheel and then cut square with a thin wire. The scrolls are extruded through a die and rolled out tapered. These methods dictate, to some extent, how the form will look. The columns require the use of machines as well as the human hand to form the shape. This gives the form character.”
Burts keeps his design plans fluid and maintains a go-with-the-flow approach. “I look for interesting accidents that leave blemishes and imperfections. It is such accidents that I want to incorporate into the final prototype, which will then cause some changes in style and adaptations.”
Flambeau is now ready to take on the market with its new designs after weathering some unexpected bad news that hit right as the economy went sour. “In 2008, we got a call that our Chinese factory went out of business. They just closed their doors and didn’t tell us,” McKearn reports. “We had to find a new factory and then ship them one of everything so there would be models to cast.” As a result, 2009 was Flambeau’s hardest year yet. “In 2010 we started to recover and by 2011, things have come back together. We’re up 75 percent over last year,” McKearn states. With a new factory in place and no shortage of interest among interior designers, the future looks bright for Flambeau Lighting.