The Sweet Spot

The Sweet Spot

Daniel Hopper, tornado chandelier

Tornado chandelier
This piece began with a client who wanted to throw dinner parties lit only by the flickering light of a chandelier using oil lamps, not light bulbs. The chandelier houses 75 oil lamps, made with custom-blown glass. Photo: Daniel Hopper

Art and functionality meet in the precisely envisioned work of Daniel Hopper.

“No, I don’t make horseshoes,” proclaims Daniel Hopper, quashing any image of the village smithy, bellows in hand, planted before his glowing forge. Where some are drawn to the brawny side of smithing, Hopper arrived at his métier via pencil and paper – his background in illustration critical to his prowess as a manipulator of metal.

Detailed project drawings are pinned to the walls at Hopper’s workshop and living quarters in a former brick factory in Port Costa, a tiny hamlet northeast of San Francisco. Scattered throughout are works in progress – a massive metal birdcage that encloses a seat, a railing of twisting vines, and, destined for a Napa Valley restaurant, a chandelier in the shape of an octopus, from whose tentacles dangle blown-glass pendant lamps.

Now 43, Hopper grew up in southern Illinois and earned a degree in illustration from the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio. Graduating around the time that illustration was starting to be outsourced overseas, he joined a local animation company, working for three years on such productions as Space Jam before moving to San Francisco. Although he continued to animate for another few years, he knew his true calling lay elsewhere. “At first I was attracted to furniture design, seeing it as the perfect marriage of commerce and art,” says Hopper, who came to realize that while he was drawn to wood, the feeling wasn’t mutual. “We had no patience for each other,” he explains, “maybe because with wood there are too many stops and starts.”

On a whim, Hopper attended an open house at the Crucible, the nonprofit industrial arts school in Oakland that offers courses in everything from glassblowing to enameling, neon, and fire performance. Volunteering at the studio in exchange for classes, he took workshops in welding, machining, ceramics – and blacksmithing. And although he was still animating by day, he knew had found his ideal medium. “With forging, you start with these stock metal bars and breathe life into them. And when you make a mistake, there are very few times you can’t go back.” 

He volunteered for about 18 months, then worked at the Crucible in various capacities for a couple of years. Then he found a job with a metal fabricator. “There is something about cutting a piece down to 1/32nd of an inch to get you over the fear of doing very precision work,” says Hopper. The experience also taught him that he preferred working with hot metal, which he finds both more forgiving and more organic. In forging, Hopper found the sweet spot where art and functionality meet. “I’m happy in this middle area, with all the skills of being a fine artist but creating something you actually get to use. Commercial work used to be so beautiful, not mass-produced on an assembly line, but created with lots of care and labor. Over time it has become more and more diminished – cheaper, less valued, and less valuable – and I wanted to buck that. I wanted to make something solid, beautiful, long-lived – and where I could have complete control.” 

Hopper applied his skills in drawing, metalwork, and forging to his first real commission in 2004: a pair of backyard barbecues. “My client envisioned some kind of plant form that would feel like part of the garden.” He ended up with an industrial version of a Venus flytrap, with three companion pitcher-plant tiki torches. The flytrap’s cavernous mouth was created by hammering metal over a form filled with sand, while the protruding trigger hairs were shaped from forged pipes (decorative, as well as handy for hanging utensils). 

While Hopper’s style has evolved, the barbecues set the tone for how he has come to define his aesthetic. “To me, blacksmithing is the perfect combination of sexy and menacing. I want the work to provoke a response – for the viewer to be attracted and to want to touch, but also to feel a bit of trepidation. I resent work that is so dumbed-down and neutered that you don’t notice it.” When Hopper created a set of spiky votive candleholders to sit in the center of the large round tables at a well-known local restaurant, someone asked if it wasn’t rather dangerous. To which he replied, “Well, only if you catapult yourself across the table.”

Whether it’s fireplace tools with forged antler handles, a light sculpture incorporating metal branches and stretched rawhide, or a railing decorated with a deconstructed dandelion motif, Hopper refuses to be pinned to one idiom. “If I’m drawn to anything, it’s to a kind of abstracted realism. Even a railing with tendrils and flowers, I need to push into a more graphic direction.” When a couple called seeking a very traditional vanity embellished with scrolls and collars, he happily referred them elsewhere. “There are blacksmiths who love to do that work – build the jigs, stand at the anvil, and copy a beautiful old design. I love art nouveau too, just in a different way.”

What all of Hopper’s pieces share – from a spider chandelier to a suspended sea creature – is that everything about the design has been worked out in advance. Some blacksmiths describe creating in the heat of the moment, literally sketching in the fire. The idea makes Hopper shudder. “My creative process is anchored by my drafting skills. Back in art school, I was criticized for drawings that were too ‘illustrative’ and ‘literal’ – you know, not quite arty enough. Now that works to my advantage. I get pleasure from capturing the details and movement of a piece with incredibly precise drawings and then figuring out how to replicate that in metal. Plus, I think people want to see what they’re paying for, not get some surprise reveal at the end.” 

In 2006, Hopper created what has become his calling card (albeit one that weighs a few hundred pounds), a chandelier to suspend over the table of a couple who eschewed electric lights in the dining room. Although entirely lit by 75 oil lamps, the Tornado chandelier’s swirling vortex of sinuous metal bands is unmistakably modern. 

Six years later, Hopper was showing his portfolio at Coup d’Etat, a San Francisco-based showroom of new and vintage furnishings, when owner Darin Geise spotted Tornado and asked if Hopper could create an electrified version in time for the upcoming Design Center Winter Market, a mere three months away. Hopper agreed, then immediately began scrambling to raise money for what became the Community Chandelier Project.

“At that time Kickstarter was getting big, but it seemed too impersonal, and I didn’t want to have to start knocking out thank-you trinkets at the end.” However, he liked the idea of the fixture being both community-funded and -owned. The couple who commissioned the original Tornado hosted a fundraiser at their house, where their chandelier could serve as inspiration, and Hopper was able to secure about half the $15,000 required for materials and studio assistants. In exchange, everyone who helped was given a voice in determining the lamp’s final resting place, as long as it was accessible to the public.

“It’s a monumental piece of art,” says Geise of the second Tornado, which hung at Coup d’Etat for a year and a half before moving to a show of West Coast artists at the Museum of Craft and Design in San Francisco. “There are not many people creating these kinds of exceptional, soulful pieces in such a contemporary way.” 

To solicit ideas for a permanent home, Hopper put the word out on Facebook and was contacted by a few interested parties, including someone from Fort Mason, a former US Army post that today houses arts-related nonprofits and theaters. Hopper put it up for a vote, and today it hangs in the lobby of Fort Mason’s Cowell Theater, “right above the bar, so you can see it without buying a ticket.”

While much of Hopper’s work is for private clients, one upcoming project will be viewed by thousands of people as they travel down Market Street, San Francisco’s main thoroughfare, as part of a law mandating that a small percentage of construction costs on large-scale projects be spent on public art that can be viewed, for free, by anyone. Large resin globes with massive steel rings cascade down the face of an eight-story building, injecting it with life and interest.

And someday, if Hopper’s wish comes true, he will have the opportunity to create a whole installation. “My dream is to outfit an entire environment – a restaurant, boutique, what have you – from floor to ceiling and everything in between. Because why can’t something that’s commercial and functional also be incredibly beautiful?” 

Deborah Bishop is a writer and editor in San Francisco.