The Very Bearable Lightness of Being

The Very Bearable Lightness of Being

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Alison Berger in her light-filled Los Angeles studio.

Dave Lauridsen

Alison Berger reflects on glass.

"The thread that runs through all my work is light," Alison Berger explains. "How light is contained and captured and reflected and refracted, disappearing as it gets darker, coming forward as perhaps a beam of sun comes through. That's really the encapsulation of what weaves everything together."

Using glass as her primary medium and the past as her inspiration, the Los Angeles-based artist has explored her fascination with light in a stunningly diverse and ever-evolving body of work-vases, sculptures, drawings, lighting, site installations. Blurring boundaries long before it became a trend, she's moved easily and with considerable success between the worlds of art, craft, design, architecture, fashion and film, with technical mastery and a sure vision as her constants. She draws from myriad influences and eras-fourth-century Roman glass, baroque floral still lifes, old scientific instruments, her own flea-market finds-to create timeless narratives. Whatever the scale or format, her objective remains the same: history reinterpreted, concept distilled to essence.

Like her work, Berger radiates a refined complexity. A youthful 45, she's slim and elegant, with a pared-down, unfussy personal style. Her manner combines the expansive friendliness of a native Texan, the energy and intellectual intensity of an erstwhile New Yorker, and the mellow openness of the Angeleno she has been for some 15 years now.

Living in L.A. she says, allows her to be consistently "enveloped in light." Her studio, in a 1920s building in West Hollywood, is white-walled and pristine yet warm and atmospheric, rich in architectural detail, a contemporary space redolent with vintage charm. All around the reception/office area are her vessels and objects-crammed in an antique cabinet or arranged on tabletops, illuminated here and there by her light fixtures and by candles she likes to burn even on sunny Southern California days, often to create a quiet mood when she's drawing ("The power of lighting," she observes, "is staggering"). Upstairs is her immaculate work space, with drawing tables, models of work in progress, and a balcony overlooking a lushly overgrown courtyard, a palm tree, and beyond, postcard views of the Hollywood Hills.

She shows a visitor samples from her new collection of handblown crystal vessels for the L.A. design emporium Blackman Cruz. They're modern and deceptively simple, exquisitely evocative, heavy in more ways than one. Some give the illusion of being filled with water. One has a thick folded lip and number fragments etched onto it, suggesting an old beer bottle factory, a faded label from days gone by. Another is etched with Da Vinci's writing on water and how it flows. "They're about a secret underneath, a little story, a message in a bottle," Berger explains, picking up another, cloudy-looking piece, "and here, the idea that there's condensation on the glass." Wait-that's not real moisture? This reaction delights her. "No! It's solid form. I just finished the surface in a way that makes it look like it's been taken out of the freezer. Isn't that fun?"

Fun indeed, but Berger and her glassblowing team, with whom she works in her hot shop downtown, labor long and hard to achieve this subtle magic. "The truth about any art and design is, it's a discipline and you work at it every day," she says. "You have an assignment and you have to crack the code of it." A strong work ethic has been key to her success, along with instinct, initiative and a right place/right time embrace of opportunity.

Berger began her odyssey as a teenager in Dallas. "So I'm riding my bike," she recalls, "going down an alley, and I see something through the fence and I'm like, 'What's going on here?' I park my bike and literally hoist myself over the fence. And there are these guys blowing glass." Drawn to the fire, she learned the basics at this little shop, then a few years later studied glass and architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design. The RISD approach emphasized "a collage of resources, an intellectual understanding of the history of art, and an academic understanding of how to reinterpret it in your own language," she says. "I think the school shaped me in the ability to question and be auto-critical. To never really be attached to the outcome, but to be very sure of the process. It was never about, 'This is the best thing I've made this year.' It was more like, 'keep going, keep going.'"

Her early career path, accordingly, was "like skipping a stone. I kept moving, getting more information." Through RISD, she was able to apprentice with such leading lights in glass as James Carpenter and Dale Chihuly. She went to New York to practice architecture in the early 90s (a time when a handcraft element was flourishing in interiors), and was hired by the cutting-edge boutique firm Bausman-Gill. "They were very generous, so I got to design a lot." For the Warner Brothers Records office in Rockefeller Center, she collaborated on an award-winning installation that featured a large decorative screen in metal, glass and wood. "It had all these great metaphors of view and sound and music, and how you capture something ethereal-the physical-sense experience of time transitioning throughout the space of the day, and what the light does."

After continuing her architecture studies at Columbia University, Berger went west to become an assistant designer at Frank Gehry's firm in Santa Monica. Her time there was "a very intense learning curve, developing an architectural vocabulary of fluidity, and again, concentrating on light," in projects she describes as "little jewels." One day Philip Johnson came in to work with Gehry on a residence, and the two asked her to carve out the inside of a pear, imagining it as a guest house on the property.

Deciding to stay in L.A., Berger next moved into set design. She had always kept her hand in glassblowing, and began making pieces for use on various sets: a futuristic glass iv and vessels for Madonna's Bedtime Story music video; for the film Tank Girl, a computer monitor system inspired by the French modernist architect Pierre Chareau. When the opportunity arose to join the art directors' union, she was tempted, but followed a gut instinct to pursue her art instead. "Something in me went, 'Well, what have I got to lose?'"

Once committed to being a full-time artist, Berger had a clear sense of how she wanted to market her glass objects. "I didn't want my stuff to be next to a blue bowl, because they would disappear. I somehow had this understanding that if they were to be sold, they had to be in couture areas of shops like Fred Segal or Takashimaya or Bergdorf Goodman or Ultimo, and they had to be by themselves, in their own vehicle. What was great was that in these couture, boutique environments, they would have my drawings up, copies of my sketchbook." Fashion's elite took notice. Soon Comme des Garçons commissioned her to do an installation at their Tokyo showroom. "At the time [the company's founder] Rei Kawakubo was selecting artists to embody her season collection. For me, it was about all these layers of transparency and translucency that I do in my work, and that she was also doing in her layering of the clothes." In a nod to Giacometti's 1932 sculpture The Palace at 4 A.M., Berger built glass cages to contain her pieces that jutted out into the sidewalk so that "people were stepping off the curb to avoid running into them." This was followed by another prestige commission, designing a line of functional crystal wares (bowls, creamers, cruets and other "heirlooms for the next generation") for Hermès. Again looking to the past, Berger drew on the Paris fashion house's humble beginnings as a saddle shop, aiming to create designs that would be, in essence, "as simple and pure as a bridle for a horse."

About seven years ago she began making light fixtures, with nostalgia as her departure point. "I collected fireflies as a kid growing up in Texas, and essentially the lighting I produce is a continuum of the containers that held those points of light. It keeps evolving and transforming, but all my pieces are about low-volume light-almost solid-form blown crystal, faceted so that the lens and the bulb are actually reduced. So you walk into a room and it's this idea of electric candlelight, atmospheric. And the shadow cast, and how that changes throughout the day, is as important as the piece itself."

Lately Berger is interested in doing more large-scale public art and site-specific projects. For the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum triennial exhibition in 2006, she made a sculpture out of antique glass photo slides. "I've collected them for over 25 years and never knew what to do with them. They're so beautiful, so intense. I just gave myself the assignment to create a form for them." This turned out to be a suspended light box covered on all four sides with a collage of haunting, 100-year-old images. Their collective impact, says Berger, is "a memorial to the past, a cross section of architecture, art, agriculture, rural, urban, industrial. As you move around the piece, you get a sense that what they depict is so vast."

A recent commission, for a Wallace Neff house in L.A., is based on the astrolabe, a handheld device used centuries ago to chart the stars. When she first set eyes on the space-a skylit atrium 25 feet high and 10 feet wide-Berger immediately pictured a boule form in an observatory. The end result is a wondrous construction in glass and bronze, eight feet in diameter, of complex rings that cast intricate shadows, and magnifying lenses that "take the sky and hold it as you walk through."

Handwork is integral to Berger's work, but not the point of it. "Something can be well made, but if it doesn't carry itself as its own form, then the craft is wasted," she says. "That's largely why I work in clear crystal. The form comes first. Then it functions as a vessel, or an object, or it holds light, or transforms a space. Being crafted is a given. It's like, yeah, it's hand-done and that's very important, but it has to be hand-done. There's a reason why our stuff is so artisanal and takes so much time, and it's because no other process can give you that result. That's it. That's it, and there's no compromise."