Celebrating Women of Lighting Design Past and Present

International Women’s Day has a long and storied history… that we’re just going to ignore here. Google exists for a reason, people. What’s important is that, since the U.N. formally acknowledged it in 1977, March 8 has been a celebration of the social, political, cultural, and economic achievements of women around the world and throughout history. 

This International Women’s Day, we’ve selected four remarkable women in lighting design whose drive, perseverance, creativity, and raw power has set them apart. We hope you’ll join us in celebrating these tremendous and influential designers’ lives and lights.

Charlotte Perriand

Charlotte Perriand, 1903-1999

Charlotte Perriand was a titan of design. She may not have given birth to Modernism, but she embraced it, developed it, and she was certainly one of the most influential figures in defining it. 

Perriand’s story is one of feminine triumph. It was her mother who first noted her drawing ability and pushed her to enroll at École de L’Union Centrale des Arts, where Perriand studied from 1920-1925. Her daughter, Pernette, was born in 1944 and not only followed in her mother’s footsteps, but worked with Charlotte for over twenty-five years.

Charlotte Perriand with Le Corbusier and the rest of the design team.

As a young up-and-coming woman in design, Charlotte Perriand was an ardent fan of Le Corbusier’s writings, and believed that their views on design were closely-matched. Encouraged by the enthusiastic reception of her own modernist-inspired design, Bar sous le Toit (“bar under the roof” or, idiomatically, “rooftop bar”), at the 1927 Salon d’Automne art exhibition, she applied to work in his studio. His response is legendary in its ignorance, and need not be discussed here. What is important is that Perriand saw his wrongness and invited him to view her work for himself. Upon viewing her installation at the Salon, Le Corbusier realized his mistake and offered Perriand the job for which she had applied.

Charlotte Perriand in 1929, posing with Chaise longue basculante B 306, one of her own designs. Credit for the design was shared between Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, and Perriand. Now known as the LC4 Chaise Longue from Cassina, this design is available from Dwell Modern.

Distinguished innovations, embarkment on her own career out of Le Corbusier’s shadow, a world war, periods living in Japan and Vietnam, a second marriage, and production of a staggering number of brilliant designs all occurred over the ensuing years. Her career and diversity of interests grew and grew as she not only designed and built buildings, but often refused to design lights or furniture for buildings on which she had not served as architect. 

The extension of the art of dwelling is the art of living.

Charlotte Perriand, L’Art de Vivre, 1981

Her career is often regarded to have climaxed with her time as design team lead for Les Arcs ski resort in Savoie. A fifteen-year project from 1967-1982, Les Arcs was a triumph of functional minimalism based (rightly, it proved) around Perriand’s belief that occupants of the various resorts would rather spend their time skiing than in their rooms. 

La Cascade residence at the 1600 block of Les Arc ski resort, designed by Charlotte Perriand. Constructed from 1967-1969.

Perriand believed that form should follow function–that beauty was the product of usefulness and economy of design. Moreover, she was fiercely progressive in her views, and believed that design could be a tool in alleviating the suffering of the working classes. This desire can be felt in the simple yet versatile lighting designs recently rereleased by Nemo, such as Applique À Volet Pivotant wall sconce and Pivotante À Poser table lamp.

Clockwise from top left: Potence Pivotante wall light, Applique À Volet Pivotant double LED wall sconce, Pivotante À Poser table lamp, and Applique À Volet Pivotant wall sconce

Charlotte Perriand passed away in 1999, just days after her ninety-seventh birthday. Fortunately for us, she had published her autobiography, Une Vie de Création, the year before, allowing her the final word on a remarkable career and a remarkable life.

Bec Brittain

Bec Brittain

2021 marks the tenth anniversary of the founding of Bec Brittain’s self-titled studio, from which Brittain has established herself as a vital and powerful voice in lighting design. After attending programs in product design at Parsons School for Design and philosophy at NYU, Brittain earned a degree in architecture from London’s Architectural Association. This led to a job at New York architectural firm WorkAC, which led to a job at lighting design firm Lindsey Adelman–where she rose to the position of design director. 

For me personally, I got into this because I like the making. I like the control I have when I’m manufacturing and I get to make certain choices that might not be amazing for the bottom line but it’s right for the project… for me, it’s a personal choice. It’s how I want to run my life.

Interview with Dezeen Magazine, 2015

Bec Brittain and team

Now located in the Long Island City district of Queens, New York, Bec Brittain has become a major design figure as both a woman and studio. Her personal integrity and diverse background have built in her a unique set of problem-solving skills, resulting in a range of designer lights that are particularly notable for being intensely affecting at first encounter, then proceeding to offer a deeper conceptual meaning as you develop a relationship with them.

And then, in 2011, she opened her own Brooklyn studio, where she could be free to create what she wished and rely on herself for her success going forward. Moreover, establishing her own studio meant running a business according to her own values. Bec Brittain makes public commitments to support causes such as National Bail Out and Ancient Song Doulas with annual profit-share donations, as well striving to pay her own employees a living wage. 

The Maxhedron collection by Bec Brittain

Take, for instance, Brittain’s Maxhedron collection from Roll & Hill. Sharply triangular mirrored faces combine to create a distinct and impactful form, but one that is inconstant, as the mirrors reflect Maxhedron’s surroundings. Off, Maxhedron has a bold and powerful aesthetic presence–clean, sleek, but asymmetrical and daring. On, however, Bec Brittain’s true genius comes into full relief as Maxhedron’s mirrored surfaces become semi-translucent, and the inner lights, and their reflections from similar internal mirrors, manifest constellations within what was formerly a ponderous void.  

Passion, strength, and wisdom mark Bec Brittain’s work and life. She chooses to keep her studio small, with all of her creations manufactured entirely by her five-person team in-house. This allows her to ensure the quality and integrity of every piece that is sold, and makes every luxurious, conceptual design that the studio produces an expression of Bec Brittain herself. 

Nao Tamura

Nao Tamura

From her combined apartment and studio in Brooklyn, the multi-award-winning Nao Tamura explores new materials and themes with equal elan. Born in Japan, she moved to New York at age nineteen and graduated from the Parsons School for Design in 2001. After five years working with Smart Design, she established Nownao Inc. and began blazing her own path in the world of industrial and lighting design. 

For Tamura, her studies in communication design were a natural complement to her work in industrial design. She believes they are “the same, because a product has to communicate with people.” And, just as good communication conveys both literal meaning and emotion, when Tamura designs, she “always thinks about function and emotion. Good design has both.”

Some people may think that design that does away with the sense of domestic living is cool, but I want to cherish the perspective that becomes visible only through day-to-day living.

Interview with the Magazine of Salone del Mobile.Milano, 2018

Nao Tamura’s work breathes deeply of ephemerality. Her lighting designs for Wonderglass, Flow[T] and Momento, are distinctive for seizing fleeting natural moments and capturing them in glass and light. The strikingly layered Flow[T] collection of suspension lights was inspired by reflection of Venice’s city scape and the last rays of the day’s light striking the water in the city’s famed canals. 

The Flow[T] family of suspension lights by Nao Tamura

Meanwhile, Momento was born of the instant before clinging water, coalescing into a droplet, falls from a leaf. In an expression of pure design genius, the light produced by Momento’s integrated LED, filtered through the Italian spun-glass shade, evokes the ripples produced when the droplet strikes the water below surface. 

Momento by Nao Tamura and the remarkable effect it can create in groups

The expressiveness of Nao Tamura’s work is a direct contrast to her own private nature. She maintains a fairly low public profile, preferring to speak to the world through her work. But, in doing so, what magnificent statements she makes.

Greta Magnusson Grossman

Greta Magnusson Grossman, 1906-1999

Like Charlotte Perriand, Greta M. Grossman was a force to be reckoned with in the design world. She was a pioneer, living on her own terms and blazing new trails for women in design who came after her. 

The young Greta Magnusson followed in her family’s tradition by becoming a woodworking apprentice at her hometown’s furniture manufacturer, Kärnans. She won a scholarship to study furniture design at Konstfack in Stockholm, after which she opened her own workshop/store, Studio. 

A growing reputation, further educational studies, awards that had never gone to women before, and marriage to jazz musician Billy Grossman all came together to push the young designer–now Greta Magnusson Grossman–to make a much-celebrated move with her husband to Los Angeles. There, she became the first woman in California to work from a self-owned studio by opening Magnusson-Grossman Studio on Rodeo Drive, resulting in her work becoming hugely popular with celebrities such as Greta Garbot, Ingrid Bergman, and Frank Sinatra. 

The easiest way to show what you can do is do it yourself.

Greta M. Grossman

One of the wonderful, but unfortunately few, homes designed by Greta M. Grossman

Greta Magnusson Grossman gave herself the opportunities that the male-dominated industry wouldn’t. She designed and decorated her own home when no one else would hire her, leading to several more architectural commissions. Her lights and furniture became the toast of Hollywood, and earned her a professorship teaching design at UCLA. Then, in 1963, she abruptly retired and spent the rest of her life quietly, in another self-designed home in San Diego, painting landscapes. 

Like Charlotte Perriand, Grossman died in 1999, but her work has regained interest in lighting design circles thanks to recent re-releases, such as Gubi’s B-4 table light, Cobra family of lights, and the beloved Gräshoppa collection. In fact, Gubi’s Gräshoppa family releases have proven so popular that it recently gained a new olive brown edition to compliment its already-available colours. 

Gräshoppa floor lamp, Gräshoppa table lamp, and Gräshoppa pendants embrace a video about their designer from Gubi.

Greta Magnusson Grossman’s wonderful designs are all paradigms of the remarkable cross-pollination that was California Design–not surprising, since Grossman was so influential in the movement. Minimalist, functional, yet with a sense of fun, Grossman’s contribution to the history of lighting design cannot be overstated. And, thanks to recent interest, despite the reclusiveness that marked much of her life, it is finally being appreciated.

Clockwise from top left: Cobra table lamp, Cobra wall sconce and B-4 table lamp in green & red, and B-4 table lamp in blue & red.

Perhaps the most important service International Women’s Day can offer us is as a reminder that we shouldn’t need International Women’s Day to honour and celebrate the achievements of women. 

Grossman and Perriand blazed trails in designing lighting fixtures, a legacy that Brittain and Tamura have embraced and taken still further. But neither the titans nor those who came after can–or should–represent all designer lighting from women. We’re already giving thought to who will feature in our post for International Women’s Day 2022, but there’s no reason you should wait that long! We invite you to explore the the lighting designs of these remarkable women and many more women lighting designers at LightFormSHOP.com, or by contacting one of our showrooms in Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary, and Edmonton.