The Crinkled Paper Lanterns of Bradley Bowers, a Magician of Materials
To an industrial designer, plastics and metals are typically a native language while natural materials are a foreign tongue. Bradley Bowers didn’t touch them until graduate school, at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and discovered an approach to manipulating mediums that went on to inform everything his New Orleans studio does today. In his hands, static materials undulate with life (and nod to his like-minded heroes Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and Issey Miyake). His first lighting collection, Halo, debuted this past spring. Bowers’s flair for transformation shines through each fixture, where sheets of cotton paper, coaxed by spritzes of water and wooden clothespins, become beacons of enlightenment.
When did you start working with paper?
In grad school, the brief for my “Materials and Techniques” class was to pick a material you don’t know anything about, and design a collection around it. I was like, “Wood?” My professor thought I was being an ass, but I really didn’t know anything about wood. So I suggested paper, and he said, “Fine.”
I dove into researching all different forms of paper: synthetic paper, paint-based paper, fiber-based paper, mulberry, cold-pressed—I wanted to know how it was made. I used synthetic paper from Tyvek to make vases that disintegrated if you filled them with water. It was about exploring ways to design an object that, by using it, you could release it from its function. Back in the day, when you wanted to improve your spiritual health, you’d make a journey to Kathmandu or to the depths of India, and find a yogi who would teach you. You’d learn by practicing with him. The vases allow you to learn something by simply being exposed to them, as if through osmosis.
You started working on the Halo fixtures in December for another project, which ultimately fell through. You continued making them anyway, through the pandemic. What prompted you to keep going?
I wanted to get my hands dirty again. I’d been outsourcing design and on too many phone calls. But it was less about Covid-19 than it was about waking up every day as a young, black, gay man in America right now—or anytime in the last four hundred to five hundred years. Being those things carries a lot of weight. It is so heavy, whether you want it to be or not.
I didn’t know I needed to make these. I don’t want to sound too poetic—like, “These are my way of giving back”—but they are my way of making something a little bit pretty, because everything is ugly right now. But if I keep staring at the ugly, or if I keep needing permission to change the world around me, I’ll go crazy. For a lot of my work, there’s five people I have to convince in order to make it—while I know full well that it is not only feasible, but a good idea. I got tired of asking for permission, and decided to do this for myself. I’ve been so happy doing it. It’s obviously not a cure-all, but I do like just turning them on and looking at them.
Tell me about the paper you use to make the lanterns.
It’s a cotton paper from Gmund, a German company. It has the consistency of leather when it’s wet, then once it dries it becomes taught, like the skin stretched over drums. Money is made from cotton paper. That’s because water does not dramatically or quickly degrade it. It’s not a plant pulp—it’s a fiber. The strands running through it are so long that they don’t break easily, and when it does break, there’s still a lot of fiber left. When I need to get the paper into a certain position, there’s a lot of coaxing that has to happen. Some people think I just crumple it up and call it a day. I wish that was the case.
But fundamentally, they are scrunched-up paper lights. How do you ensure each lamp transcends that?
I think I’m able to channel the creative energy necessary for them to not just be a crumpled piece of paper. It could easily go that way.
I’ve always craved the excitement around a moment where I’m making something and don’t know how it will turn out. Otherwise I’ll lose interest. But I have to psyche myself up to make the lights and get into a zone, which reminds me of when I used to paint in high school. I can’t make them every day, because it’s a whole process: I dump out the old water solution, find all of the clothespins, clean—it’s like getting ready to perform, because I have to be somebody else when I do this. It’s similar to sports: I always tell people that I want to know who Serena [Williams] is two days before her match, when she’s a mother or an auntie; when she goes onto the court, she’s an athlete. I see myself going through a similar transformation via this mental preparation. I watch a lot of Star Trek. I’ll read about the origins of the universe. I watch lectures by Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I’ll listen to early recordings by Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone. I have to get into a state of mind that isn't bullish. One that essentially says, “I know you want to do this, but this material can’t do that right now. So try to get there another way.”
Watching you make a light is like watching a tango danced by your fingers and the paper. What does the material tell you as you’re working with it?
I don’t know if it tells me anything—it just lays there. But it does make suggestions. I’ll crease it, dip it in the water, or get ready to start manipulating it, and it will flop or rip. I’ll take those suggestions and go, “Okay, I’ll hold it here”—and the shape changes a little. It’s a never-ending connection where one move sets another into motion. I can feel when the paper is about to tear, and then becomes a dialogue where it says, “You’re telling me too much.” I’ve had some lights completely collapse, and the paper was like, “Nah, dude. Clearly you don’t understand!”
Listening to a piece of paper to know when to crease, roll, or fold—it sounds intimidating.
In fourth grade, I read the book Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes. I started learning how to make origami animals, and developed a passion for playing with flat things and volume. I’m not intimidated by a sheet of paper.
Giving materials an otherworldly sense of movement is a through-line through your work: You’ve pinched porcelain, sculpted sterling silver, and printed optical illusions onto wallpaper. Why does this approach make for an interesting object?
Manipulating materials to look different from their appearance creates a sense of disbelief within the user. I want to make people doubt. I want them to doubt that what they knew is all something could be. I want them to doubt that good design and good art are independent concepts. I want them to doubt it all. Through doubt, you get to a much more wholesome and fulfilling conclusion.