'Painting' magic with furniture, lighting

Yang Di
Karl Zahn is a furniture and lighting designer based in Brooklyn. His studio designs and fabricates singular pieces of lighting and sculpture.
Yang Di
'Painting' magic with furniture, lighting
Courtesy of Karl Zahn / Ti Gong

Karl Zahn is a furniture and lighting designer based in Brooklyn.

Who is he?

Karl Zahn is a furniture and lighting designer based in Brooklyn. His studio designs and fabricates singular pieces of lighting and sculpture.

When Zahn applied to the Rhode Island School of Design many years ago, his intention was to learn how everything was made. He really had no idea where his fascination with materials and manufacturing would take him, but he couldn't help the curiosity. Fast forward through the years in San Francisco as a metal worker and designer, and through a decade of designing lighting in New York, that curiosity is still there and has only grown stronger. As lighting technology improves and squeezes its way into every corner of our lives, Zahn is continually fascinated and motivated to play with it and see what else he can make it do.

Both his parents were painters, and to say that art was an important part of his life growing up would be an understatement. It is that artistic creativity that helps him see the potential in the mundane diodes and resistors around him. It is easy to get lost in the engineering of a chandelier or overwork it to the point where it loses its magic. Zahn tries to harness that magic by treating the technology like just another paint brush.

Tell us some of your works and name the one you are most proud of.

I have had the good fortune to work with some really great lighting manufacturers here in NYC. I am incredibly proud of the Kingdom lights which I made with Lindsey Adelman Studio, and of all of the pieces that I have worked with Roll & Hill on. I would have to say that Atlas is my favorite. The Future Perfect has always been really supportive to my work, both functional and sculptural, and I am so very happy they gave me the opportunity to show the Vines sculpture. I am quite proud of that piece.

Are you currently involved with any project?

In addition to designing and producing my own lighting pieces, I have been consulting and collaborating with a few other companies here in NYC, like Radnor for whom I designed a bronze coffee table. This past year, Roll & Hill launched their new furniture collection for which I designed a few pieces. It's been really fun to design objects that physically interact with people instead of just hanging from a ceiling, which certainly comes with its own challenges. But right now I am focused on working out the new Stratus lighting collection for Future Perfect. It is experimental territory that I have been tinkering in for a long time, and I think it is finally the right time to showcase the work.

Describe your design style.

I definitely lean toward minimalist design. But the more recent lighting collections have felt much more sculptural to me; more like an abstract expressionist painting. They continue the kinetic sculptures that I have been making for some years but I have introduced LED lighting as an additional color in my pallet. There is texture, there is the hand of the artist, each one is unique. These creations are singular acts of artistic expression rather than easily produced lighting designs.

Where are you most creative?

After normal workday hours in my studio. It takes me hours to finally fall into a rhythm but once I find it, typically after 3pm, I get lost in the moment and the material. I try to keep normal work hours, but I am definitely a night owl.

What does your home mean to you?

Home is the piece of mind you take with you when you leave in the morning. It is a fixed reference point that puts everything into perspective. Without a sense of home, you lack an origin and a place to measure from. It doesn't matter what or where it is, or even if it still exists. It only matters that it exists in your mind. Home is your own north star.

What do you collect?

Since I work with my hands most of the time, I appreciate really nicely made tools, everything from old machines to weird wrenches. And I will use most of them in the shop. They don't just live on a shelf.

What will be the next big design trend?

As our world grows increasingly more digital, our lives will be lived virtually and in 3D environments that don't tangibly exist. Someone will have to design these environments, that trend is starting to happen. I think there is a lot of opportunity there to be completely free creatively. The rules and limitations that hold us back in the real world will no longer apply. Physics, materiality, impermanence, time, mass ... all kinds of things that we accept as our "reality" now will turn into opportunity. The next big design trend is making chairs with no legs, wallpaper that is fire, lap pools on the wall, and houses made of diamonds. And of course the flip side to this, is that things that are hard hewn out of "real" materials in the "real" world will reflect the difficulty and struggle of creation and will be cherished.

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