Fish Forms: Lamps by Frank Gehry

August 29 - October 31, 2010

As part of a design competition sponsored by the Formica Company, internationally renowned architect Frank Gehry created a series of lamps based on the form of a fish which had become something of a personal icon for him. A selection of Gehry’s colorful and luminous lamps are on view in this exhibition, which also explores the significance of fish imagery in the architect’s work.

Fish forms have been an indelible and vibrant element in Frank Gehry’s architecture since the 1980s. Fish embodied his desire to create motion in architecture and represented a perfection that he could never realize in his buildings. At a time when architects were inspired by ancient Greek temples, Gehry said, “If you really want to go back into the past, why not do fish?” At the Walker Art Center in 1986, Gehry said: “In Toronto, when I was very young, my grandmother and I used to go to Kensington, a Jewish market, on Thursday morning. She would buy a carp for gefilte fish. She’d put it in the bathtub, fill the bathtub with water, and this big black carp . . . would swim around in the bathtub and I would play with it.” (Gehry has since discounted the significance of this anecdote.)

Born Frank Goldberg in Toronto in 1929, Gehry is widely considered to be the most original and innovative practitioner in architecture today. His father moved his family to a mining town in Ontario, where he supplied establishments with slot machines. After gaming became illegal, the family eventually relocated to Los Angeles, where Gehry attended architecture school at the University of Southern California. Before graduating he changed his name; he had been picked on as a child and wanted to be admitted to the university’s architectural fraternity. At the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Gehry discovered Le Corbusier: “That’s when I threw away the grid system and just said, man, there’s another freedom out there.” Returning to California, Gehry built a commercial practice fed by the urban sprawl of Los Angeles. In 1977–78, Gehry renovated a small house for his family in Santa Monica, using inexpensive industrial materials and subjecting its elements to various degrees of deconstruction. The house clarified his ambitions and led him to reduce his commercial business to concentrate on an increasingly sculptural approach to architecture.

In 1983, Gehry was asked by the Formica Corporation to make something with a new laminate product called ColorCore. When Gehry broke a piece, the resulting shards reminded him of fish scales and gave him the idea for the fish lamps. Gehry made a prototype and then turned to New City Editions, a studio located next door to his, to fabricate the unique lamps, each of which he designed and approved. About thirty lamps were created between 1984 and 1986. To construct the lamps, a wood model of the fish shape was made and a wire armature was stretched over it. The wire was cut to remove the wood and resoldered, and then shards of ColorCore were glued to the armature. Some lamps incorporated larger shards of ColorCore to form a base that concealed light bulbs. Around 1990, a version of the fish lamp was made using thin plate glass. This exhibition reunites eight lamps, including a glass lamp in the collection of the Jewish Museum. An accompanying slide show presents an overview of how the fish form has changed from iconic symbol to transformative object in Gehry’s ongoing architectural practice.

Made possible, in part, by the Melva Bucksbaum Fund for Contemporary Art.

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