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Illuminating Experiments

Illuminating Experiments

Cross-disciplinary designer James Carpenter 72 IL pushes the properties of glass to infuse light into his award-winning work.

7 World Trade Center engages the surrounding streets with downtown NYC’s remarkable atmospheric light.

Cross-disciplinary designer James Carpenter 72 IL operates at the intersection of art, design, architecture and engineering, working with glass to infuse light into museums, residences and office buildings around the world. James Carpenter Design Associates (JCDA), his collaborative NYC practice, pushes the technology of building with glass to bring natural light and unexpected views to galleries and even underground passageways at such cultural institutions as the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and the Bornholm Museum in Denmark as well as to public spaces like the Fulton Center and 7 World Trade Center in Manhattan.

Carpenter has been teaching at RISD this fall and in early October gave a public talk as part of the Glass department’s visiting artist series. In introducing the MacArthur Award winner to the large crowd that came to hear him speak, Department Head Rachel Berwick 84 GL described him as a prime example of the type of RISD graduate “who is deeply dedicated to research and experimentation and able to reach beyond a single discipline.”

"Glass compresses a wealth of visual information built on fragments of reality."
James Carpenter 72 IL

Carpenter notes that an important part of the RISD experience is the opportunity to collaborate with students and faculty members working in different fields. Although he started as an Architecture major and switched to Illustration along the way, he soon began exploring the properties of glass with Dale Chihuly MFA 68 CR – who would go on to establish RISD’s Glass department and found the Pilchuk Glass School – and also experimented extensively with 8mm film.

“These experiments laid the groundwork for my practice,” Carpenter explained. “I discovered quickly that I was more interested in materials than architecture per se.”

Materiality and light
Carpenter’s early projects focused on the materiality of glass and the different ways in which it manifests properties of light. “Glass,” he said, “compresses a wealth of visual information built on fragments of reality.”

James Carpenter 72 IL, Ice Falls (2006)

After graduating, Carpenter taught sculpture at UC Berkeley and then headed up RISD’s Nature Lab for five years after Edna Lawrence 20 PT retired in 1972. (“I was her favorite student,” he quipped.) From there he moved to NYC, worked in materials research at Corning Glass Works in upstate New York and began to create conceptual pieces that proved to be more popular in Europe than in the US. Before long he chose to launch an architectural glass practice in order to create work that would live longer than a typical gallery installation.

One of the first architectural projects Carpenter completed was Periscope Window, a 1990s piece for a residence in downtown Minneapolis that utilizes mirrors and lenses to capture reflections of the surrounding landscape and bring them into the home. He later used some of the same principles in NYC's Hearst Tower to create Ice Falls, a luminescent water feature that communicates with passersby on the sidewalk in an otherwise light-starved midtown location. And his exterior treatment of the power substation at 7 World Trade Center (see above) features stainless steel prisms that “collect light and project it onto the skin of the building.”

"Pursue your discoveries as you go and take advantage of opportunities. You can't know in advance which direction your path will take."

Most of the projects undertaken by JCDA incorporate curved structures built of cable netting that reflect the sun at different angles and take advantage of the performative characteristics of glass. The goal, he explained, is to “reawaken people’s engagement with nature.” He is also experimenting with new materials such as optical aluminum and Willow glass, which is thinner than paper and currently manufactured for the electronics industry.

Carpenter’s talk revealed his endless fascination with glass and his enthusiasm for encouraging the next generation of artists and designers. He told students in the audience to “have confidence in your intuition, pursue your discoveries as you go and take advantage of opportunities. You can’t know in advance which direction your path will take.”

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