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Alison Berger’s glassworks branches into crystal and lighting fixtures

A detail of Alison Berger’s Word pendant.
Detail of Alison Berger’s Word pendant, with hand-etched text from Da Vinci’s sketchbooks. It’s available at Holly Hunt for $10,425.00.
(Ricardo DeAratanha, Los Angeles Times)

For Alison Berger, the journey to becoming a designer of fine hand-blown crystal and handsomely engineered lighting fixtures began with childhood summer nights catching fireflies in jars.

“What I do is reminiscent of that nostalgic feeling of capturing a point of light and containing it within a glass vessel,” she says, pointing to a 2005 design she calls the Firefly pendant, which hangs in her West Hollywood studio in a 1920s Spanish courtyard apartment complex built for Paramount Pictures contract players.

Replicating that glimmer of youthful inspiration would take Berger from learning to blow glass at 15 in her native Dallas to earning a bachelor of fine arts degree in sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design and graduate studies in architecture at Columbia University in New York. After apprenticing with glass sculptor Dale Chihuly and working in the architecture firm of Frank O. Gehry, she eventually put down roots in Los Angeles, where she established Alison Berger Glassworks in 1995.

Berger initially supplemented her income working as a production designer, making props for films and music videos, including one glass vessel that Madonna bought right off the set. Soon her work was sold at high-end stores including Fred Segal and Bergdorf Goodman and has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art and Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York City. And Berger became the first American artist to create a collection for Hermes, the French luxury goods firm.

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In 1998, Holly Hunt, the owner of furniture and lighting showrooms in Los Angeles and other design capitals, visited Berger and saw a collection of illuminated crystal pendants, prototypes for the Firefly fixture.

“I didn’t set out to create a line of lighting. I was just doing them for myself,” Berger says, “but she immediately understood what they could be.”

Since then, she has designed over two dozen pieces — sconces, chandeliers, floor and table lamps remarkable for their shapely crystal pendants and vessels and cast-glass lenses held in position with classical yet minimalist bronze hardware — that are sold through Holly Hunt showrooms and, in a small range, for Plug Lighting in Los Angeles.

“Her designs are both minimal and artistic and work equally well in traditional and modern settings,” says John David Dick, co-founder of Disc Interiors and a former glass blower. “She also produces all her work in Los Angeles and there are not that many people doing that.”

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These days, Berger spends her days buzzing between her Craftsman home in Los Feliz, her design studio in West Hollywood and a glass blowing workshop in South Los Angeles, which employs seven workers to create her products.

“There is so much hidden artistry and a history of great small-production shops,” she says of Los Angeles. “You can get anything made here.”

On a recent visit to her shop, where her work requires heavy steel tools and a furnace continuously blasting at 2,300 degrees to create molten glass, Berger holds aloft the Moon fixture, one of seven new designs she has created this year. She turns it slowly in a ray of sunlight, and the shadow it casts looks like moonlight rippling across water. Despite the heat, she is dressed with rock star swagger, in a protective uniform of jeans, a black shirt and dark sunglasses.

Berger’s work balances the craft of glassmaking with the discipline of industrial design. “I like to bridge the physicality of making the glass — sweating, forming, cutting and polishing the crystal — with the architecture of designing the structure of lighting fixtures,” she says.

Her West Hollywood studio is filled with her furniture — the impressive cast-glass Carpenter’s bench — and lighting, including the Word pendant etched with text from Leonardo da Vinci’s sketchbooks. The walls are covered with sketches, technical drawings and constellation charts, and a vintage barrister’s case displays crystal and glass pieces, magnifying glasses, prisms, astrolabes and other scientific devices that, she says, “calibrate the unseen.”

“My pieces are not about technology or the latest material,” says Berger, who designs lights for low-wattage incandescent bulbs and high-earning individuals. (Prices start above $2,000 and can climb to six figures for custom chandeliers.) “They are more about this ongoing discovery of all the ways electric light and candlelight can be transmuted through clear crystal — this mysterious material which can look like a drop of water or a block of ice.”

Although she admits to being more of an urban soul who’d rather “walk 50 blocks in New York City than hike Runyon Canyon,” Berger adds that the abundance of natural beauty in Los Angeles inspires her work.

“The climate allows for an unobstructed obsession with the light, so I am always working on pieces that symbolize a different part of the day, how I can create the golden hour before the sun sets or three o’clock on a rainy day. I am trying to uncover the essence of time and light.”

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