From the June/July 2018 Issue  

Symbol of Space

Writer Ren Miller
  • The 2003 Chandelier by Gino Sarfatti, made around 1939, is often cited as the first Sputnik-style chandelier.


  • The Sputnik 1 satellite.

    image in the public domain in the United States

  • The crystal chandeliers that grace the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center were designed by Hans Harald Rath of J&L Lobmeyr, a celebrated Viennese crystal and chandelier manufacturing company. Rath reportedly drew his inspiration from a book on galaxies given to him by Wallace Harrison, architect of the opera house. The chandeliers became known as “Sputniks” from the night the Met opened in 1966.

    Courtesy of Eastriverside

Light fixture symbolizes the optimism of new frontiers.

Your first glimpse of a Sputnik chandelier might give you an out-of-this-world moment, and that was exactly the intention. The central orb and radiating arms of the chandelier may suggest, for those who remember the late 1950s, the first man-made satellite in space.

Called Sputnik and launched by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957, the satellite was small, only 23 inches in diameter with four radio antennas to broadcast radio pulses. But its impact was huge. It caught the rest of the world by surprise, pushing the United States into feverish catch-up mode and leading to the creation of NASA to coordinate and advance this country’s space exploration.

The new era of political, scientific and design exploration and achievement that followed is now called the Space Age. In home design, the era is distinguished by upswept roofs over walls of glass and steel; furniture shapes influenced by space travel, such as pod- and moon-shaped chairs; fabrics made of synthetic or industrial materials and bearing orbital or starburst designs; planetary colors that got bolder and wilder as the 1960s progressed (tangerine and red with aqua accents was a signature combination); televisions, lamps and even tea kettles shaped like flying saucers; and, yes, the Sputnik chandelier.

Perhaps more than any home furnishing, the Sputnik chandelier became an iconic symbol of the Space Age. Its general similarity in shape to the satellite is understandable; less clear is how it rose to prominence. Gino Sarfatti’s name typically comes up in discussions about the history of the Sputnik chandelier. Sarfatti studied to become an aeronautical engineer but had to drop out of college when his father’s business failed. Around the same time, a friend asked him to create a light out of a favorite glass vase. Using his engineering prowess, Sarfatti placed the lighting fixture from a coffee machine inside the vase and became so intrigued by the process that he opened a workshop to produce more lights.

Lacking formal training, he improvised and developed each new product by working directly with artisans rather than by sketching ideas and giving them to someone else to produce, gaining an encyclopedic knowledge of lighting along the way. Sarfatti went on to co-found Arteluce in 1939 and to design, depending on whom you ask, somewhere between 400 and 700 lighting products (as well as the first lamp to use halogen bulbs, in 1971). Each design reflects Sarfatti’s focus on purist beauty along with utilitarianism. But did he design the first Sputnik chandelier?

Yes and no. Sarfatti’s 2003 Chandelier (he officially identified his designs by number, not name) is often cited as the first Sputnik-style light fixture. However, he designed it in 1939, nearly two decades before the Sputnik satellite. He also gave it the unofficial name “Fuoco d’Artificio,” Italian for “Fireworks.”

Somewhere, somehow, someone noticed the 2003 Chandelier’s similarity to the Sputnik satellite and made the connection that lasts to this day. In 1971, Sarfatti sold Arteluce to Flos, another Italian lighting company. In a tribute to Sarfatti, Flos says of his lights: “They display a finesse and modernity not seen often in products of that time. These lamps are classic examples of Sarfatti’s technical prowess and his ingenious and forward-looking approach to design.”

Today, a 1930s Sputnik-style chandelier by Sarfatti can cost upwards of $22,000; models from the 1960s sell in the low $3,000s. Many modern-day companies offer a wide range of Sputnik-style chandeliers in an equally wide range of prices. They come in round or oval shapes with a wide-ranging number of arms in equal or varied lengths; some with round, flame- or starburst-shaped lights at the tip (usually clear but sometimes in color); and some with reflectors.

Whether humble like Sarfatti’s original or breathtaking like those that hang in the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center, Sputnik-style chandeliers might just give you the same optimistic outlook they elicited when Space was the world’s newest frontier.