Off the back of his latest collection IRIS, we sat down with lighting designer Christopher Boots to explore where his interest in industrial design began, developing his definitive aesthetic and what he sees for the future of local lighting design.
Melbourne-based lighting designer Christopher Boots is primarily influenced by the mineral world, which means he is constantly surrounded by hundreds of colourful rocks in his home and studio. He believes that raw minerals are a vehicle for transformation and that his favourite, quartz crystal, represents the beauty of geological time; both key hallmarks in his designs.
Christopher Boots can trace his first projects back to when he was a teenager and making objects for his bedroom by experimenting with materials such as cast concrete and x-ray film. In the years since he has developed an inimitable name for his high-end, artisanal lighting that he calls ‘jewellery for the home’, favoured by both Australian designers and those further abroad. As a boutique manufacturer in Australia, Christopher Boots is steadfast on quality over volume and creating value through items tailored to their client, destined for longevity.
The designer’s latest collection IRIS is named after the Greek goddess, with a message of hope that he feels is more pertinent than ever in our current times. In this interview, Christopher tells us about who has been most influential in his career, how his studio operates, one of his most notable commissions to date and how his home reflects his approach to design. Sharing insights on the local lighting industry, Christopher and his team see a bright future in Melbourne as a source for independent lighting design – a legacy they are constantly building upon.
As a teenager, you had a keen interest in creating objects in your own backyard before you knew you wanted to study industrial design. Could you please talk to this passion and creativity you developed in adolescence?
Christopher Boots: Growing up as an only child, entertaining oneself took the form of collecting objects discovered on nature walks: shells, stones and leaves covered my bedroom. At 15, I started making useful objects for my bedroom: lighting, furniture, experimenting with creating lights from discarded x-ray film, computer chips and cast concrete. Receiving a TIG welder for my 18th birthday (yay!) I taught myself how to weld, discovering the satisfying urge of brute metal, making desks, chairs, and tables from discarded rebar. Intuitively exploring aesthetics through materials, working with design principles and functions (without even knowing what they were) felt as natural as breathing.
At university, I started with an arts degree, majoring in cinema, media studies, and linguistics. As much as I loved it, I got bored, as it lacked the hands-on application sorely needed with a constant urge for material experiment. It took a friend to point out industrial design was what I was doing, albeit haphazardly, gradually realising my process was aligned with material research and experimentation. I quit arts, shifting to a design degree (industrial design, product design engineering, design history and critical theory); the perfect ticket suiting innate tendencies to use my hands, engage the mind, to make and create through problem-solving.
“Growing up as an only child, entertaining oneself took the form of collecting objects discovered on nature walks: shells, stones and leaves covered my bedroom. At 15, I started making useful objects for my bedroom: lighting, furniture, experimenting with creating lights from discarded x-ray film, computer chips and cast concrete.”
– Christopher Boots
You’re known for your luxurious, crystal-like forms. What drew you to these forms, and how did you establish this definitive aesthetic?
Christopher Boots: My work is primarily influenced by the mineral world; expressed through the lens of mathematics, biology and chronology. Geological time is a scale I’m most comfortable with. The longer scale offers meditative pointers to relationships and events, making memories appear solid. It seems like some of my work takes about that long, too.
Quartz crystal perfectly represents the beauty of geologic time. Metaphysically, the medium of raw minerals as a vehicle for transformation is a key studio hallmark, validating my belief of the earth’s energy as one critical element to the creation, experience and continuation of life.
Being in love with the physical and metaphysical properties of quartz, I am constantly surrounded at home and in the studio by hundreds of kilograms of rocks. Desks, tables, window sills, floors covered in a colourful, textural spectrum of rocks; obsidian, fluorite, pyrite, smokey quartz, rose quartz, intense azurite and pyrite, to name a few. Reminders in our daily spaces are a source of inspiration and grounding, and my aesthetic is directly influenced by these elemental crystalline structures and their innate stories of transparency, opacity, colour, geography, and time: all evidence of the physical world we’re intrinsically part of.
Congratulations on your latest collection IRIS. Could you please talk us through the inspiration behind this collection and how it epitomises your design evolution?
Christopher Boots: Thank you! The IRIS collection is named in keeping with my penchant for mythology. According to my ancestors in Ancient Greece, Iris was a goddess messenger, bridging heaven and earth, associated with linking gods and humanity, bearing a message of hope and beauty amongst the storm. Iris is a perfect analogy for our times.
First designed about four or five years ago, samples of brass, copper, quartz and glass underwent multiple iterations and processes, decoupled from a timeline to deliver to market. On launching my studio there was a strong intent to ensure a collection created and delivered to schedule. Quickly it became apparent that some things need their own time to gestate, develop and birth when they’re ready, not some demanding arbitrary date.
IRIS encompasses a series of pendants, sconces and lamps with multiple forms and open possibilities. The material expression of alabaster and brass – stone and metal precisely crafted – follows my philosophy of lighting as jewellery for the home.
“My work is primarily influenced by the mineral world; expressed through the lens of mathematics, biology and chronology.”
– Christopher Boots
Tell us about your own studio in Melbourne. How do you operate here to create your high-end, artisanal lighting?
Christopher Boots: Being a boutique manufacturer in Australia is a very unique position: we have relatively high wages, components and materials are few and far between, a much smaller supplier base in comparison to our global peers in the EU and US, and the gradual gentrification of our (wonderful yet constantly changing) inner-city renders our studio a bit of an anomaly. The younger design culture we have, again in comparison to the centuries older established guilds and crafts of Europe, places us through a very different cultural lens.
However, the unique experience that clients receive by visiting us (pandemic aside) is priceless: we make things right here, to order. It is quality over volume. Often more expensive, due to tailoring and consideration of the client’s needs and aspirations, we’re creating value through items destined for longevity; ideally, collector markets of the future.
What do they say? Buy cheap, buy twice. These works are not disposable. Buy once, buy well, and you’ll have something forever. It’s a unique and more accepted position I’m very proud to represent and implore more designers and makers to this way of thinking.
I believe Australians have an ingenious, curious, pragmatic, intelligent manner to solve problems effectively. With this kind of longer-term thinking, we can easily imbue value-adding into what we make. While automotive manufacturing is disappearing, there’s plenty of opportunities to create high-value items for the export market. Germany is a great example of a successful high-wage, high-value economy. We have the ability, though lack of political will to guide the way. It’s up to individuals – and businesses like ours – to set a true north these days.
Who or what has been most influential on your career as a lighting designer?
Christopher Boots: Post-graduation, working closely with pioneer lighting designer Geoffrey Mance in his eponymous studio for three years, I continued the extension of practice in a space best described as a guild: passing on accumulated knowledge from master to apprentice. This method of quasi-work/study created the perfect environment to further hone skills. I discovered I loved lighting: a power to transform space through mediated perception. The perfect antidote to swapping my design degree for architecture. At that point, I had to learn to control my ADHD, and just finish what I started.
Mance sadly passed away in 2007, leaving a patchwork of staff, family and legal tussles for us to clean up, with no succession plan in place. He lived for the moment, the future was always an optimistic – a positive idea. Unresolved quagmires were the grounds of those formative years: super stressful and challenging and often I thought I’d never make it through. So I learnt the ropes by landing in the super-deep end, growing a team of four to 12, then departed four years later, to venture off and start afresh in my own direction, free of the past legacy.
Driven by a dream, creating an imagined aesthetic; learning from the past, exploring ideas, making beauty, is how I came to do what I’m doing now.
You have been commissioned by some notable clients. What has been your favourite commission or custom project to date?
Christopher Boots: Global involvement (pandemic aside) is exciting, as differing cultural contexts demand effective understanding and translation, creating formidable challenges to rise to. Every project requests a comprehensive understanding of relationships to achieve natural outcomes. Collaborative approaches serve as many challenges as people involved: yet this frisson creates valuable space for a uniquely birthed project.
Working with Hermes on their New York City flagship Holiday windows for 2014-15 is certainly the most memorable highlight to date, based on a relatively open brief, involvement and outcome. A supportive cast, a project beyond a mere standalone product, an entire production; an outcome of eight mise-en-scènes – depicting that years’ theme of Metamorphosis ticked my boxes beyond any dream. At the time, I had no idea of the importance of the brand in the design landscape. It only really dawned on me later, this was a very special relationship: to conceive, create and deliver from a great distance validates the strength of ideas: they can cut through time and space, pending narrative power.
How does your own home define your individual aesthetic as a designer?
Christopher Boots: My home is awesome. It’s taken years of work; a 1990s tilt slab concrete box, probably considered ugly when I first found it. But it had good bones, north-east facing aspect and three levels. A close friend described it as “very Darwin” – referring to the somewhat overly engineered steel and concrete construction prevalent in post-Tracy Darwin.
As much as I love Brutalism, the very first thing to shift bold and challenging architecture is to soften through landscape integration, achieved through planting Boston Ivy. For the interiors, I’ve explored and worked with different architects on multiple concepts to reimagine the space as multi-generational, roof terracing to enjoy city views, and a layout more reflective of multi-use elements and flexibility. While enjoying the exploration of potential changes, to date they have stayed theoretical.
My individual aesthetic is driven by comfort, colour and texture. Items come and go between studio and home in a constantly shifting tide. I collect furniture from all periods, ceramics from artist friends, artworks too risque for the studio, and cultivate enough plants I could probably start a nursery (lucky when lockdown hit I finally had more time to tend to them properly). Along with my Bengal cat, Tiger, I feel privileged to have a home that supports my love to explore light.
The dichroic film added to dining and office windows filters daylight between bronze-blue-red-purple hues. Crystal prisms set on window sills catch the sunrise, fracturing into rainbow light, starting the day with reminders that what we see is just a fraction of what is. Home is ultimately a place to protect, shelter and dream: surface aesthetics are merely a facade.
What do you see for the future of lighting design in Melbourne – and more broadly, Australia?
Christopher Boots: Launching in 2011, my studio was almost stand-alone in concept; very few designer-maker lighting studios in Melbourne existed – or Australia for that matter – and operated in a smaller environment.
The lighting design landscape is very different now: esteemed and talented friends are serving a uniquely Australian vision globally, carving their own space, aided and abetted by the powers of the ‘Gram, having flattened connections between creator and consumer. Improvements in technology and unavoidable social media have been pivotal in shrinking the physical distance between our remote island continent and our (mostly) northern hemisphere peers, by making digital the primary landscape where business happens. It doesn’t matter where you are based anymore: what matters is context and interconnections.
As our local lighting design industry evolves and matures, I’m confident the work we do inspires the next generation of Australian designers to create and make locally. Investing in our capabilities and resources, using our pragmatism and can-do attitude – the blueprint exists – it’s my hope the torch continues to be carried on and paid forward. Australians have a huge capacity to address geographic, economic and social challenges that perhaps may even point to a template for our peers beyond our borders to consider in a post-globalised world.
The future is bright with Melbourne firmly on the map as a source of independent lighting design – a legacy to be built upon.
Design Insider’s Guide:
Favourite local designers and studios?
- Kate Challis Interiors: Grounded in art history, Kate is a rising star with a talent to create tailored interiors with sumptuousness.
- Travis Walton Architecture: Both ‘extra’ and ‘elegant’ in the architecture dictionary.
- Smart Design Studio: Timeless outcomes through rigorous materialism and smart (literally) spatial programming.
- Simone Haag: Love working with Simone! She understands the confluence of home and family, bringing comfort and design together in a liveable format.
- Nickolas Gurtler: His work is tight, serving precise outcomes with an understanding of successful interiors beyond his years.
Favourite design stores?
- NGV Design Store (Melbourne and online): because creating a great nexus of gallery and design supporting local makers is how all adjunct business models should look like.
- Rossana Orlandi (Milan & online): because. She. Was. (Among) the. First. And. Still. Knows. How. to. Spot. Work. Worth. Buying.
- The Real Real (Los Angeles & online): because I’m a sucker for pre-loved fashion. Not so much now that I have nowhere to wear fancy clothes.. anyways, this is not a sponsored post.
Favourite galleries or spaces?
- White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney; Judith Neilson is what I want to be when I grow up: cross-cultural connector & philanthropist.
- Mona – Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart: Because David Walsh puts his money where his mouth is. Reflecting on life through death is critical in our risk-averse culture.
- NGV, Melbourne: Under the guidance of Tony Ellwood, NGV is in the boxing ring on a global scale. And in my hometown. Chuffed.
- Neon Parc, Melbourne: Forward-thinking space for emerging and established artists, often colourful, always intriguing.
- Gallery Boots, Melbourne: Our own nascent gallery and collaboration space, supporting emerging independent artists and designers. This is a sponsored post.
Where do you go to look at great design?
Christopher Boots: Nature. Whether clouds, fields or stars, this archetypal space is open to everyone who wants to look. Books can infer all they like, but direct observation of nature is the primary inspiration of all (value judgement: good) artists and designers.
“The future is bright with Melbourne firmly on the map as a source of independent lighting design – a legacy to be built upon.”
– Christopher Boots