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Light-bulb moments
Lighting designer's path to success a series of successive events


October 2012

Although Christopher Poehlmann may not have intended to cultivate an international reputation as a designer of cutting-edge light fixtures and home furnishings, the former Milwaukee resident has accomplished just that during a prolific career that spans over two decades.

"I started thinking about lighting and furniture design in 1985, but it took me until 1989 to start actually making objects," says Poehlmann, who owns CP Lighting and has staged more than a dozen solo exhibits in galleries throughout the United States, as well as numerous group shows.

Despite a lack of formal training, Poehlmann held his first solo show in 1990 at the Elements of Art + Design gallery in the recently demolished Sydney Hih building in downtown Milwaukee. "I had a limited knowledge of the materials I work with when I started, but everything just fell into place," he says. "I’ve learned mainly through self-study."

Poehlmann’s propensity for hands-on learning has even extended to welding a variety of metals like copper, steel and aluminum. "The first time I rented the equipment to weld aluminum, the staff questioned whether I knew what I was doing," recalls Poehlmann. Although he told them he was armed with previous welding experience with steel and a how-to manual, the store employees doubted his ability. "They told me nobody picks up aluminum welding immediately and offered me a quick lesson on the spot."

To the staff’s amazement, Poehlmann picked up the torch and easily repeated what his trainer had shown him. "It was one of those life-affirming moments that confirmed I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing," he says.

As a struggling artist in the early 1990s, Poehlmann turned to recycled materials for his designs as a matter of financial necessity. But after his career took off and his light fixtures and furniture gained acclaim, Poehlmann decided it made sense to continue using scrap metal and other salvaged materials. Working mainly with aluminum and acrylic, Poehlmann has become quite creative at finding second-hand materials. "I began making a line of lamps in the mid-1990s using acrylic that I baked, but then I got the idea of using cast-off acrylic," says Poehlmann. Today, he relies on a network of companies, which sell him their scratched and damaged acrylic pieces. "The relationship is very symbiotic," says Poehlmann. "It keeps stuff out of the waste stream, but you would never know by looking at the finished pieces."

Although he’s always been influenced by midcentury design, in recent years, Poehlmann’s work has become more organically driven. "Modernism is paramount in what I do," says Poehlmann, who only began incorporating natural elements into his work within the last decade. His newGrowth series evolved five years ago when a client asked Poehlmann to create a chandelier based on Tord Boontje’s light for Swarovski, an actual living tree branch covered with crystals and Christmas tree lights. "I told her I don’t copy other people’s work," says Poehlmann. Instead, he presented a 1950s-inspired style, but when the logistics of that design didn’t pan out, Poehlmann began rethinking his client’s original idea of a tree branch. "I saw how I could take the idea of a tree branch and make it completely my own," says Poehlmann. Welding together aluminum pipes of different sizes, Poehlmann found he could create natural, organic looking trees. He gave the branches a brushed aluminum finish, snaked wires through them and added bulbs to the tips.

The client was thrilled with the final piece, and the light fixtures met with equal success when Poehlmann debuted them at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York. Since introducing his newGrowth line at the ICFF, the chandeliers, pendants and wall sconces have received an outpouring of accolades. "The ICFF has really brought my work to the international design community both through one-on-one contact on the show floor and the press room, which has allowed my work to be published at some point by nearly every design and shelter magazine around the globe," says Poehlmann, who recently finished a series of newGrowth chandeliers for Donna Shalala’s home in Coral Gables, Fla. 

Poehlmann, who describes his current line of lighting and furniture as "organic modern," says the environmentally friendly, yet aesthetically pleasing pieces have made him feel like a sculptor again. "The organic nature of the newGrowth series has been really exciting," he says. "Every single one is unique. I literally watch them grow on my workbench."

Poehlmann’s newGrowth line has most recently given way to his LiveEdge series of dining tables, which can be built with an integral chandelier growing up from the base of the table and spreading a canopy of aluminum branches and light from above. "All my pieces are made-to-order," says Poehlmann. "Not one lighting fixture is same as the next. That’s an idea I’ve tried to pursue all along in my work."

Although he now lives in Philadelphia, Poehlmann’s ties to Milwaukee remain strong. He’s outfitted several area businesses and residences with his signature light fixtures including Juniper 61 in Wauwatosa and The Blatz Condominiums in downtown Milwaukee, and he continues to work with local designers and curators. "There’s a lot of Milwaukee energy," says Poehlmann, who originally hails from the Chicago suburbs and first moved to Milwaukee with his girlfriend after graduating college in 1986.

After nine years, the couple moved to Florida to pursue other career opportunities, but eventually returned to Milwaukee when Poehlmann’s wife accepted a teaching position at UW-Milwaukee. Eighteen months ago, Poehlmann and his family said goodbye to Milwaukee again — this time heading to the East Coast. "The majority of my commissions are East Coast-driven," says Poehlmann. "Philadelphia just made sense."

Poehlmann says his only goal in life has been to enjoy what he’s doing. "I always hoped to have a certain degree of success. It just came much earlier than I thought it would."


This story ran in the October 2012 issue of: