Chandeliers should be works of personal expression,” says Jim Palmer, the lighting director at Pettigrew Luxury Furnishings in Dallas. He’s speaking from experience: He once designed a chandelier using a client’s heirloom jewelry and keepsakes. “She brought me boxes of diamonds, pearl necklaces, vintage costume jewelry, watches and even dog tags to incorporate into a fixture,” he recalls. Through Palmer’s expert eye for layering, the piece became a beautiful homage to the client’s family and wound up as a focal point in the dining room as a regular reminder of her loved ones, as if they were joining her for dinner.
Palmer compares his style of layering in lighting design to arranging flowers in a bouquet. And for good reason–before his transition into lighting 30 years ago, he spent a decade as a floral designer. “As with arranging flowers, I choose which crystals are most prominent and start building backwards,” he says, noting he often builds around the client’s favorite prisms. For Palmer, who refers to his creations as “nonperishable flower arrangements,” this process is both intuitive and meditative. “If I went blind, I think I could put a chandelier together by touch alone,” he laughs. “My hands never get tired. When I work, I slip into a warm and fuzzy place.”
Of course, in many cases, clients don’t provide Palmer with materials to use, so he has perfected the art of sourcing crystal and glass both locally–including from the studios of Dallas glass artists Aaron Thane Tate and Carlyn Ray–and from around the world. When one client requested nearly 140 customized chandeliers and lanterns, the lighting designer looked to the Czech Republic, Austria, China and Brazil for the jade, garnet, rose quartz, amethyst and rock crystal needed to fashion many of the fairy tale-like aviary and exotic bird-inspired ornamentations. “I even spent time in Egypt overseeing the construction of a chandelier frame,” Palmer says. His efforts culminated with pieces befitting in both scale and glamour to the Dallas-born customer’s residence in Hollywood, California.
Not surprisingly, Palmer’s studio over the years has become a cave of wonders replete with thousands of lighting materials, all organized into boxes and cabinets. For his collections of crystal and glass, the lighting designer tends to prefer hand-cut and hand-polished pieces over perfect, machine-cut varieties. “They create a look that is luminous but fades more into the background,” he says, lauding the subtlety and nuances of handmade prisms. “That way, it doesn’t immediately draw your attention to the chandelier on the ceiling.”
It is this ongoing impetus to locate and layer together the ideal amalgam of crystal, glass or any number of other embellishments that has earned Palmer his reputation as a lighting virtuoso. “While glass and crystals don’t change,” he says, “how you use them can change quite dramatically.” With some expert help, even an outdated chandelier can receive new life and light the way to personal expression. “It’s always there for you to work with–over and over again,” Palmer says.