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Or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Sputnik

February 09, 2015


Or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Sputnik

February 09, 2015

In the opening of his only academic book examining the genre he came to define, Danse Macabre, Stephen King remembers a childhood Saturday afternoon in October of 1957, enjoying a matinee of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. The movie is suddenly interrupted and the lights in the theater come on over an audience of mostly confused and quiet children so that the manager can take the stage and tell them some very important, breaking news.

We sat there in our seats like dummies, staring at the  manager. He looked nervous and sallow—or perhaps that was only the footlights. We sat wondering what sort of catastrophe could have caused him to stop the movie just as it was reaching that apotheosis of all Saturday matinee shows, "the good part." And the way his voice trembled when he spoke did not add to anyone’s sense of well-being.

"I want to to tell you," he said in that trembly voice, "that the Russians have put a space satellite into orbit around the earth. They call it…Spootnik."

This piece of intelligence was greeted by absolute, tomblike silence.
I remember this very clearly: cutting through that awful dead silence came one shrill voice … a voice that was near tears but that was also full of a frightening anger: "Oh, go show the movie, you liar!"

The manager did not even look toward the place from which that voice had come, and that was somehow the worst thing of all. Somehow that proved it. The Russians had beaten us into space. Somewhere over our heads, beeping triumphantly, was an electronic ball which had been launched and constructed behind the Iron Curtain. … It was up there…and they called it Spootnik. The manager stood there for a moment longer, looking out at us as if he wished he had something else to say but could not think what it might be. Then he walked off and pretty soon the movie started up again.*  


A still from the matinee that day, used to promote Earth vs. the Flying Saucers

Sputnik 1. Public Domain, Courtesy of NASA.

King’s memory of the ambivalence of terror and awe he experienced at this moment is indicative of a larger cultural fear that was occurring at that time. This moment arriving in the context of the Cold War gave it an aura of fear for many Americans that it did not need to have. In fact, the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2 (and its little dog, too!), while not entirely absent of an element of one-upsmanship, was part of an initiative by many advanced nations to make the time between July 1957-December 1958 a fertile period of scientific discovery about our planet. This initiative was called the International Geophysical Year, or IGY, and it embodied the futuristic optimism of the time. Through global scientific partnership, we could achieve a better tomorrow.

The United States managed to launch the Explorer 1 by the end of January, less than four months after the launch of Sputnik, and well within IGY, but not before two failed launches, including the televised one of the Vanguard, and the Soviets had gotten another satellite into space. The resulting blow to the rock-solid feeling of supremacy for the United States was so powerful and real that it even has its own name: "The Sputnik crisis." NASA was formed in direct response to this event. 

The fourth to the fifth of October, 1957, became a permanently lodged moment in the consciousness of the Western World, if not the whole world. On that day, anyone could go outside and see Sputnik as it passed through the atmosphere, emitting a trail of eerie beeps that were picked up by radios. The future had arrived, and the Atomic Age had been ignited into its second phase, the Space Race.

Enter Italian lighting genius, Gino Sarfatti

Ambivalence is always the most interesting emotion. In the same moment, people had wild hopes about how technology could transform our lives for the better while also feeling deep anxiety about its potential to destroy us. Public interiors design firm BiNW puts it succinctly in their post on the Sputnik design craze: “When the (former) Soviet Union launched the first satellite to orbit the earth back in 1957, the world was in the middle of the Cold War. Tensions were high and you know designers love tension.” The consummate Italian mid-century modern lighting designer, Gino Sarfatti, took the public’s fascination and fear with the atom (bomb) and with the Soviet satellite and channeled it into the creation of one of his most iconic and lasting designs, the Sputnik chandelier. By hanging a chandelier in their home that took inspiration from the atom whose secrets were at the heart of the atomic bomb and the Soviet satellite speeding around the entire earth in hour-and-a-half laps, mid-century modernists learned to stop worrying and love Sputnik

Gino Sarfatti's 2003 Chandelier, often cited as the first of the Sputnik-style light fixtures. c.1939

All of which would make perfect sense and a good story, if it weren't for the unfortunate fact that it is not true. Sarfatti's iconic chandelier was designed in 1939, the year he founded Arteluce. Whether it went into production in the 40s or 50s is difficult to ascertain. He accorded his designs numbers, and his "Sputnik" chandelier was model no. 2003; its real name is "Fuoco d'Artificio," Italian for "Fireworks."

So, neither space age nor atomic age.

How it came to be known as "Sputnik" is a mystery. It's not impossible to imagine that the very word, "Sputnik," so unusual in itself, has come to epitomize the entire era, the journey from fear and awe at the outset to optimism and triumph by the moon landing, and all the great design that occurred across the globe in that time. Mid-century modernists took note of Sarfatti's concept and added new elements, such as an orb that resembles the first satellite at the center of the chandelier.

Appropriations like this one are all over the history of art. Lighting, when elevated by inspired design, is no exception.

Glendale, by Hudson Valley Lighting. Seen here in 13-light and Aged Brass, also available in 9-light and Polished Nickel.

Flash forward almost sixty years and everyone loves the Sputnik chandelier. We are living in the future and we want to celebrate it. Space Age design elements are trending, visible in current issues of magazines such as Luxe and Home Accents Today. Today's pendant or chandelier in this style will take a scatter-from-a-central-nucleus approach, like Sarfatti's no. 2003, and place at its core a metal ball seamed around the circumference, like Sputnik 1. Some stagger the bulbs out at various lengths, while others aim for a symmetry like a dandelion in seed waiting to be blown. 

Hudson Valley Lighting is pleased to step into this tradition and deliver a Sputnik-par-excellence. As Founder & President David Littman says in his opening letter to the 2015 HVL Catalog, "For us, historical references are a starting—not a finishing—point." We take historic cues, then make them different and at once modern and timeless. Sarfatti's 2003 is definitely a touchstone, but Glendale differentiates itself in a number of intriguing ways. The central starburst is surrounded by a lantern frame that at once hearkens back to gaslight illumination and the shape that universally suggests "home." Available in Polished Nickel or Aged Brass, in the latter it achieves that black-and-brass combination that is so in right now. Exposed-filament bulbs in the Edison style up the retro factor—Glendale straddles three periods of illumination and design, yet feels utterly of this moment.

Design: Georgette Westerman | Glendale by HVL

Design by Forte Interiors | Glendale by HVL, Merrick picture lights above mirrors also HVL

Design: KBN Interiors | Glendale staggered for a stunning entrance.

Design: Cecilia Walker | Glendales make for stunning island pendants, especially where the edges and lines of the island echo the fixture's frame.

Design: Philharmonic House of Design | Glendale and Amherst sconce by HVL for the win in this gorgeous bath

Design: Nina Davis Associates | Glendale setting the vibe and pulling the room together in this home office.

Design: Curtis Elmy of Atmosphere Interior Design | Glendale by HVL

*King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. Everest House, New York: 1981. Page 22.