Roughly 10 years before Steven Holl began to design the Bloch Building at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, I found myself in his office in New York City late one afternoon, visiting a friend who worked there. Before we ventured out into the night, I ducked into the rest room to tidy up a bit. This was in the very early 1990s, the strange era in which people my age discovered Starbucks, listened to Nirvana and ripped our jeans on purpose.
By DAN MAGINN
Special to the Star
As I was carefully adjusting my half-tucked-in flannel shirt in front of the restroom mirror, I noticed a clever little light fixture that had been rigged up by the door. The fixture consisted of a $2 utility lampholder with a $2 incandescent half-mirror bulb screwed into it. That, and nothing else.
The light from the bulbs element reflected off the inside of the mirror surface back onto the painted wall, which in turn directed it out into the space of the bathroom, muted and glare-free. I was aware that half-mirror bulbs existed in fact, I had one in my architects lamp at work but I had never seen one used on a wall before.
An effortlessly functional and poetic light fixture for four bucks? Bravo, Steven Holl, I murmured to myself, feeling slightly dejected that the idea hadnt occurred to me.
In retrospect, I have come to realize that the fixture reflected the spirit of the times: It achieved a certain scrappy grace with absolutely minimal means. Not unlike Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of Nirvana, it communicated that it simultaneously cared and didnt care no mean feat. It was less a light fixture than an impromptu agreement of simple things: a bulb, a socket and some paint. In its glorious nonchalance, I dubbed it the Cobain.
I have paid homage to the Cobain many times over the years. (For non-architects reading this, paid homage to translates roughly to stolen.) I used it on projects large and small, from offices and retail projects to houses and institutional spaces. I used many other types of fixtures, obviously, but when budgets got tight (as they often did), the Cobain could always be counted on to deliver maximum functionality for minimum means.
Twenty-plus years later, my wife and I find ourselves in the midst of our own grunge movement the ongoing renovation of our house in Brookside. Like many other creative and fiscally challenged couples, we are interested in creating dynamic and inspired spaces without breaking the bank. Predictably, we have fully embraced the Cobain, trotting it out in all three of our bathrooms, as well as our kitchen, dining area and the main entrance to the house.
In the same way that the finches of Galapagos adapted to the peculiarities of their specific micro-environments, we have adapted the Cobain over the years to respond to the shifting functional requirements of our house.
By morphing two of its three components (the bulb and the surface on which it reflects) we have generated a number of alternate Cobains: The Turbo Cobain (a large half mirror bulb and custom chrome socket element). The Puff Daddy (standard Cobain, but with a jumbo vanity light bulb). The Lincoln Log (wood reflecting surface instead of paint). The Edison (Lincoln Log, but with vintage light bulb) and the Lance Armstrong (genetically modified to allow for two bulbs, for increased light output at bathroom mirrors).
Our newest adaptation was developed in the spirit of Valentines Day but can be used throughout the year. We are proud to introduce the Roxanne for those special times when you feel compelled to put out the red light.
You can buy keyless porcelain sockets at most hardware stores. Although installation is simple, it does require that you shut off power to the junction box, so an electrician is recommended.
The custom chrome socket element was created by former Kansas Citian Chris Ferguson and is currently out of production.
Edison bulb: 30 watt Beacon Tube Bulb by Lumin, 1000bulbs.com
Red bulb: 25 watt red bulb by Satco, 1000bulbs.com
Half-mirror bulb: 60 watt half-mirror bulb by Bulbrite, 1000bulbs.com
Vanity and globe bulbs by GE are available at Home Depot and other hardware stores.
Reach architect Dan Maginn, principal at El Dorado Inc. in Kansas City, at Eldo.us.