For a moment, imagine you’re attending a Metropolitan Opera performance in New York City… As you approach the arched glass facade of the Opera House, you can see through to the warmly lit interior. There, a symphony of illuminated crystals sparkle over the inner atrium.
Inside the theatre, another cluster of chandeliers centred by a great starburst hangs low over the seating. As the lights dim and the curtain opens, the chandeliers glide upward towards the ceiling, dramatically opening the show. The Metropolitan Opera Houses’ sputnik chandeliers are a signature of its performances, interiors, and a period of midcentury design. They are also the source of one of my favourite, soulful souvenirs.
The history of the sputnik chandelier
The sputnik chandelier design was born in the atomic age of design. Following World War II the Cold War began, triggering an arms race between the former Soviet Union and the U.S.A. to develop bigger and more destructive atomic weapons. In 1957, the former Soviet Union launched the first satellite named Sputnik. The following year America launched its own satellite and subsequently NASA was created.
The world became fascinated by nuclear science and space exploration. This inspired an era of architecture and design that later became known as the Atomic or Space Age. If you’re not familiar with the aesthetic, think The Jetsons, the Seattle Space Needle or watch the short video below.
One of the classic and enduring designs of this time is referred to as the “Sputnik” chandelier, named after the Soviet Union satellite. Copied and varied aplenty, it’s hard to trace the design’s exact origin, but engineer Gino Sarfatti is commonly credited with creating the first of this midcentury icon–a pendant with radiating arms of various lengths stemming from a central orb, each ray ending in a light.
The crown jewels of the Metropolitan Opera House
In the 1960s as the Lincoln Center was being constructed, the Austrian Government gifted the United States 350 hand-cut crystal-adorned, sputnik-style chandeliers and accompanying lighting fixtures to complete The Met Opera House. Those sparklers were produced by the glassmaking Austrian company Lobmeyr, with 90% Swarovski crystals. The Lobmeyr designer Hans Harald Rath was inspired to create small galaxies of light and crystal by a book about the Big Bang, presented to him by the Opera House architect Wallace K. Harrison.
Refurb, replace, recycle
Lobmeyr was called upon again in 2008 to freshen up the aging chandeliers. They carefully dismantled the lights and flew them to Austria for the refurbishment of the radiating frames, along with the complete replacement of the 49,000 original hand-sculpted crystals, with new laser cut Swarovski donated pieces.
Sputnik Chandelier turned perfect souvenir
Not all the original crystals survived the disassembly intact. Some were lost and others chipped or otherwise damaged. The less than perfect, but oh-so-unique crystals were upcycled into small reproductions of the chandeliers and jewellery pieces sold in The Met Opera shop.
It was here that lovely shop assistant, Stephanie, saw my aching desire to have one of those baby sputniks and redirected me to a more affordable solution–a beautiful hat/scarf pin. I couldn’t have fallen more in love with the piece and its story–a recycled crystal from an iconic chandelier, that witnessed 30 years of opera at the Lincoln Centre in New York City. Now that’s a soulful souvenir!!
For more on New York City, here are the top things to do on your first visit to the Big Apple, and even more things to do for your second, third or fourth visit…
Peace, love & inspiring travel,