“Architecture is all lights and shadows,” says the Italian artist and designer Umberto Bellardi Ricci, seated in his 1,100-square-foot studio, a white-walled loft that overlooks the Manhattan skyline from the 13th floor of a former storage facility in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Casting glimmers of light across the floor are a collection of simple twice-folded rectangular metal objects in varying scales: a trio of geometric polished steel structures the size of desk ornaments, a two-foot-tall bent sheet of brass atop a brushed aluminum base and a six-foot-long version of the same piece that can stand upright, hang horizontally along the wall or lie flat on the ground. These functional artworks, which conceal bulbs within their creases, make up a series of light fixtures that Bellardi Ricci titled “Mano,” the Spanish word for hand, because they each evoke an open palm protecting a candle flame.
Bellardi Ricci, 44, who was born and raised in Luxembourg by a German mother and Italian father and moved to the U.K. at 19, did not have a background in design when he enrolled at London’s Architectural Association School in 2005. He was an aspiring experimental sound guitarist who’d graduated from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London with a major in social anthropology and later a master’s in international studies and diplomacy. But he’d always had a fascination with space, both physical and abstract. “My interest in abstraction came initially from my love of music,” he says, “as sound is extremely spatial: It wraps you up, it wraps around you, and has the most intense presence even if invisible.” After finishing his studies, he taught courses on sculpture, color, wood, painting and photography at the A. A. for seven years before moving to the school’s satellite campus in Mexico City, where he fell in love with his now wife, Tijana Masic — one of the designers behind the minimal women’s clothing line Istok — and Mexican Modernism (for five summers, he led experimental sculpture classes at Las Pozas, the artist Edward James’s surrealist garden in the jungle of San Luis Potosi).
It wouldn’t be for another year and a half, when he moved to Ithaca, N.Y., to teach architecture at Cornell University, and had his first child (Luca, who is now 2), that Bellardi Ricci would start to imagine a career outside of academia. “My son was born a few weeks before I started at Cornell, and my dad passed away a few weeks after that; it changed my entire work path and output,” he says. The artist refocused his efforts on folding, throwing, casting and rolling metal out of his basement. “I became drawn to these simple ways of dealing with humble materials,” he says. The pared-back nature of his work caught the eye of both the fashion designer and entrepreneur Jenna Lyons, who, after buying his very first folded Mano lamp, commissioned Bellardi Ricci to create seven custom pieces for her office in SoHo, and Jamie Grey, the founder of the Manhattan design gallery Matter, where a show of Bellardi Ricci’s sculptures and lighting, titled “Dawn,” will open on June 24.
In addition to sculptural bent-metal lamps, Bellardi Ricci makes other furnishings and abstract art objects using materials found in nature — like a sextet of bamboo sticks that he bound together to form a mold and filled with liquid cement, which resulted in a cylindrical, five-foot-tall cactus-like structure — and in the landscaping department at home improvement stores. “I call them Home Depot Brancusis,” he says of these pieces, referring to the monolithic wooden sculptures made by the 20th-century Modernist artist Constantin Brancusi. For Lyons, he created a free-standing shelving unit from stacked garden bricks as well as coffee tables out of concrete cinder blocks and reclaimed wood. He designs made-to-order furniture as well, such as accent tables with onyx tops shaped like arched windows and low-slung coffee tables with travertine tops cut to echo the silhouette of Masic’s torso when she was pregnant with Luca. And most of Bellardi Ricci’s creations feature sections of steel I-beams that function as bases, a choice that situates the designer’s work in New York. “To take something the whole city is built on, and place it against stone or marble, with their thousands of layers of lines and imperfections, makes them both industrial and natural,” he says.
The beauty of these structures, beyond their subtle shapes and earthy palettes and textures, is that they are formed from building materials that have been used not only in New York but around the world for centuries. And like craftsmen have for generations before him, the architect tries to roll and cut everything himself using only a saw and rail (though for some of his more involved pieces he enlists the help of two local stonemasons). “I think best with my hands,” he says, standing near one of the two large Venetian-plastered cubicles that occupy the rear half of his studio and function as a pair of private offices. Each has a square opening that faces out into the loft and the sweeping view beyond. “When I look through the window at night, this crazy light washes across the steel, aluminum and glass buildings,” he says, “and my vertical pieces become part of the skyline.”