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I. M. Pei, Calvin Tsao, John Morford Lamp for Fragrant Hill Hotel (1979–1982), Beijing

circa 1982
Lamp made out of metal, glass, and bronze wire filled with mosaic-like patterns of white shapes lined in gold. The circular head features a raised section at the top and rests on a stand with a round base. A plug wrapped in the connected cable lies on our right.

M+, Hong Kong, © expired. Photo: M+, Hong Kong


I would say this project was life-changing for me…or life affirming. 


That's Calvin Tsao. In 1979, he was a young associate at renowned Chinese-American architect I. M. Pei’s practice. Based in the U.S., Pei had just won the commission to design, build, and furnish the Fragrant Hill Hotel in Beijing, of which this gorgeous lamp was a tiny part.  

On the ground in Beijing, Calvin was responsible for realising Pei’s vision.  


For I. M., he wants to use this opportunity to explore something that's really deeply, resonant and important to him, which is take all that he's learned and apply it back to his native country with a unique mission, which is to resuscitate the tradition of Chinese way of thinking about place, and belonging, and the relationship between nature and the built environment. 


This lamp is a prime example of how Calvin—in partnership with interior designer John Morford—managed to manifest Pei’s vision in every aspect of the hotel. It was designed to enhance the sensuality of the hotel’s grand atrium, a large but intimate lounge area.


And we decided that we also need to bring light to the objects in the space; maybe light still going down and bouncing back up. And that's the best light for your face rather than direct light straight onto your face. And when it's going down. Of course, then the body of the lamp also has to be very beautiful. So, we said, well, let's keep the lamp very simple. Just a cylinder. 


With the design finalised, Calvin then collaborated closely with local craftspeople, to help realise its authentic cracked ice pattern using the traditional metalworking technique of cloisonné. As Calvin said earlier, this collaborative way of creating pieces, and the sensitivity to place and space, would fundamentally change the way he approached his work going forward.  


As far as I'm concerned, I think being an architect we serve, we don't just lead, we guide. We have a responsibility to bring the world together and we have to start from there. And this project working with people that seem to be totally on another page from my world, and somehow in the process of two years became a family, dedicated to make this as fantastic as possible. I get very emotional thinking about it even today, the brotherhood that we belong, that we need to continue to remember, and that we are not alone. And that is a foundation of my practice and it’s thanks to my experience on this project. 


Lamp for Fragrant Hill Hotel, Beijing, created circa 1982 by I.M. Pei, Calvin Tsao, and John Morford with metal, glass, and bronze wire. The lamp overall measures 47.5 centimetres high, 40.5 centimetres wide, and 40.5 centimetres deep.

This cylindrical table lamp is in an off-white cream colour, with a pattern of jagged gold lines and gold accents running across its entire form. At first glance, the lamp appears like a ceramic with countless cracks on the surface that are gold in colour.

The lamp is shaped like the capital letter ‘T’. Light shines from the short but wide cylinder that forms the top of the ‘T’. The vertical portion of the ‘T’, the body of the lamp, is a long vertical tube like the shape of the cardboard tube at the centre of a toilet paper roll. The tube connects the top cylindrical part and the base of the lamp. The lamp’s circular base looks like a standard dining plate. The side of the base is entirely covered in metal, and is the only surface of the base that is not covered in white- and gold-patterned shapes. A white electrical cord comes out from the bottom of the lamp and extends behind it.

When you look more carefully at the top of the lamp from above, you can see that there is an inner and outer cylinder. Both cylinders are fully covered so that you cannot see the light bulbs that are hidden within, and each cylinder has a very narrow band of metal circling its rim at the top. The outer cylinder contains the inner cylinder while being separated by a small open circular space.