In the Studio with the Talented Mary Wallis


Recently featured in Vogue's Heirlooms of Tomorrow: Ten Contemporary Designers to Collect Today, Australian-born Mary Wallis' interpretation of lighting design comes from a diverse background in genetics, traditional Chinese painting, and manifesting one's path.

Her Brooklyn studio dwells in an old metal shop, once a casket factory. The building is a lot less creepy than you think and more of a community where craftsmen and blacksmiths help more than hinder. Stacked high with shiny sheet metal and sparkling scraps, her metal shop is furnished with enough heavy machinery to make a welder blush. Mary Wallis transforms raw materials from their jagged and unknown identities into enchanting glowing masterpieces. Surrounded by the elements, her work hangs in various degrees of assembly.

After relocating to New York city, she studied design at Parsons The New School for Design, and also attended Pratt Institute. Mary has worked for the esteemed Lindsey Adelman Studios (another of LOCZIdesig's most coveted designers) and played a key role in the design and installation of her work. Paige Loczi took a special interest in Mary after meeting her at the 2012 ICFF fair, later introducing me to Mary where I had the chance to see her work firsthand.

My interview tuned out to be a small glimpse into a world where the glitz and glamor of Manhattan showrooms and fancy galleries dull in comparison to the inspiration and dedication that this lighting designer withholds. I caught up with Mary in her studio this past Fall to talk about life, design, and everything else in between.

Take me through a typical day in the life of Mary Wallis.

If I wake up and I come to my studio, that’s a great day and I’m very excited. There’s a whole lot of planning and preparation sometimes for the tiniest bit of machining. If I’m not building, I’m ordering and answering e-mails... cleaning my studio is a constant battle that I’m never winning! Then there’s the fun stuff, like planning photo shoots, arranging, or getting ready for shows. And there's e-mail blasts and the PR side of my work, and when I’m not doing that, then I’m doing my taxes. I usually hope to get all of that out of the way early in the day because I tend to work late into the night. I’m definitely a night owl.

Do you have a close-knit design community?

I know more people in the lighting industry than any other group of individuals. We all are friends and we have the same suppliers, the same problems, delays with manufacturers. I feel very lucky to have such a good community here. 

How long have you been in New York City?

I've been in NYC for five years. I went to Pratt and did the Pre Masters programs there and soon after began working in the lighting industry about a year ago.

What is it about the elements that move you?

Neon is one of my favorite elements at the moment. I did a neon workshop with my brother and he was really into it. There’s something about the possibilities that I saw initially, and wanted to tap into them because I hadn’t seen it being used much before. So I wanted to make it more three dimensional and less flat. Neon is much like a little flame, you almost can’t help yourself but to look and touch.

Tell me more about this impressive background in Chinese painting.

That is a really strange back-story. My teacher was very serious and traditional so by the last several years of my studies I was practicing everyday. I started painting with my teacher when I was five-years-old up until my early 20’s. I still paint and that background sometimes comes out in my work through certain shapes and such. I’ve been thinking about painting in neon and I feel like it could be very interesting...

When did you make the enormous shift from painting and genetics to design? Have you felt this certain about anything since?

No. This is it. This is definitely what I want to do. I did do a PhD in genetics. That did happen and I don’t regret it at all. I think it’s all still in the mix for me. There was a time that I saw a life coach and though I always had it in me, she managed to draw out the epiphany of my path to being a designer. I knew it was sort of in there all along. And as soon as I made the decision it just became so easy. And now it’s just getting easier and easier, actually. Like when you’re still starting out and sort of haven’t made anything and all of your ideas are just in your head. It can be really frustrating. But then there was this huge sense of relief when I did my first ICFF show. I finally got to say what I wanted to say to the world — people could take it or leave it. I just felt so happy and relieved. It gets easier. You’re not fighting your own expectation of yourself. When you make that change and know what it is that you want to do, it feels right. You'll find that people just kind of accept it, and all the things you thought were going to be difficult don’t materialize for the worse. Then two years pass by and people talk to you like a lighting designer and you see what manifested and suddenly it happens and it's who you are.

Do you keep in touch with any of your friends from the sciences and that part of your life?

Yes, I still do. I think it’s good to keep all of those options open and to keep your connections, because neon is still evolving as a material and people are still working with it. My chemistry background has been quite helpful with using neon. It’s really cool to be able to talk to my neon vendor about that sort of stuff. It’s very interesting to have that element and connection in my life.

What is it about reconstructing the jagged or broken that you like and does that translate into any other aspects of your life?

I happen to find that philosophy interesting. I’m attracted to asymmetry and things that may not be classically beautiful. I find it fascinating when something is off — sort of jagged. To me that’s where the beauty comes from. It is translated into other areas in my life too, because of course, no one is perfect. So you have to learn how to work with that and reconstruct what is already there.

As one of the darlings of ICFF 2012 and 2013, Mary is already preparing for this year's show. But if you'd like to see or begin an interior heirloom collection by purchasing one of her pieces, click here to view her website and her collection for sale on Matter.