Sitting in the bar area of the Whitby Hotel in Midtown Manhattan in late May, the London artist Margit Wittig was relaxing over a bowl of gnocchi and a glass of chardonnay when she looked up from her table and saw the actresses Cate Blanchett, Sarah Paulson, Sandra Bullock and Anne Hathaway walk through the lobby on their way to the hotel’s private function room for an “Ocean’s 8” news conference.
“Maybe they’ll notice my lamps,” she said excitedly, as another of the film’s stars, Mindy Kaling, entered the hotel and also headed toward the hotel’s lower-level Anrep Room, where two of Ms. Wittig’s lamps had recently been installed. (Indeed, to Ms. Wittig’s delight, one of her lamps appeared in the background of a photo of Ms. Bullock and Ms. Blanchett that was posted on Instagram later that day.)
It would be hard not to notice Ms. Wittig’s lamps. “They are curious, intriguing, classical, yet lyrical,” said Kit Kemp, a co-owner and the design director of London-based Firmdale Hotels, who commissioned Ms. Wittig to make eight lamps for the Whitby, which opened in February 2017. Each is individually made, with clients able to choose from a number of elements: bronze and resin sculptures of a man’s or a woman’s head as well as gold-leaf shapes separated by colorful blown-glass pearls, and topped with silk lampshades in a variety of textures and sizes.
For Ms. Wittig — whose lamps also reside in a suite at the Berkeley Hotel in London and at the nearby 20 Grosvenor Square (the first stand-alone Four Seasons-serviced residence) — success still feels new. Particularly because her art, which was just a hobby filling every corner of her apartment five years ago, is now filling the homes of her clients.
Born and raised in West Germany, Ms. Wittig, 52, has always been artistic; as a child, she would cast Christmas ornaments out of wax and sculpt finger puppets. But rather than pursue art, she trained and worked as a physiotherapist.
It was in 1998, when she followed her husband at the time to Chicago with their 1-year-old son, that her interest in art re-emerged. Every day, while her toddler napped in his stroller, she walked through the galleries and sculpture garden of the Chicago Institute of Art.
“I was drawn to the three-dimensional arts and abstract paintings, but in particular to sculptures by Brancusi and Giacometti,” Ms. Wittig recalled. She added that later she would learn that Giacometti and his brother made lamps in the 1930s and ’40s to survive.
But it was the family’s move to London in 2001, followed by the birth of her second child, and then a divorce, that led her to sign up first for a sculpting course and then a metals course.
“It felt like an outlet for my creativity while I was being a full-time single mother,” Ms. Wittig said of the figurines she had begun sculpting in an East London studio, inspired by her knowledge of the human form as a former physiotherapist.
Then, one day, she began stacking her sculpted heads on floor lamps with other shapes of resin and glass. As they took over her apartment (along with abstract paintings she had begun to create on huge canvases), friends started buying them.
“But then someone I didn’t know wanted to buy a lamp,” she said.
Enter Ms. Wittig’s friend Emma Bleasdale, a business development consultant with a background in finance. As Ms. Bleasdale recently recalled, “I said to her, ‘Do you want this to be a hobby or a business?’” When Ms. Wittig answered, “Business,” they got to work, creating a website and an Instagram account and pricing her lamps appropriately. (Today, her floor lamps start at $4,900 and a table lap at $3,500.)
The next goal was to get them noticed by interior designers. In the spring of 2013, they moved all the furniture out of her living and dining rooms and into her children’s bedrooms, to make the apartment look like a gallery.
“Then, we invited some 30 people in the industry to see the lamps,” Ms. Wittig said.
The idea worked. Not only did it lead to coverage on social media, but that night, one designer gave Kit Kemp’s email address to Ms. Wittig, who reached out. Within 24 hours, Ms. Kemp, whose company owns eight upscale boutique hotels in London and two in New York, had emailed back asking if Ms. Wittig could come by with the lamps the next week.
“When I saw a picture, I knew immediately they would be perfect for the Anrep Room, where I needed strong pieces to create a story,” Ms. Kemp said of the two lamps she placed there, each adorned with a sculpted male separated from a sculpted female head by black and gold-leaf resin shapes. Ms. Kemp now hopes to include Ms. Wittig’s lamps in some rooms she is designing for Bergdorf Goodman, as well as other projects.
Another major client is Finchatton, which has designed, managed and financed more than 60 major development projects around the world. “She is a true artisan, and her work enhances any space,” Charlotte Maverley, a senior designer with the company, said of Ms. Wittig.
Ms. Wittig is about to move into a larger studio in London to accommodate her growing portfolio. She recently expanded her line to include mirrors, tables and her artwork. (One painting now decorates the wall of an atelier in Tokyo, and a show of her paintings is planned for next year.)
“Am I an artist or am I a furniture designer?” Ms. Wittig asked, saying her work is best described as “functional art.” She added, “I feel like an artist, but am willing to let my clients decide.”