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Short Story: Walnut and Brass Reimagined Menorah

Dec 8, 2012

by grawlixer handmade and vintage goods

Here at Etsy, we believe that the story behind an object is often just as fascinating as the object itself. Short Stories is our series dedicated to telling the tales behind extraordinary pieces found or created by Etsy sellers.

Here’s Michael.

My day job is at Gensler, a design and architecture firm in Chicago. One of my clients, Mesirow Financial, asked us to help create a menorah for the annual Steelcase Wreath and Menorah Design Competition, an auction benefitting the Children’s Place charity. One of my coworkers, David Tracy, began experimenting with wax in hopes of creating his own candles, distilling the menorah down to its essential element but in a radically new form. Our teammate Beth Mosenthal had more architectural ideas about the piece as a sculpture, and a notion that adding some mirrors could make it look like there were hundreds of candles.

The night we met to discuss the design, I drove from Chicago to Iowa City. I was watching the lighting from a thunderstorm miles in the distance, seeing many bolts of lighting at the horizon on both sides of the road. I started imagining possible menorah forms, thinking about the mirrors Beth suggested. I remembered seeing a corner of a room with mirrors on two opposing walls and the repetition of reflections that occurred. Because the mirrors were at right angles, there seemed to be 3 copies of me. If I placed 2 mirrors at right angles, I could use a single candle, the Shamash, and it would seem that there were 3 others. If the mirrors were both facing the same way, there would only be 1 reflected candle. So, were there certain angles that could produce 2, 4, and 9 reflections? It seemed that the inside angle from a geometric shape, a square or pentagon or hexagon, would relate directly to the number of reflections.

After checking into a hotel that night, I got to work designing, intent on finding out if the reflections were as I imagined. I used a computer model capable of simulating reflections to test the angles I imagined while driving. Sure enough, by using angles from geometric shapes I was able to produce reflections of any number of candles, ones visible from any angle. The form of a round platform, two framed mirrors, and a single candle came from these first sketches and computer model.

I was able to bring my personal woodworking and jewelry fabrication skills to the project for the final execution. After David and I refined the proportions of the design, we assembled materials from a local specialty lumber supplier, hobby shop, and glass store. I brought a drill press, saws, and Dremel tool to the model shop at our office and showed David how to use them. Together, we worked on creating the mirrors’ brass frame, fitting it tightly and pinning it together with handmade rivets. We tested the angles with a completed pair of mirrors before mounting them to the base.

With the piece fully assembled and working, I concentrated on painting the markings for the mirror positions for each night of Hanukkah, and David worked through the finishing of the backs of the mirrors and the candle details. He couldn’t find just the right candle holder, so we made a simple holder of a thick  brass with a sharp pin to secure the candle. When we looked at the reflections of the brass plate, David realized that we could shape it so that only on the final night the reflection of the base would appear to be a solid brass and the walnut would disappear.

The finished piece has an over 2″ thick walnut base, about 9″ across and 9″ tall with the framed mirrors above. A simple white taper candle acts as the Shamash, but rather than lighting other candles with it each night, the mirrors are moved to the indicated position. Each night the angle of the mirrors is smaller, protecting the flame of the Shamash and creating ever more reflections of it.

The design won best design of the show and was auctioned to benefit the charity. I have had a great deal of interest in the design, which needs to be seen to be believed, and was asked to produce more for sale. Each is hand-crafted and the time that goes into the creation and finishing is well worth the creation of a new heirloom, a ceremonial object for Hanukkah celebrations.

All photos courtesy of ChicagoManMade.

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