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How does your garden glow?

The French artists who are lighting up London’s Kew Gardens

Lucy Farmer | December 2nd 2014

François Fouilhé has always been enamoured of nature. As a child he wanted to work with birds. Now he makes illuminated works of art in the shapes of trees and flowers as one half of TILT, a French design studio that creates light installations. The other half is Jean-Baptiste Laude. The pair met aged 19 when they were production hands at a theatre called La Comédie de Valance, in southeastern France. A decade later, in 2001, they started TILT because, rather than using light as a tool, they wanted to make light a work of art in itself, and, François says, to “make people imagine different things about their surroundings”. This Christmas, they are making people reimagine Kew Gardens.

They started small, in the trees. Their first project was a series of 50 Kilner jars, each with a round light bulb inside, which they hung on branches like fat glow-worms. It sounds simple, “but it was enormous for us.” Now TILT create large-scale works that are technically elaborate, yet pleasingly minimal. They have 27 designs, and multiple versions of each, which they use to curate “luminous universes” for events, festivals and displays in public spaces across Europe, the Middle East and as far as Singapore. The “Herbum Follus” is a spiky cluster of green stems shooting eight metres into the air, each tipped with a red light in the image of a firefly. In “Lily of the Valley” the green stems ease upward, and the chain of soft white lanterns that hangs from each sways in the breeze—like its woodland namesake. “Pissenlit” is based on a plant in their studio's garden: a single curved stem reaches up and explodes at the end in a spray of lights, like a dandelion picked out in stars.

The light sculptures currently on show at Kew Gardens are part of its Christmas trail. It's the perfect fit for TILT's botanically inspired works: “to design for a garden is the best thing for us.” In turn, Kew hopes that the lights will encourage festive visitors to find out more about the botany. Despite being in London the 300-acre site has almost no light pollution, so the illuminations can sing in the silence. That said, François likes to overhear people's chatter as they wonder at the lights: one visitor, spotting a red and orange sculpture from afar, said it looked like a church window through the trees.

François says it takes between six months and a year to design and build a new sculpture. First comes the inspiration: after a holiday in Thailand, he “came back with umbrellas”. But mostly the ideas come from the flora of the French countryside around TILT’s studio in Eurre, about halfway between Lyon and Marseille. François sketches his plans, Jean-Baptiste manipulates them on a computer, and then they build a prototype. Beauty and practicality must shine together: the piece is a work of art, but it also needs to be easily transported, safe, and sturdy in all weathers. François, with a twinkle in his eye, says the electrics should seem “like magic”, so he ensures the cables and bulbs are carefully concealed within the design. At night, the works are dazzling, but what about in the daytime? Again TILT want to enhance, not overwhelm. They use iron and lots of wood so that in daylight the works have a quiet beauty, until darkness falls and they come to life. Does François have a favourite? “My favourite is always the last one.”

Christmas at Kew Kew Gardens, London, until January 3rd. TILT will also be at Fête des Lumières in Lyon from December 5th—8th, and Winter Pret in Brussels until January 4th

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