Although there is no shortage of mentorship programmes within the creative industries, the relationship between rising lighting designer Mary Wallis and industry stalwart Lindsey Adelman seems particularly organic and profound. Under Adelman’s tutelage, Wallis has risen from intern to senior designer, and Adelman’s company began producing Wallis’ own designs in 2014 – an undisputed coup for any young talent. Having worked together for nine years, the two New Yorkers are not only still in sync but also spur each other on to new heights, going above and beyond the typical mentor-mentee relationship.

When Adelman first interviewed the Australia-born Wallis in 2007, a year into running her own firm, she quickly saw Wallis’ potential. ‘There’s something that separates people who actually pursue art and design: it’s desire. You can’t tell somebody to have that,’ Adelman says. Wallis had been completing her design education at Parsons School of Design and the Pratt Institute in New York, having already earned a PhD in genetics from Cambridge University in the UK. A single trip to a life coach back in Melbourne was enough to convince her to move to the US and pursue her dream of lighting design. ‘One conversation changed my life,’ Wallis says. ‘I was on a plane two weeks later. It was like a ball in a groove – everything fell into place.’

Adelman’s own path was not dissimilar. After majoring in English at Kenyon College, Ohio, she became an editorial assistant at The Smithsonian Institution, discovering industrial design while witnessing how exhibitions were produced. ‘The same thing happened to me. There was this fiery desperation of, “How do I get there?” It all happened in the same week – I found out what industrial design was, someone suggested I go to Rhode Island School of Design, I filled out the application and portfolio – in secret, basically – and sent it in the day before it was due.’

‘Cherry Bomb Frince’ chandelier, by Lindsey Adelman, machined brass, bras chain and hand-blown glas with gold foil

After bonding over their experiences of second acts and a shared view of the world (both are inspired by the overlap between arts and sciences), Adelman hired Wallis to join her fledgling company. ‘Lindsey gave me such confidence just by believing in me before I did. I had no experience in design. I just turned up on her doorstep one day,’ Wallis says. ‘We were just working on mock-ups at that point and everything was by hand, so it was an easy point of entry.’

While working for Adelman, Wallis experimented with her own designs on the side. She launched her own studio in 2012 and presented the first versions of her ‘Empire’ and ‘Edie’ chandeliers, made independently at a shared studio in Brooklyn, at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair later that year. Two years later, as the orders steadily increased, Adelman took over the manufacturing. ‘It seems so monumental, but we really didn’t overthink it,’ Wallis says. ‘I think back now and it was such a significant step, but at the time it was more like, “Oh yeah, we could make it here – that would be easier.”’

Wallis is not the only young design star to have emerged from Adelman’s studio. When Wallis joined, Bec Brittain, now a bright light on the New York design scene, was also on the small team. And Karl Zahn, Adelman’s design director, is establishing a reputation with his lights and wooden sculptures. ‘I think it’s the same way you pick your friends,’ Adelman says. ‘[I like] people who are really lit up – no pun intended. There are a lot of different personalities [in the studio] and we co-exist because everybody wants to make the best work. There’s another big theme, which is people who are comfortable with their talent. They make peace with the fact that they’re talented and don’t need to prove it to you every day. It’s such good energy to be around. The people who have come through my studio would have made it either way. I loved that we overlapped, it was mutually beneficial, and I hope that continues to happen.’

Adelman adds: ‘I think scheduling time for experimentation is such an important part of the [design] process. The designers that I hire pay attention to all the failures that happen in prototype. It’s inconvenient and you usually don’t have the time or money, but it makes the work what it’s supposed to be.’

Despite their aesthetic differences (Wallis exhibits an edgy, Gothic style, while Adelman leans towards the naturalistic and ethereal), there is a shared methodology. ‘This idea of “just keep trying” as part of product development is something I think people have picked up on, as well as the idea that perfection doesn’t exist,’ Adelman says, citing the continual evolution of her designs. ‘You can’t shut things down to wait for things to become perfect.’

At the heart of the connection between Wallis and Adelman is their friendship. ‘Because I follow the same creative methodology, I never felt like I had to break away,’ Wallis says. ‘It’s just fun to have a partner in crime and someone to talk to about what’s happening.’ ‘I think something that drives us as women in design is that you just want to know that there’s someone else going out on a limb for you,’ Adelman adds. ‘It’s much more fun and enjoyable when you have a girlfriend out there.’

As originally featured in the October 2017 issue of Wallpaper* (W*223)