For almost two decades, visual artist Stephen Hennessy has fashioned spectacular custom light fittings for civic, commercial and residential interiors in his home town of Melbourne.

Ranging from freestanding sculptural works to monumental chandeliers of technical ingenuity, Hennessy’s fixtures grace the walls, floors and ceilings of some of Melbourne’s most prominent buildings, such as the Museum of Immigration and Hellenic Archaeology, the Shrine of Remembrance and Port Melbourne Public Library. Other works shine in Adelaide and Sydney.

Hennessy’s move into the field of lighting design began in the late 1980s, when he became acquainted with the architect Allan Powell. With a commission to create a mural for Powell’s Caffé Maximus already in hand, Hennessy offered to design two large lamps for the cafe himself when asked by the architect if he could recommend a lighting designer.

Over the years, Hennessy’s lamps have blossomed in scale. He recently completed a 33-foot-wide circular chandelier – his largest one to date – for the Adelaide Casino. Part of a group of five, it “looks like a jet engine port engine,” he says.

His earliest works were far from monumental in size. Taking his cue from Brancusi’s figurative sculptures and Cycladic Art, Hennessy’s first lamps resembled primitive wooden masks. The curved birch-ply forms hung away from the wall, their sinuous edges casting shadowy patterns around the light fixture. Since then he has repeatedly reworked this idea of pattern-making with light and shadow.

At the start of each project, Hennessy receives a broad-brush idea about the design from the architects. He then proceeds to find “one or two unique discoveries about the interaction of light and materials.” This part of the creative process bears a similarity to the search for a Principal Design Component, as adopted by Italian architect and designer Achille Castiglioni, whose influential work Hennessy admires.

After visiting a proposed site for the light fittings, he begins making drawings and models. “I tend to make many small and large-scale models,” Hennessy says, “in everything from cardboard to aluminum, to see how it works as a sculptural object. At the same time I conduct light-level tests.” Where added precision is required, he turns to computer design software for help. And the outcome of the process can be quite different from what the architects expected.

When the interior calls for it, his work can be sleek, modern and boxy. Functional and built from matt anodized aluminum, Heat Lamp was designed for the Docklands Stadium Medallion Club Restaurant. Meanwhile, formal minimalism recurs in his design for the laminated glass-and-steel chandeliers that hang in the beige, black and cream contemporary chic interior of the Crown Promenade Hotel lobby.

Expressed through the use of cuts, slits, slots and perforations in the component parts of his ever-increasingly complex metal light fittings, Hennessy’s artistic language continues to develop through his experiments with a palette of materials that includes acrylic, aluminum and steel. The materials may be folded, wrapped and woven around the light source. To modify the quality of light, surfaces are sanded and brushed to create “shimmering and sparkling effects,” says Hennessy. The ribbon of brass, for example, that he used to make the lamps for Fidel’s Cigar Club tapers downward “to create an exotic skin, a crazy couture,” he says. “It is exotic without referencing a specific place, using the alluring and wild play of light to direct attention to the object itself.”

Unlike his mixed-media artworks, which deal with the complex issues of meaning, content and form, Hennessy’s lighting designs are intended to have more of a symbolic ‘life-giving’ presence. “The design of objects comes down to a certain amount of function and a certain amount of beauty,” he explains. “I’ve enjoyed delving into industrial design because it’s fairly free from the heavier concerns of art.”

The look of Hennessy’s earliest work was guided by his interest in representational art, and his latest designs possess geometries that abstractedly evoke images from the natural world. The three-tier chandeliers in the Crown Casino on Melbourne’s South Bank bring to mind glowing sea urchins. Hennessy calls them “monstrous jewels.” They lend the lobby and bar area a sense of grandeur. Hoisted into position eight years ago, the chandeliers were Hennessy’s first large commercial undertaking. His designs have since become more ambitious, and he is not afraid to think big. But no matter how great the scale of the work, his lights still manage to complement rather than dominate a space.