According to designer Ron Arad, calling Ingo Maurer's lights `systems' is like calling Shakespeare's sonnets `typesetting'. Lauris Morgan-Griffiths meets the head of the new illuminati. Portrait by Philip Sinden
Light has always fascinated Ingo Maurer. He was brought up on an island in Lake Constance, Germany, the son of a fisherman, later turned inventor, and remembers as a child watching light playing on water, reflecting on walls, moving and changing according to the weather and the time of day. Maurer is as entranced by it now, some 60 years later.

As advanced as his lighting is, Maurer strives to produce something lyrical while hiding the technology. There is a deep intelligence and humanity about his work. Fellow designer Ron Arad says: "Calling Ingo's light installations `systems' is like calling Shakespeare's sonnets `typesetting'."

His work seduces all but the very hard-boiled and rarely fails to raise a smile. The chandelier, Birds Birds Birds, is a flamboyant flock of birds swooping and rising; One From The Heart is a romantic robust heart that reflects a delicate smaller heart; Horny Philippe has a quiet precision. His sense of fun comes out to play in Don Quixote, which has a black wimple-like shade bringing to mind a nun, bottom stuck out, poised at the top of a ski run.

For the past two years at the Cologne Furniture Fair he has taken over the interior of a bridge spanning the Rhine and thrown a party in it. The first year was a fantastical shock: party-goers crawled through the small entrance and walked through the bridge with dry ice swirling around them and candles suspended on wires appearing to float in the darkness.

Ingo Maurer is a handsome man, his grey hair parted and tumbling on to his forehead. On the day I met him at the Viaduct Furniture store in London he was fighting some dreaded lurgy, but when he talked about his work his passion rose above his fever. At 66, he is lagging a good 10 years behind his age; humour lines are etched around his eyes but his cheeks and forehead are baby smooth. Whatever pact he has made with whoever, it is serving him well.

A graphic designer by trade, Maurer's first light, The Bulb, was conceived in a Venice hotel in 1966. As he lay on a rocky mountain of a mattress "that could have told many stories", he looked up at the naked bulb dangling above and literally saw the light: the idea to encase a light bulb within a light bulb flashed into his head.

"Then I was interested in shape, not light; now it's the other way round," he says. "Although not neglecting shape, I now think it is the quality of light that is more important." Maurer feels that many of today's designers are still stuck on the idea of shape. "A decorative light, for me, is not enough. I also like it to be functional. Light is a service but it should also make us happy in spirit."

Ingo Maurer treads a solitary path. Designing by instinct, he is largely immune to the vagaries of fashion and taste, which explains why the lights he designed some 20 years ago don't look dated. "I am not interested in good taste. It can't be calculated. Good taste for me is working on the edge."

There is more than a little of the enfant terrible in him. One of his chandeliers is called the Porca Miseria, an Italian expletive whose gentlest translation would be something like "Oh shit". It is a cacophony of crockery, crashing in slow motion. He made one for the director of a well-known German fashion label. "It was a point of protest against a hygienically sterile, stainless-steel kitchen," he explains.

When it was installed there was a small quibble over cost. Maurer suggested a deal: if there were no comments about the lights at the man's birthday party then they could discuss the fee. The bill was settled in full.

For his latest designs, The MaMo Nouchies, he has returned to his other love - paper. He was first seduced by its versatility in Japan when he designed lights that took advantage of the Uchiwa fan-makers' delicate skills. The paper for these lights is intricately folded by hand. Designed as a tribute to Isamu Noguchi, an earlier genius with paper lights (copies can be found in Habitat), Maurer has incorporated part of his name into the MaMo Nouchies. (The `Mo' is for Dogmar Mombach who invented the technique.) Tightly pleated, the paper is then made into elemental shapes, some phallic, some embryonic.

Constantly in demand for private commissions, Maurer's choices can be idiosyncratic. If he likes the personalities involved, he can be persuaded to illuminate festivals, the Tel Aviv Opera House, a Metro station or church. "Design," he says, "is a serious business. But you have to have fun"

An exhibition of Ingo Maurer's lights is at MOMA, New York until January 19 1999. His lights are available from Viaduct Furniture, 1-10 Summer's Street, London EC1, 0171-278 8456. For stockists outside London ring Catalytico on 0171-225 1720