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Author: Chris Yeo

Date: 27th December, 2017


Light Fantastic

Let there be light! The humble table lamp might seem to be little more than a decorative afterthought. Not so. They’re a vital part of an interior. “Antiques Roadshow” expert Chris Yeo, shines a light on some current trends in vintage lighting.

There are certain things in life that require careful thought: finding the best mortgage deal; the right job offer; whether or not to say “I do”. Yet, amongst the maelstrom of decisions that keep us awake at night who would think choosing the right sort of lighting as being amongst them? Well me, for one. You may well accuse me of having an easy life but think about it. Who amongst us hasn’t suffered the indignity of being invited into someone’s home only to be ushered into a room so harshly lit that it would have a KGB interrogator reaching for the dimmer switch? I like to think of my, ahem, let’s call them laughter lines, as the badge of a happy life but I’d rather they weren’t all available for everyone else’s close scrutiny. Truthfully, to subject our guests and loved ones (let alone ourselves) to such treatment is tantamount to abuse. I truly believe that we should all be afforded the courtesy of being properly lit. That said, the job of finding the right lighting can seem like a minefield – take your pick from task, ambient or accent. Even then it’s not just a question of settling on the right sort of lighting but also finding the right sort of lamp. So this week I’d like you to consider the humble, or, as I hope you’ll agree, not so humble table lamp.

You’ll have heard it said before but it really is true: the right lighting can transform a room. To talk technical for a moment, interior lighting is generally divided into three main types: task, ambient and accent. Task lighting does what it says on the tin, a light for you to achieve specific goals or to aid you in poorly lit areas. Ambient lighting plays the part of daylight and is usually provided by a central pendant light. Used on its own ambient lighting creates a bland flat effect so it requires an additional element to give a sense of depth and shade. This is where accent lighting – in the form of table lamps, uplighters and standard lamps – comes in. Lamps bring focus to an interior, create pools of light, providing a softer illumination than overhead lighting and are the essential ingredient for a restful and welcoming space.

Given the critical role of accent lighting it’s remarkable just how recently it stopped being regarded as an almost optional add-on. Fortunately, the days when a single ball-shaped china lampbase plonked on a gypsy table are long behind us. The key with accent lighting is to do it with confidence. Current trends in vintage lighting are less about the Victorian brass and glass affairs so beloved by our parents than the sleek streamlined contours of the 20th century modern movement. There’s also plenty of scope for self-expression and a bit of (whisper it) fun. In today’s interiors a well-chosen lamp is as much an artwork as a lighting source.

The electric light is now so woven into the fabric of everyday life that it’s easy to take for granted the fact that the ability to turn night into day at the mere flick of a switch has only been with us for around 130 years – a mere blip in the great stream of human history. For well over a thousand years – from the Romans to the Georgians – the way houses were lit hardly changed at all. The home was a very dark place, lit by day by windows so small and narrow that the sun could barely be seen and by night from the light of the glowing fire and one or two meagre tallow candles which burned with a dull sooty flame. Only the most wealthy could afford beeswax candles and but even then the cost was so high meant that even the rich would make do with having only two or three candles in a large room most of the time. For most folk, in a not too dissimilar way to their cave dwelling forebears, the rhythm of life was beaten out by the rising and setting of the sun. But after Thomas Edison patented the first light bulb in 1879 our lives – and our homes – were changed forever. It was the end of the dark ages.

From the moment Edison’s bulb flickered into life fashion and lighting have been joined at the hip. From the languid excesses of bronze art nouveau desk lamps to the stained glass extravaganzas of Louis Comfort Tiffany, designers and decorators relished the idea of making a stylish statement at the flick of a switch. But it wasn’t until the 1920s and the arrival of Bauhaus designers like Eileen Grey that lighting design really developed a modern identity of its own. After the end of World War II, the geometric forms of Mid-Century Modernism took lighting to a new level, shedding detailed ornamentation in favour of pure shapes. These 20th century design pioneers of modernism had a mantra: form follows function.

Mid-century designers had a dictum: form follows function, in practice this meant no excess decoration and unnecessary flourishes. In less capable hands it’s a mantra that might have resulted in some very boring lighting. Fortunately the emerging talent of Europe and America responded with verve and imagination and, in their hands, lamps became a form of sculpture in their own right. From the 1950s to the 1970s lighting became one of the most effective vehicles for the sleek international style. With the current trend for mid-century still burning white hot, lighting from this period looks set to be in vogue for quite some time to come. Mid-century designers revelled in the creative possibilities offered by new materials, especially plastics. Lucite was the brand name for a clear acrylic plastic resembling glass or rock crystal, which really took off in the 1950s. This lightweight material was easy to mould and carve and was an instant hit for everything from costume jewellery to furniture and, of course, lighting. Lucite gives an instant hit of space age glamour, as intoxicating now as it ever was.

In France a quite different interpretation of mid-century modernism was being fashioned. As France emerged from the ravages of the Second World War, French designers returned to doing what they did best – high style. It was a look based on opulence, glamour and the traditional Parisian love of luxury and, when it came to lighting, their talents truly shone. Leading the way were the two titans of the French design scene Maison Jansen and its rival Maison Charles. Both brands had their roots in the Paris of the early 1900s – when the city was, fittingly known as the “city of light” – and both specialised in a type of lighting design that looked back to the ancient regime traditions of the marchands merciers – the great dealers in luxury goods to the French court. Where the Modernists had recoiled in horror at the idea of decoration, these great decorators revelled in it. Bronze, brass and ormolu were the materials of choice and they used the language of classicism to produce modern masterpieces. Their lamps were constructed with the attention to craftsmanship and quality normally reserved for fine jewellery. Where they led others followed and soon the ateliers of the French capital were filling up with lamps fashioned as palm trees, ostrich eggs and pineapples in bronze and ormolu. This might sound like the stuff of kitschy nightmares but in the right hands a lamp becomes a thing of beauty – playful, classic and sculptural. The warm metallics favoured by these French designers add texture and warm reflections to modern interiors.

For those whose tastes veer away from the refinement of the Parisian decorators, other options are available. And some come from the most unlikely sources. There was a time when the only place one would find a fire extinguisher was where one expected to find a fire extinguisher. These days you might well encounter one – a vintage version, emptied of its contents, I should add – pressed into service as a lamp base. After many long years of “international deluxe hotel” being the governing force in interiors we are starting to embrace the dramatic, the individual and the quirky. Not so long ago a clever wag realised there was a whole welter of objects – industrial, architectural or just plain weird – that could enjoy a second life as lamp bases. This is statement lighting taken to another level but for anyone wanting to inject a dose of individuality into their interior what could be better than a lamp fashioned from a 1920s candlestick telephone or piece of iron railing?

Classic, playful, glamourous and surreal, today’s lighting offers something for all tastes. When it comes to success with lighting remember that fortune always favours the bold, so go theatrical. Then switch on, sit back and relax in your newly illuminated surroundings. Who would have thought table lamps could offer so much?