It was only after Thomas Edison and other inventors perfected the light bulb, that the engineers moved aside, and allowed designers to start thinking about how to domesticate artificial lighting without pretending that it was candlelight.
They tamed the bulb itself with a shade that could deal with glare. Then they had to think about how the lamp would look, not just with the power switched on but as an object that was simply sitting there, minding its own business when it wasn’t in use.
They worked with the mechanical aspects of fabricating a light that could move smoothly under fingertip pressure, the tactile way in which a switch performs, as well as the quality of light filtering through opaque glass.
It’s a rich selection of ingredients that has allowed a remarkable latitude in reinventing the basic form of the light fitting to create what can only be understood as sculpture.
Light fittings are defined by three categories: it starts with lamps that are designed to stand on the floor. The next steps up to table level to include desk lamps while the third category is made up of lamps that hang from the ceiling.
Some designers produce versions of a single design in all three forms. It’s what Danish architect Arne Jacobsen did in 1960 when he created furniture, cutlery and lighting for the SAS hotel in Copenhagen. His elegant lamps, with their distinctive chamfered cones, come in different versions to sit on the floor, on a desk, or to project from the ceiling.
Floor lights are often the most spectacular because of their scale. Italian brothers Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni made the Arco as a refined piece of minimalist sculpture, with an arc of chromed steel soaring out of a block of white carrera marble. It stands in free space, directing light where it is needed, and keeping clear of walls and ceilings.
Within these three basic categories, a number of archetypes has emerged over the years. The most visible is the adjustable desk lamp that goes back to the original Anglepoise of 1933. It was George Carwardine who patented the spring on which the Anglepoise depends for its fluid movements. He licensed production of the lamp to the Terry family, who are still making the Anglepoise’s descendants today after a number of refinements.
The Anglepoise was followed in Scandinavia by the Luxo Light and much later by Richard Sapper, who worked with the Italian company Artemide to make the Tizio in 1972. Instead of springs, Sapper used hinges, counterbalances, and a lightweight structure, with a heavy base for stability. He gave the lamp a matt black finish, with a red rocker switch. A decade and a half later, Michele de Lucchi produced yet another variation, again with no springs, using instead a system of counterbalancing cables.
Most recently, Jake Dyson, son of Sir James Dyson of vacuum cleaner fame, has come up with a new take on the adjustable desk lamp: the CSYS, which uses light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and a crane-like structure, based on bearings that allow the light arm to slide from side to side and up and down.
With the exception of Carwardine, who was an engineer, most memorable lights, like most memorable chairs, have been designed by architects or furniture designers. They use them to encapsulate the language of their architecture. Zaha Hadid’s Vortexx is a good example, and an impressive piece of light sculpture: shaped like a tornado, the chandelier is fitted with miniature LED lights.
Very few designers work only with light; the most impressive exception being the German designer Ingo Maurer, who has spent the past 40 years exploring ever more inventive and playful ways to turn light into an art form. One of his most spectacular chandeliers is Porca Miseria, an explosion of broken crockery and cutlery that captures the moment when a waiter’s tray crashes to the floor.
Technically, artificial light as Edison knew it has changed beyond recognition. It is now possible to light a room without using any visible light fittings at all. A flat ceiling can be made to produce optimal lighting conditions for any time of day or night, without so much as a single bulb, tube or switch.
But these technical possibilities have done nothing to diminish the fascination that we have for the light fitting as an engaging object, even if it is on the edge of being made technologically redundant.
As its functional attributes have faded, the lamp has attracted the attention of collectors and museums. The Vitra Design Museum in Germany was originally rooted in an obsessive interest in the chair. Recently it has turned its attention to collecting lights of all kinds. Museum founder Rolf Fehlbaum has been acquiring lamps that reflect particular stylistic moments. Ettore Sottsass’s Ashoka lamp is a kind of altarpiece that marked the high watermark of the Memphis explosion of colour and playful shape-making of the 1960s; Eileen Gray’s chrome and glass tube light dating from 1927 still looks like the embodiment of modernity.
Just as you don’t actually need it to tell the time, but can still enjoy owning a wristwatch, so the light fitting has become an artefact that designers go on creating as the kind of seductive object that we collect and use to define the spaces in which we live.
Deyan Sudjic is director of the Design Museum in London