The return of the table lamp: Its new looks are light years away from minimal

July 05, 1992|By Elaine Markoutsas | Elaine Markoutsas,Contributing Writer

The table lamp has always been an icon of traditional decorating. Whether shining in the window or glowing softly by an easy chair, table lamps, with their warmth, simplicity and convenience, are a symbol of home.

But with the minimalist movement of the '70s, the table lamp became a less important part of home decor. Sparer interiors meant fewer tables on which to place lamps, and the trend demanded track or recessed lighting with the light lifted off the floor and out of the way. With baby boomers growing up and settling down, however, there has been a return to traditional decorating. The boomers know that comfort and convenience mean, among other things, having a table next to every sofa and every chair for a cup of coffee, a magazine or a drink -- and, of course, a lamp.

We are rediscovering the aesthetic qualities of table lamps as well. Table lamps shower rooms with pools of light and warmth. These islands of light add the kind of glow that is not possible with track lights or floor lamps that shine up.

"Which would you prefer when you come home at night?" asks Nancy Christensen, a residential light expert at General Electric. "A downlight or the soft light emanating from the shade of a lamp? There's a warm, luminous quality you just can't get from anything but a portable lamp."

A range of styles complement almost any decorating mode. In addition to traditional forms fashioned after ordinary objects -- such as metal canisters or ceramic ginger jars, columns or the cherished classic candlestick -- there are geometric or sculptural shapes that are arresting.

New finishes include mottled, crackled or brushed metal and a selection of painted and textured surface treatments. Materials are mixed: woodand ceramic, metal and stone. And, finally, designers are topping lamps with shades that don't look like those our grandmother had.

As with the furniture in a living space, not all lamps in a room need to match. Placing a different lamp at each end of a table can enhance an eclectic design and create an illuminated sculptural effect.

It's important when mixing styles to maintain a consistency of scale. Consider size and proportion. Don't buy a lamp that towers over the table it rests on or team a minuscule squat lamp with an oversized table. Avoid extremes in proportion.

Works of art

Some of the new lamps are true works of art, as many artists have adapted their sculpting, ceramic work and painting into forms used as bases, an approach similar to one taken by interior designers, who long have customized lamp bases by incorporating antiques such as tinware, ornate candlesticks or figures.

Artists are creating one-of-a-kind lamps that celebrate ornament for ornament's sake. Sculptor Harry Anderson, for example, concocted a floor lamp out of Fiestaware. Its base is a plate, and rising from its gooseneck is its light source, connected through a cup resting on a saucer turned on its side.

Where might such a whimsical lamp go? It might seem perfectly at home next to a plain country pine table, an unexpected contrast between levity and near severity. Some new styles encourage unexpected placements. Artist Winifred Ross, for example, designs "somewhere between Italian slick and traditional." Her striking lamps are elongated, with petite tailored shades that are well-proportioned for their geometric bases, crafted from a mix of materials including wood and ceramics.

The shades often are painted in vivid rich hues or coated in gold leaf, and the bases may be brightly colored or unexpectedly striped. One cobalt obelisk base is punctuated with a sculpted star. Ms. Ross, who describes her lamps as "very elegant, but with a sense of humor," likes it best when a traditional interior is "thrown off" by her lamps.

This contrast often creates high style. For instance, a fringed, leaded-glass Tiffany-style lamp will stand out on sleek lacquer, while a bold contemporary lamp of painted metal can look striking on a traditional table.

Metal a favorite

Metal is a favorite material these days, because artists and manufacturers have developed a variety of finishes, including painted, oxidized and brushed, which can change the appearance dramatically.

The elegant metal lamps of New Orleans artist Mario Villa demonstrate his craft of manipulating bronze and copper. Although the workmanship is serious, there's a playful quality to the pieces.

Mr. Villa's furniture and lamp designs have classical roots as well as references from his native Nicaragua. Branches, swags, dragonflies and palmettos frequently appear as design elements. One new bronze lamp titled "Euridice" draws from the Greek ideal of the perfect body. It's a sculptural art lamp that has a modern attitude, and, as Mr. Villa sees it, it could as easily complement an 18th century French-style bergere as it could a leather-and-chrome Mies van der Rohe chaise.

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