For lamps, it's what's on top that counts

September 25, 1994|By Elaine Markoutsas | Elaine Markoutsas,Universal Press Syndicate

How are you lighting up these days? We mean the rooms in your home, of course.

In recent years, table lamps have made a big comeback, illuminating dark corners or simply adding warmth to a room. In the past, emphasis was on the bases. Now it's on the shades.

In addition to fabric to match your sofa, if you like, or paper that may be hand-painted, metal-leafed or otherwise decorated, there are metal, mesh, high-tech plastics, glass and even mosaic shades from which to choose. Many of these shades are designed for specific bases, with attention to proportion, height, color and type of bulb and mounting used. Bought separately, a new shade can give an old lamp a fresh attitude.

Not long ago, the lamp shade's primary function was to shield eyes from the glare of a light bulb. An A-line was the basic shape; linen, silk, synthetic fabric blends or parchment the most common materials; and the surface was flat or pleated.

To be sure, there have been glimmers of shade glory, with gorgeous art lamps such as the stained glass of Louis Comfort Tiffany or the hand-painted beauty of French art nouveau artist Emile Galle or Philip Handel, where shade and base enjoyed equal artistic billing. Since the originals are so expensive (some command up to $30,000 at auction and in antiques galleries) and the look remains appealing, reproductions continue to be made.

Part of the excess of Victoriana included ornate lamp shades dripping with ornamentation such as fringe. These shades dressed up bases that sometimes were equally florid.

When Highland House added to its Contemporary Cottage Collection last April, the furniture manufacturer paid attention to the lamp silhouette and shade chosen for one of its room settings. Bold shapes and fabrics that incorporate bright splashes of color -- cobalt blue, canary yellow, bottle green and chili-pepper red -- were combined in a distinctive high-hat shade.

On one red table, for example, there's a lithe, sinuous lamp from Altamira Lighting, patterned in a checkerboard of blue and white and capped with a sunny shade that reflects a stripe in the sofa fabric, sunflowers on pillows and fresh flowers in a vase. The color and the shape of the lamp and its shade are arresting.

Among the more radical evolutions of shade design is shape.

That high-hat shade shape has become the signature of Van Teal Inc. in Miami. The simple, elongated and streamlined form often is finished in metal leaf (gold, silver or copper) and teamed with acrylic or metal bases that add color and geometry.

Forms that are light-years away from the standard often are crafted by artists. Art Donovan, whose Donovan Designs is just 2 years old, hand-paints his shades, which are crafted from spun filament. The material is flame-proof, tear-resistant, waterproof and sealed with an ultraviolet inhibitor to prevent color fading.

Mr. Donovan's designs recall art deco, and because of the distinctive silhouettes and patterns of his shades, he does not like to sell them separately. A former designer for Deskey Associates, Mr. Donovan has recaptured some of the spirit of the '30s and '40s with his shades.

His Amadeus sports a crescent moon cap, particularly striking in pale indigo edged in black. Its base is solid maple finished in satin black and detailed with a gold enamel pinstripe and a hand-painted brass medallion. The lamp, which takes a 25-watt bulb, stands 18 1/2 inches tall, and the shade is 15 inches wide; it sells for $575.

Form also distinguishes the lamps of Fire Farm Inc., an Oakland, Calif.-based manufacturer that uses metal. The Femmesh lamp designed by Beth Meredith is intriguing because it is familiar yet has an unexpected execution.

It's woven in brass mesh, more often used as an industrial fabric for filtering, straining or strengthening. NASA uses a similar material as a strengthening agent for its space shuttles. The Femmesh, which resembles a scrunched mushroom, stands 20 inches tall, and its floppy hat-like shade has a 24-inch diameter at the top. It retails for $250.

The Fire Farm artists like the malleability of the mesh. "You can make sculptures," said Fire Farm's Adam Pollock. "You can crush the fabric to make it look soft or crease it. It holds its shape when you fold it."

Some of Fire Farm's shades resemble starched hankies, one flung on top of the other. A few combine metals for a two-toned effect. All bases are simple.

Mesh shades obviously introduce a textural element to lamps as well as the opportunity for light play. Other textures may be created with materials not usually associated with lamp shades.

Jean-Charles Sprunger's Artlamps feature one-of-a-kind shades crafted with hundreds of sea shells, hand-wrapped in copper and bound with lead. The leading enhances the pattern. Shells vary from the size of a snail to 6 inches in diameter.

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