Bright Ideas

Lamps can put your decor in its best light, without dimming your budget.

FOCUS ON LAMPS What to look for before buying:

March 19, 2000|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff

Think of the difference in mood set by a softly glowing Tiffany lamp and a bright-as-daylight halogen torchiere. Or the difference in a room with a retro lava light and one with a classic, cut-crystal lamp.

That difference is table lamps -- one of the most important, and frequently one of the most neglected, items in your house. They're a key to your decorating style or personality.

"Lamps are like hats," says Joe Bowers, an interior designer with Rita St. Clair Associates Inc. in Baltimore. "They're really individual, and they really have to suit the space they're in."

And yet, important as they are, until fairly recently it was hard to find good, stylish AND inexpensive lighting. Cheap lamps were usually garish, over-painted pottery with plastic shades, or some grotesquely overdone knock-off of a more expensive item.

The lights began to come on, so to speak, when Swedish household furnishings giant IKEA invaded America a couple of decades ago, selling mostly clean-lined, modern-looking lamps at stunningly low prices. Minneapolis-based Target has always made taste a priority.

Kristin Knach, a representative for the mass marketer, says Target tries to differentiate itself from competitors by offering good design at an affordable price. "It's a goal of ours to offer trend products and trend designs."

But while Target and IKEA have always been inexpensive and design-savvy, today most housewares stores sell a wide variety of reasonably priced and stylishly designed lamps. Even with a budget of $100 or less, you can find some beauties.

Among our favorites at the stores we surveyed

*The Dale Tiffany Mission, a 15 1/2 -inch metal base and a square, multicolored, faux leaded glass shade, $79.96. Service Merchandise (5210 Campbell Blvd. in White Marsh).

*A child's lamp with a simple black metal stick base and a shade made of stiffened cloth. The shade comes in several shapes: VW Beetles, rocket ships and daisies (from $25-$35). There were smaller versions with no base, in the shape of clouds, fish, stars and a grinning moon ($9.99). Colors are bright primaries and lime green. At Target, various locations.

*A tall, slender fixture with a classical urn-shaped base that looks like weathered stone, $59.99; and a kind of medieval lamp with a bronze-metal oval base and lantern-like fixture in metal and faux mica, $59.99, at Waccamaw's HomePlace (5240 Campbell Blvd. in White Marsh).

*A gorgeous blue glass lamp base called Etyd ($39.95) with a basket weave fiber shade called Aska ($12) at IKEA, also at White Marsh. The base has its own candelabra bulb, so it glows mysteriously. Who knows, it could become the lava light of the new millennium.

What to look for before buying:

*Make sure the lamp is UL-listed (which means it meets electrical standards) and check the maximum wattage bulb it will take. You might not want a reading lamp with a 60-watt bulb.

*Is the switch placement right for you, and something you can use easily? Push or rocker switches, rather than the little knobs you have to turn, are easier on arthritic hands.

*Make sure the base is stable, and doesn't surprise you with how much room it takes up on a surface. (This tip is based on personal experience with a lamp intended for a narrow space: The tripod base, which looked so delicate, was almost as wide as the shade.)

*If you're choosing base and shade separately, make sure the sizes are proportionate, and be careful not to choose a shade that makes the lamp top-heavy.

*Check the workmanship; cheap shouldn't mean nasty. Although an inexpensive fixture isn't likely to become an heirloom like that genuine Tiffany your grandmother held on to, it does make it easy to change your mind and get something else. (Those cute cloth kiddie shades probably won't last -- and probably aren't intended to last -- till the kid gets to high school.)

*If you have children or animals, you might want to avoid bases or shades that could shatter if there's an accident. Bent metal can be straightened and torn shades can be replaced.

*Scale is another element in choosing the height of a lamp: It should be proportioned so it suits the surface and the decor around it.

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