When we think of Art Deco, we typically conjure images of streamlined architectural masterpieces like the Chrysler Building, sleek Ruhlmann furniture, or locomotive engines designed by Raymond Loewy. The lines are predominantly straight, the shapes tend to be symmetrical, and the overall appearance is one of elegant efficiency.
But there’s another, more sensuous side to Art Deco, especially in the lamps created during the 1920s and ’30s. In these decorative objects, nude female figurines stand or recline alongside illuminated globes. Many of these Art Deco lamps, on bases that ranged from alabaster to marble, were openly erotic, taking their visual cues from the showgirl culture of the Moulin Rouge in the Montmartre district of Paris. Indeed, some of these figures rendered in bronze and gilded metal might as well have been modeled after the great Josephine Baker.
One well-known designer of these lamps was A.R. Gerdago, who was famous for his Pixie lamps, in which bronze harlequins appeared to play hacky sack with millefiori globes. The Spaniard Enrique Molins Balleste was another prominent Art Deco artist. He made a name for himself in Paris, where he produced female figurines in a zinc alloy called spelter, which were then gilded in silver or gold (frosted glass was a typical Balleste choice for his lamp’s globes).
In the United States, Ronson Art Metal Works of New York produced Art Deco figural lamps with Egyptian themes. Ronson’s Egyptian Moon lamp is one of numerous lamps from the period to mine that mythical terrain—some depicted Cleopatra herself. Even Aladdin got into the act, creating Art Deco lamps whose glass bases were graced by female forms that were not too subtly lifted from the sketchbooks of René Lalique.
Of course, lamps with unclad women were not the only sorts of light fixtures produced during Art Deco. Animals were also common, singly or in pairs—gazelles were especially popular. In an assignment for Sheaffer pens, designer Norman Bel Geddes made lamps that vaguely resembled cobras. Then there were the geometric lamps, whose shades suggested Mayan pyramids, with their rows upon rows of staggered steps.
Finally, Frankart lamps combined both Art Deco impulses. For Frankart’s main sculptor and designer, Arthur von Frankenberg, it was not uncommon to combine nude female figurines with skyscraper-inspired or crystalline-shaped shades. Sometimes a lone green figure would hold a flying-saucer-like disc of frosted glass; other times pairs of figurines combined forces to lift a cylinder or rectangle of soft light high into the air.