Vintage Mid-Century Modern lamps are characterized by simple lines and a fun space-age feel. In general, these lamps are geometric, with globes, hourglasses, and rings being the dominant shapes.
The earliest lamps of the period combined the figurative aesthetics of the the 1930s and ’40s with more familiar mid-century looks. These transitional lamps often featured kitschy plaster or chalkware bases shaped like Nubian slaves or cape-flourishing matadors. Above these painted figures were geometric, two-tiered shades in parchment or fiberglass. Such lamp shades often had stitched edges and were decorated with everything from geometric lines and designs to splatters and squiggles recalling the drip paintings of Abstract-Expressionist artist Jackson Pollock.
Shades like these were also used on ceramic, wrought-iron, and brass bases, whether it was for table lamps or floor lamps. Sometimes fiberglass shades were fashioned in the shapes of flying saucers, while other mid-century shades consisted of only a single ring around a lamp’s light source. Metal shades in black, white, or brushed metal saucer shapes directed light down while cones anchored in pairs as a part of a wall sconce could be aimed.
Furniture designers saw lamps as a way to unify their work with the rest of a room’s furnishings. Thus, George Nelson Associates, whose tables, chairs, and couches designed for the Herman Miller Company are Mid-century Modern classics, made lighting products for Howard Miller, Herman’s son. The most famous of these was probably the Bubble lampshade, produced in 1952. Shaped roughly like a mushroom’s cap, the lamp was made of translucent plastic pulled tight over a wire frame. Collectors should look carefully at the earliest examples of these shades, which had a tendency to yellow.
In Europe, Danish designer Poul Henningsen created a hanging lamp for manufacturer Louis Poulsen. Known as the Artichoke lamp, Henningsen’s steel-plate creation was a contemporary riff on the traditional crystal chandelier. Scandinavian Alvar Aalto went in a more minimalist direction with his Handgranate A 111 lamp, whose pair of white, painted-metal-and-brass cylinders hung from a slender wire.
Italian lamp designs were also illuminating. One atomic-style six-bulb chandelier from 1950 featured a metal globe at its center surrounded by angled brass tubes—the lights at the ends of the tubes suggested protons and neutrons. The Castiglioni brothers excelled at floor lamps like the Luminator (1954), which consisted of little more than a spotlight at the top of a long, vertical, black-metal tube. Other Italian floor lamps from the 1950s were topped by trios of goosenecks, at the ends of which were brass-belted hourglasses in a range of colors and finishes.
One pair of designers who are often incorrectly credited with designing lamps are Charles and Ray Eames. While the Eameses excelled at chairs and other types of furniture, they were content to leave lighting to their fellow designers, and the sun.