Lamp-shade design did not begin in the late 19th century, but that's when it was elevated beyond mere functionality. Household electricity was becoming increasingly common, so lamp manufacturers started paying attention to the art of lighting indoor spaces. Shades gave lamp makers an opportunity to shine a light on their sense of aesthetics, whether it was to create a romantic background glow or an eye-catching centerpiece.
The century's first lamp shades were generally made for devices that burned kerosene. These simple, cylindrical glass shades were rounded near the lamp base to allow proper oxygen flow to the flame, while also protecting it from drafts. The ability of these lamps to stay lit even in strong winds gave them the nickname “hurricane lamps.” These lamp shades were usually made of clear glass with minimal embellishments such as an etched pattern or border.
By the 1880s, the range of lamp-shade styles increased dramatically with the spread of home-electricity use. Lamp makers looked to Art Nouveau, as well as plant and animal life, to inspire their designs. Manufacturers were soon creating shades in a spectrum of colored glass, either hand-cut into complex patterns or blown into natural forms like flowers.
Some of the most recognizable Art Nouveau lamps were designed by Tiffany Studios, including shades made from iridescent Favrile glass or intricate glass mosaics. Originally conceived by designer Clara Driscoll, Tiffany’s Dragonfly lamp shade is possibly its most famous, featuring miniscule glass pieces in each detailed dragonfly wing. Such shades were created using a leaded-glass technique the company perfected for stained-glass windows.
Tiffany Studios churned out a variety of remarkable designs, including the Nautilus lamp of 1899, whose shade resembled an oversize seashell, and the Wisteria lamp from 1902, with a shade shaped like the dangling blossoms of the wisteria plant. Capitalizing on the Tiffany trend, companies like Duffner & Kimberly, Gorham, and Seuss also created ornate stained-glass shades in the early 20th century.
At the same time, manufacturers like the Handel Company perfected a very different method of reverse-painted lamp shades, whereby an original design was traced onto the interior of a glass shade and finished by hand. Generally featuring scenic landscapes or plant life, shades with reverse-painting were often mounted on unobtrusive bronze, brass, or silver-plated bases. Often conical or dome-shaped, Handel’s pieces featured everything from exotic tropical landscapes to rushing forest streams, applied by its artists to glass shades made by other manufacturers.
Another innovator in reverse-painting, the Pairpoint Corporation, experimented with textured or ribbed glass forms that diffused light in unique ways. One such shade resembled th...
Pioneered in England, slag-glass lamp shades also became popular around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. This style incorporated streaked, opaque glass initially produced by incorporating slag from iron-smelting foundries. The look became common for paneled lamp shades with complicated metal filigree framing each slag-glass segment. Noted slag-glass lamp manufacturers include Bradley Hubbard, Wilkinson, Handel, and Miller.
By the mid-1920s, the clean lines of Art Deco had taken over, bringing trendy new shades with it. Glass innovators in the Bohemian region, now known as the Czech Republic, perfected techniques for creating shades with streaks or flecks of many vibrant hues, a look well suited to a fast paced, machine-age lifestyle. Companies like Loetz, Ruckl, and Kralik created these multi-colored glass masterpieces in circular globes, tulip shapes, or even pointed star shades. Other shades imitated the styles of flapper dresses, made from long silk sheaths ending with loose fringe or detailed fabric borders.
While some lamp producers rushed forward, the Fenton Glass Company looked to the past, reviving a Victorian glass style called Hobnail for its bumpy surface. Fenton adapted the Hobnail technique for electric lamps modeled after gas or kerosene lamps with open-topped, teardrop-shaped glass shades.
After the end of World War II, the geometric forms of Mid-Century Modernism took lamp shades to a new level, shedding detailed ornamentation in favor of pure shapes. Shades made during the 1950s and '60s resembled stacked pyramids or huge cylindrical drums, made from materials like textured fiberglass, bamboo, aluminum, or woven raffia. Such novel forms were embraced by American lamp companies like Moss and Majestic, as well as Scandinavian designers like Louis Poulsen and Poul Henningsen.