1950s lamps – Luminescent modernist sculptures

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Petra Bjelica
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All around the world, the 1950s were characterized by renovation and jubilant inventions, following the basic principles of mass production, utility, and the idea that form should follow function.

Designers of this period enjoyed using modern industrial materials and designing sophisticated and sturdy sculptural forms. From organic shapes to minimalist, machine-like constructions and exuberant colors, 1950s lamps reflect the aesthetic of the decade.

On the other hand, lighting history was shaped by its own contributors and determinants – a mix of economy, tradition, architecture, and a desire for novelty. The 50s brought fluorescent, halogen, and incandescent lamps as well the burst of innovation in lighting as a response to the hardships of the previous decade. In general, lamps came in simple geometric lines and swerving silhouettes, with a fun touch of what later evolved into Space Age design.

Mid-century modern lamp design. Author: Nancy <I’m gonna SNAP!, CC by 2.0

And even though you could often find kitschy models with painted figures and ring shades made of parchment or fiberglass, the decade of the 50s will also be remembered for its sophisticated design and iconic furniture.

Vintage lamp inside the Lustron Home at the 1950s exhibit at the Ohio History Center Museum in Columbus, Ohio, Author: Sam Howzit, CC by 2.0

The aesthetic concepts for this era varied throughout the world. America was more orientated towards consumerism and commercial culture. Besides, the modernism of mid-century design was influenced by more conservative domestic values. In Europe, leading lighting designers originated from countries like France, Finland, and Denmark. However, Italy has produced some most exciting and most memorable pieces.

Small 1950s Vintage Mid Century Desk Lamp, Author: Aoife Ni Mhathuna, CC by 2.0

A design competition held by the New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1941 was crucial to American design in the 50s and 60s. The contest was titled ‘Organic design in Home Furnishing’ and it brought to prominence influential names such as Charles and Ray Eames, Harry Bertoia, Florence Knoll, and George Nelson. Nelson’s stunning but simple table lamp made from chrome-plated aluminum was created in 1955. Named Half-Nelson, it had an adjustable reflector and a futuristic appearance. Harry Bertoia, a painter, sculptor, and furniture designer known for his 1952 wire furniture collection, created some remarkable lamps as well, including a metal wire spray table lamp. Bertoia worked for Knoll International, which as well as Herman Miller, was among the most important manufacturers that distributed and sold his and many other’s products.

Lamp inside a bedroom at the Lustron Home at the 1950s exhibit at the Ohio History Center Museum in Columbus, Ohio, Author: Sam Howzit, CC by 2.0

In Paris, Pierre Guariche and Serge Mouille both studied at the School of Applied Arts and became prominent names in lighting design. Mouille believed that lamps should be moved and touched, thus he created minimalistic but rotating multi-armed fixture lamps. Guarishe’s design is similarly minimalistic but features varied forms and vibrant colors.

Serge Mouille Three-Arm Standing Lamp, Author: SergeMouilleUSA, CC-by-sa-4.0

Scandinavian lamp design was distinctively intellectual, featuring simple and elegant forms. Poul Henningsen was a Danish architect, literary critic, and godfather of modernistic design, one of the leading intellectual figures between the two world wars. In 1958 he designed the famous hanging Artichoke lamp with its multilayered shades resembling the vegetable. Made of copper and painted metal, this lamp was a contemporary echo of a crystal chandelier. Another Danish model that became very famous is the iconic AJ table lamp, created by Arve Jacobson in 1960. It has an interesting detail to it – a hole at the base was intended for use as an ashtray.

Poul Henningsen’s famous Artichoke lamp, Author: Heinz Mittler, CC by 2.0

Prominent designers from Finland included Yki Nummi with his plastic and acrylic ‘Modern Art table light’ in 1955, Lisa Johannson-Pape with a sandblasted and mold-blown elegant table model in 1954, and the famous Alvaro Alto. Alto’s preferences included organic elements, curved forms, and warm sensibility, which can be seen in his well-known Beehive ceiling lamp from 1953.

Another design from 1952 is markedly different and modeled in the shape of a hand grenade. In the design of the Hangranate A111 lamp, Alto turned to a more minimalistic approach, creating only a cylinder hanging from a wire. Last but not least, Paavo Tynell was an industrial designer who worked mostly in polished brass and created some models that became very popular in the United States. In April this year, his vintage model was auctioned for more than $250,000 and broke the record for the work of Finnish designers.

1950s Italian lamp design, Author: Franco Dal Molin, CC BY 2.0

Italian design is known internationally for its elegance. At the time, Milan was the center of the designer’s creative explosion of new daring work. Leading companies were Arteluce, Arredoulce and Stilnovo (named for dolce stil novo, the literary movement Dante inspired in the 13th century). Stilnovo designs employed brass and glass, including satin glass globes and Sputnik light fixture. However, the biggest names in the business were the Castiglioni brothers – Achille, Pier, Giacomo, and Livio.  Their inspirational credo was to observe the things around them and use the least amount of material needed in order to create magnificent pieces, such as the famed Arco floor lamp in 1962. Its simple form was inspired by the shape of a street light and a Carrara marble pedestal. Before that, they already excelled with models like the Luminator from 1954, made only of a spotlight at the top of a long tube.

Italian 50s lamp design, Author: Franco Dal Molin, CC by 2.0

The diversity in form, materials, and aesthetic reflects the creative fertility of the 1950s. These pieces possess a stylistic quality that enables them to resonate with contemporary trends and perfectly blend into today’s homes.