Lighting the Way: The Best Early Modern Lamps
When we consider modern design, the emphasis is often on the decade or so following World War II. The reasoning, which is justified, can be condensed into a few critical ideas, including the necessity of rebuilding (and re-furnishing) Europe, the enhanced abilities and possibilities of mass-production, and a general philosophical inclination toward the new and the future. Too often, it’s as if there is an invisible frontier that excludes earlier objects.
In fact, early modernism is ripe for discovery. Many of the lights fixtures featured here are remarkably under-appreciated or even unknown, even though their aesthetic innovations were repeatedly duplicated or interpreted in succeeding decades, up to today. I suspect that even readers familiar with certain models will be surprised at how early their designs date. None of the designers are obscure, and their contributions to either design or architecture of the twentieth century is considered. Several of the lights boast new technologies (notably bulbs), materials, or production possibilities of the day.
Perhaps the key factor uniting the examples featured is that they are still remarkable today, whether isolated on a museum plinth or in a contemporary interior. They all reflect a fierce rejection of the reigning styles of their era and the assertion of a new aesthetic sensibility, often accomplished “simply” by dismissing ornamentation. All have an overt sculptural presence even if the forms are simple, the materials are modest, or the surfaces are unadorned.
Of course this list is highly subjective and certainly not exhaustive. In the end, it is about a desire to retreat behind the 1945 frontier and illuminate a group of iconic, or deserve-to-be-iconic, light fixtures from the first half of the twentieth century.
Eileen Gray (1878–1976) Tube Light 1927
A MORE AUSTERE younger sibling of Rietveld’s Hanging Lamp, Gray’s Tube Light distills the functional elements to their most discreet, simplest presence. Gray was a versatile and independent designer. An early practitioner of modernism, she synthesized inspirations from sources as diverse as Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Japanese craft (she was, remarkably, first a master of Japanese lacquer before focusing on furniture). Her ultimate stage began to take shape in 1927 when she designed E-1027 for herself and Jean Badovici on the cliffs at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin in southern France. The Tube Light, like the house itself, was designed to show off her vision of modernism. In photos of the (recently, and finally) restored E-1027 the lamp appears in the living room. There is a Le Corbusier mural on the wall behind it, and two of Gray’s most iconic chairs sit in the room—the Bibendum and Transat (both still in production). For the lamp, Gray embraced the newly released tungsten strip light, which had become popular for architectural projects, and positioned the tube bulb vertically, held in place by black wood (later plastic) sockets to a chrome-plated steel tube and secured to a round base.