When you’re planning a lighting scheme for your home or office, table lamps are extremely versatile, and to get the most of them, it helps if you’re aware of what role you’d like them to play.
Previous articles looked at ambient and accent lighting types, and in this third installment, let’s look at a type of lighting that table lamps were made for: decorative lighting.
What is decorative lighting?
Decorative lighting is not designed primarily to provide usable lighting, but rather to serve as a design element in itself. It’s the opposite of ambient lighting: instead of providing a light that spreads throughout your room. The light it creates may not extend very far at all; and instead of the light source hiding in the background, decorative table lamps demand to be noticed!
Think of a decorative table lamp as an ornament that happens to light up, and you’re nearly there.
Types of decorative table lamps
There are many types of table lamps that can be considered decorative and can be used as a centerpiece in any room. Here are a few sample techniques to look out for:
Glass has been used in table lamps for many generations, and over time, its properties have been used creatively to great effect. Probably the best-known example of this comes with Tiffany Lamps, where organic, flowing shapes are constructed out of many pieces of stained glass.
Colored glass does restrict the amount of light that passes through, but it does light up beautifully, forming a focal point in your room that’s bound to impress!
Cut glass plays wonderfully with light, with many little prisms splitting light up into a spectrum of colors. It also creates a dappled effect throughout a room, and when the crystal shards sway, you get an effect reminiscent of a bright summer’s day by a stream. Crystal table lamps are almost hypnotic to watch.
Many materials are translucent, meaning that it allows light to pass through, but the light becomes diffused. In other words, you can see light coming through, but you can’t see clearly through the material.
This phenomenon is widely used by table lamps, for example, with textured paper lamp shades producing a more attractive light source. Other materials include frosted glass and various fabrics and work well because they obscure the light bulb, and almost become a more interesting light source in themselves.
In some decorative table lamps, the base itself is the focal point, with the light serving only to enhance it. Some Art Deco designs, for example, are more like sculptures than lamps, and the light source exists simply to show the base at its best.
There are some beautiful designs that fall into this category in a wide range of styles.
Other Table Lamps
Some designers have produced incredible ideas when designing decorative table lamps. Fiber optics, for example, have limited lighting value in a home but are used as a decoration, and they can really capture the attention of anybody entering a room.
If you’re trying to add some focus to your interior design, a decorative table lamp is one of the most impressive, and cost-effective ways of achieving it. Whether your style is traditional or contemporary, there are many outstanding examples to choose from!
Table Lamps as Accent Lighting
In the first part of our look at lighting types, we discussed some ideas for using table lamps as ambient lighting. This is a great start for any lighting scheme, and table lamps are perfect for creating an overall atmosphere and experimenting with different locations.
However, if your ambient lighting is leaving shadows a little flat, you can add some real visual interest by adding another type of lighting. There are several options available, and table lamps can fulfill many roles, but in this article, we’re going to take a closer look at accent lighting.
What is accent lighting?
Accent lighting is used to highlight a feature or object in a room. The lamp itself doesn’t command any attention, because its purpose is to draw the eye to a specific part of the room.
The object being highlighted can be anything: a picture, a piece of furniture, an interesting architectural feature, or even just a wall. It is important that the lamp focuses on the object strongly, without highlighting too much of its surroundings.
Using a table lamp for accenting
Once again, using a table lamp is a great idea, because you can reposition them easily to highlight a feature from the best possible angle. Choosing an opaque lampshade works best, because it concentrates the light on a smaller area, making it more dramatic.
Also, pay attention to the type of light bulb used. A reflector bulb will force the light upwards, rather than letting it spill out underneath too.
Using a smaller light bulb can also work great because the smaller light source produces sharper shadows, which contrast wonderfully against the softer shadows produced by ambient lighting.
Creative use of accent light
Think about what you want to highlight in your room, and consider how light and shadow will frame it. For example, accenting a flat picture may look good, but if the picture is framed or block mounted, a table lamp underneath will cast a dramatic shadow above it.
Similarly, anything that can cast a shadow should be experimented with: place a table lamp in front of a heavily textured wall, for example, or behind a small sculpture to throw it into a dramatic silhouette.
Look at any attractive metal objects: old copper kettles, attractive ornaments, and so on. Accenting these can add lots of visual impacts because they cast beautiful light effects to complement strong shadows.
Just be careful that the reflections shine onto a wall or other surface, rather than into people’s eyes! Once again, because table lamps are so portable, you can experiment easily until you have the right positioning.
Although table lamps can create a wonderful atmosphere in any room, it’s also nice to use them to highlight something interesting too, whether it’s the smallest ornament or a feature wall.
The trick, as always, is to keep it simple. Highlighting every object is usually too visually confusing, but accenting a carefully chosen feature with the right table lamp will add a dramatic focal point to every room!
Table Lamps as Ambient Lighting
Ambient light is one of the most fundamental types of lighting available. Unlike spotlights, for example, ambient light seems to come from everywhere at once, and depending on the brightness used, can be very practical (suitable for when you’re cleaning the house, for example), or very subtle (like a cozy background light that works well when you’re watching TV).
One of the characteristics of ambient light is that the light source itself often isn’t immediately obvious. It doesn’t add drama to a room, because the shadows it casts are very soft, but it does set the tone.
To achieve such an effect relies on technical-sounding terms like diffusion and reflection. Don’t be put off though, because, in practice, it’s quite simple really!
If you have a table lamp sitting in the center of a room, with no lampshade, and a standard light bulb, it would likely draw a lot of attention for all the wrong reasons. A stark, glaring light source is uncomfortable to look at but difficult to avoid. The rest of the room would be filled with high contrast light and shadow, which is hardly an ideal environment to relax in!
To improve things somewhat, the light needs to be diffused. By the simple addition of a translucent lamp shade, light from the bulb is partially subdued, then scattered (or diffused) more evenly throughout your room.
By toning down the source of the light, and spreading out its effect, your room instantly becomes more comfortable to be in. But the light source is still the center of attention, so another factor has to be considered: Reflection.
Light doesn’t just stop when it hits a physical object. It always reacts, usually through diffusion, or reflection. Although the level of light diminishes, a certain amount will bounce off surfaces and continue to light other objects. If it didn’t do this, it would never reach our eyes!
This type of reflection can be used to our advantage when planning a lighting scheme for our home. By placing a table lamp close to a large surface, like a wall, or on a high shelf near the ceiling, the surface becomes a secondary light source too, softening any hard shadows caused by the original light bulb.
Using a table lamp gives you the luxury of being able to try out different locations and effects. A wall with a matte surface will scatter the light nicely, while a colored surface will add a distinct character to the overall atmosphere. Experiment and see what works best for your home.
The Table Lamp Advantage
Table lamps are great for ambient lighting, as they are so easy to move around. You can change the ambiance of a room simply by moving it away from a white wall and placing it beside a burgundy curtain instead.
The important factors, I believe, are the position of the light, and the lampshade you choose. Many table lamps have opaque shades, which is more difficult to use for ambient light, as you have to rely on reflection. However, attractive translucent shades are abundantly available these days, made out of paper, fabrics, ground glass, plastic, and other materials.
For a complete lighting design, ambient light is often complemented by other, more dramatic types of lighting. It is the bedrock upon which other lights can add their dramatic effects, as we’ll be discussing in other articles. Be creative with ambient light, as table lamps allow you to be, and your rooms will be all the richer for it!
5 Classic Table Lamps: Lighting from the Past
Go into any lighting store, and the variety of table lamps available can be staggering. Although modern production methods have opened up all kinds of possibilities for designers, the vast range of designs we see today often owe a great deal to the wealth of styles that have come before. Let’s take a moment to look at some iconic moments in the history of table lamps lighting.
1. Argand Lamp
Although lamps have been in existence for centuries, it was the Argand lamp (named for its inventor, Aimé Argand, in 1780) that first provided a unit that could be placed on a table, and still provide enough light for families to gather around. Previous to this, lamps simply weren’t bright enough for this purpose, which can be difficult to imagine today.
2. Victorian Lamps
Decorative arts in the Victorian era (1837-1901) were inspired by a variety of influences throughout the world, merging traditional styles and reinterpreting artwork from the Middle East and Asia. Combined with improved production techniques, the era is defined by excessive decoration and ornamentation, and table lamps from this time reflected that aesthetic.
With fringes, beading, stained glass, and a whole host of decorative touches, you either love them or hate them! You can’t ignore, however, the enthusiasm and adventurous spirit that seems to mark all periods of prosperity. This is the underlying theme that designers returned to again in later periods.
3. Mission Lamps
Towards the end of the Victorian era, another style was emerging that couldn’t have been more different. Named ‘Mission Style’ after the Spanish Missions in the area, it was a simple style that used natural materials (usually oak) and was characterized by strong horizontal and vertical lines. Mission table lamps usually had a simple, pyramid-shaped shade, often made from stained glass.
4. Dragonfly Lamps
Despite the enduring popularity of the simpler Mission style lamps, the Art Nouveau movement that peaked in the late 19th- early 20th Centuries continued exploring decorative and organic forms, with an emphasis on flowing lines rather than simple geometry.
One of the era’s most prominent artists in the US was Louis Comfort Tiffany, often credited with the iconic Tiffany lamps. Of these, the dragonfly design has proved to be one of the most enduring, and in a strange twist, it was recently discovered that it was not actually designed by Tiffany.
Like many of the best-known Tiffany light designs, it was actually the work of Clara Driscoll, who worked in his studios. Unrecognized in her lifetime, it is fitting that her work has stood the test of time.
5. Art Deco Lamps
Following the first World War, the world tried to return to normal, and for a while, a new sense of optimism crept in. The sense of discovery that informed the Victorian arts returned once again: archeology, ancient cultures, and technological progress.
The dominant art form of the time was named many years later as Art Deco, which perfectly described the decorative emphasis of the era. Another similarity with the Victorian era can be seen in the variety of table lamps produced.
Although there were many different styles explored by designers, you can still look at any of them today and be transported back to the roaring twenties. Sometimes the lamps used simple geometry, inspired no doubt by the emergence of skyscrapers. Other times, it borrowed imagery, particularly from ancient Egypt, and cast it in metal alongside swooping, aerodynamic forms.