Arco lamps and Artichokes: the art of mid-century modern lighting design

The mid-century modern look never seems to go out of style. But the giants of the 20th Century design movement didn’t just confine themselves to egg-shaped armchairs and weird coffee tables – they also made some properly iconic lamps. Here’s our illustrated guide...

If you love design, you’ll be familiar with the great names of the mid-century modern movement – brilliantly creative types such as Arne Jacobsen, George Nelson, Florence Knoll and Charles and Ray Eames; people who revolutionised the way hotels, offices and homes looked in the 1950s and 1960s.

 Mid-century modern is easier to spot than to describe, but it involves lots of plastic and metal, clean lines and curves, surprising geometry, a sense of fun and a space age feel – a sort of 1950s idea of what the future would look like, when we’d all sleep in pods and go on holiday to the moon. It’s a persistently fashionable and influential style, given a further boost in recent years by the very cool TV show Mad Men. One fascinating thing about the great designers of the period is that they were so versatile. Several were trained architects, and people like George Nelson made everything from marshmallow sofas to clocks to this cheeky Bubble lampshade:

 Here are three more mid-century modern geniuses who turned their talents to lamps…

Arne Jacobsen


Arne Jacobsen started his career designing various ultra-modernist buildings in his native Denmark, which were loved by architects and absolutely hated by the general public. But he’s remembered fondly now, in particular for his chairs, such as the Swan, the Egg and the Ant.

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Jacobsen Ant, Egg and Swan chairs for the SAS Royal Hotel - Image credit

Those iconic pieces of furniture were all made between 1956 and 1960 for the SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen – a quite extraordinary project for which Jacobsen designed everything from the structure of the building (then Denmark’s tallest skyscraper) right down to the knives and forks in the restaurant.

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AJ floor lamp - Image credit

On the lighting front, perhaps the most notable product was the AJ floor lamp – a sleek, vaguely robotic and actually quite practical reading lamp (in true 1950s style, the base incorporates a holder for an ashtray). And you can see the influence on our own Goldie desk light:

Goldie desk light by Pooky

Goldie desk light by Pooky - Unfortunately the Goldie desk light is no longer available, but please take a look at our extensive range of table lamps here

Poul Henningsen

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Image credit

Another Great Dane, Poul Henningsen is widely known in design circles as simply ‘PH’, and so are his lamps, including the PH5, a very mid-century pendant fixture made in 1958 for the Louis Poulsen Lighting company and still in production to this day.

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PH5 lamp - Image credit

But even better than the PH5 is the extraordinary PH Artichoke (also 1958), a weird, dazzling, organic bit of dangly lamp art made of 12 steel arches and 72 copper ‘leaves’, each of which, thanks to the genius design, is visible.

Artichoke lamp - Image credit

Artichoke lamp - Image credit

Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni

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Image credit

Mid-century modern was primarily a Scandinavian and American movement, but doing their bit for Italy were the remarkable Castiglioni brothers, who throughout the 1950s and 60s made elegant, classy, and sometimes eccentric objects from watches to stereo systems.

Taccia lamp

Taccia lamp - Image credit

The Taccia table lamp is a very mid-century masterpiece (and influenced our own Cyclops)...

Cyclops by Pooky

Cyclops by Pooky

but much more famous is the Arco floor lamp. Based on the shape of a street lamp, it’s a floor lamp that’s more like a giant desk lamp. The idea is that it allows flexibility in where you place your tables, chairs and lighting, though in fact with a steel arm fixed to a marble base it’s monstrously heavy (45kg!), so it came with a special hole allowing two people to lift it by inserting a broom handle.

Achille Castiglioni and the Arco lamp in 1960s Milan.

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It is, however, a thing of beauty – and continues to influence designers today. Our own Descartes desk light, for example, could almost pass for the Arco’s miniature cousin…

Descartes desk light by Pooky - shop here

Descartes desk light by Pooky - Unfortunately the Descartes is no longer available, but please take a look at our extensive range of table lamps here

So that's mid-century modern. The great designers of the 1950s and 60s thought they were creating the look of the future - and even though we don't sleep in pods or holiday on the moon, it turns out they were absolutely right.

Love design and interiors? Check out the rest of our blog. And find the perfect lighting for your room’s look by browsing Pooky’s collection of table lamps, floor lamps, desk lights, wall and pendant lighting…

Top image: Poul Henningsen and his lighting design, 1964. Photography: Grethe Buhl. The Royal Library, Copenhagen.