The History of Design in Table Lamps – 2. The Birth of Modernism

From art nouveau to postmodernism, our blog series shows how the humble domestic table lamp holds the secret to understanding the entire history of design. In this instalment we look at the origins of perhaps the most distinctive movement of the 20th Century, modernism…

You can learn an awful lot about the history of design by looking at table lamps. As we've seen, table lamps are and always have been a perfect medium for industrial designers, because they’re practical, ubiquitous and very flexible in size, shape and material. Almost as soon as the electric lightbulb was invented, designers across Europe and America began creating incredibly elaborate and beautiful lamps, including the leading lights of what was arguably the first proper international industrial design movement, art nouveau. Art nouveau flourished between the 1890s and the First World War, but even as it peaked, a quite different design aesthetic and philosophy was emerging…

Mackintosh and Wright

When we think of art nouveau we tend to think of lavish, floral ornamentation and intricate designs drawn from organic patterns. ‘Modernism’ conjures very different images, of plain, practical objects with simple shapes. But it would be wrong to think that the early modernist movements were straightforward reactions against art nouveau.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh's rose motif - a bridge between art nouveau and modernism. Image credit.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh's rose motif - a bridge between art nouveau and modernism. Image credit.

The Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) was one of the most important figures in the development of modernism. His designs – everything from buildings to chairs to stained glass – did strip away decoration and use elegant geometric forms with long, straight horizontal and vertical lines. Yet his most famous motif was the very art nouveau-like Mackintosh Rose.

Portrait of Frank Lloyd Wright by New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: Al Ravenna <Public domain>, via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Frank Lloyd Wright by New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: Al Ravenna , via Wikimedia Commons

In America another great architect, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), was pioneering a new approach to buildings. Wright believed the house should be in harmony with ‘nature’ – meaning both the environment and humanity – a philosophy he called ‘organic architecture’. His buildings had horizontal cornices and flat roofs with very wide eaves, intended to connect with the surrounding space.

Frank Lloyd Wright table lamps for the Susan Lawrence Dana House c.1903. Image credit.

Some of his projects were ‘blank cheque’ commissions, in which we was given free rein to design the interiors and all the furniture and fittings. For the Susan Lawrence Dana house in Ilinois he designed hundreds of light fixtures and skylights – and his table lamps for the project perfectly encapsulate his architectural ethos in miniature: stretched horizontals and straight lines, yet decorated with ‘natural’ colours and patterns .

‘Form follows function’

So modernism did not necessarily entail removing all ornamentation (though some designers, such as the Austrian Adolf Loos, did strive for that). Instead, the key to understanding it can be found in this quote from an article written in 1896 by a colleague of Frank Lloyd Wright - the Chicago architect and pioneer of skyscraper buildings, Louis H. Sullivan:
"Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change, form does not change....It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law." The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered (1896)

The phrase ‘form follows function’ came to be seen as capturing the fundamental principle of modernism: that the shape of an object – whether a table lamp or a tower block – should be primarily based upon its intended purpose.

The Wainwright Building, St. Louis by Louis Sullivan. Image credit.

'Form follows function'. The Wainwright Building, St. Louis by Louis Sullivan. Image credit.

De Stijl and Bauhaus

The works of Mackintosh, Wright and Sullivan had a huge influence on design in America and in mainland Europe. The German Werkbund school applied modernist design principles to mass-produced furniture and household objects as well as housing, while the period between the two world wars saw an explosion in radical avant-garde art which explored form in the abstract, including futurism, cubism and constructivism. All of these swirling ideas fed into two of the most interesting art and design movements of the second and third decades of the 20th Century.

Piet Mondrian - Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow (1930). Image credit.

Piet Mondrian - Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow (1930). Image credit.

De Stijl was the name of a magazine published in the Netherlands in 1917 (‘de stijl’ is Dutch for ‘the style’). It gave a forum for artists such as Piet Mondrian and designers like Gerrit Reitveld to put forward radical theories about how art and objects should look. Proponents of ‘De Stijl’ theory advocated pure abstraction by a reduction to the essentials of form and primary colour, and rejected any attempt to represent the natural world. They believed that pure form should be carried into every area of modern life, creating a new harmony quite distinct from nature.


1925 Table lamp by the De Stijl designer Gerrit Rietveld. Image credit.

Overlapping with De Stijl was the Bauhaus school of craft and design, founded by Walter Gropius in 1919. Although a very broad movement, Bauhuas was about simplified, rationalized, functional forms and the notion that mass-production was reconcilable with the individual artistic spirit.

ME1 model lamp by Wilhelm Wagenfeld (1924). Image credit.

ME1 model lamp by Wilhelm Wagenfeld (1924). Image credit.

Wilhelm Wagenfeld’s ME1 table light (1924) is a perfect representation of the Bauhaus approach: it has simplicity of form and construction, a perfectly practical shape of a dome on top of a column, and is capable of mass industrial production while retaining a certain unique stylishness. This is one of the truly great table lamp designs of the 20th Century – and if any lamp can be described as ‘iconic’, it is the ME1.

The International Style


Poul Henningsen's PH table lamp (1927). Image credit.

The pioneers of early modernism did more than design great buildings and objects. They created an international ‘language’ of architecture and design that continued from the 1920s onwards. Designers like the Dane Poul Henningsen continued to produce astonishing lamps and objects through to the 1950s and 1960s along modernist principles.

But we’ll come on to the ‘mid-century modern’ in a future post. First, we need to look at a movement that started in the 1920s and was diametrically opposed to modernist ideals. Art deco will feature in part 3 of our series, and, naturally, table lamps provide the perfect illustrations...

Pooky's modernism-inspired Shilton table lamp. Shop here.

Pooky's modernism-inspired Shilton table lamp. - Unfortunately the Shilton is no longer available, but please take a look at our extensive range of table lamps here

The History of Design in Table Lamps series: Part 1: Thomas Edison to Art Nouveau Part 2: The Birth of Modernism Part 3: Art Deco Part 4: Midcentury Modernism Part 5: Pop and Postmodernism

At Pooky we make beautiful lamps for beautiful interiors. Browse our range of designer table lamps here.