The Evolution of Lamp Designs

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Lamp designs have come a long way since their invention in ancient times. What makes the evolution of lamps more interesting than the evolution of other technologies like phones and video games is the amazing fact that humans have been making lamps since they started roaming the planet. This makes lamps as old as the human race—making the evolution of lamp designs a perfect reflection of human innovation and technological advances.

A fire-lit world

Before the discovery of electricity, the invention of electric bulbs, and the boom of designer lamps, the world was illuminated by fire from oil lamps, lanterns, and candles. But before lanterns and candles came, one of the first lighting instruments to light the shelters of Stone Age people are oil lamps. 

The oldest recorded stone oil lamp dates back to 15,000-10,000 BC, which was found in a Lascaux cave in 1940. Its design shows not only the period it was crafted but as well as the ingenuity of its creator—the stone oil lamp was designed with an elongated part that acts as a handle and a bowl-shaped end where the fuel (animal fat) was supposedly placed. This conveys that early humans were capable of producing functional lamp designs though they might not have begun prioritizing aesthetic qualities at this point. According to the Laboratory of Prehistoric Ethnology (Paris) member Sophie A. de Beaune in her and her partner’s research paper Ice Age Lamps, this might indicate that Stone Age people discarded their stone oil lamps after use, hence, they saw no reason to add aesthetic qualities to the lamps.

Roman Oli Lamp - Ambiore

A few centuries later, however, oil lamps became more than just disposable tools to light the way. Ancient oil lamps found to have originated during the reign of the Roman Empire were crafted with refillable oil chambers and more ornate handles. They were carved with images of Roman gods and goddesses, as well as plants and animals considered symbolic during the era. An example is an oil lamp made of clay with image carvings of the Roman god Bacchus and a panther that is now displayed in the J. Paul Getty Museum. This illustrates how the development of arts and culture of each nation during the ancient civilization has affected the design of utility objects such as oil lamps. At this point, oil lamps were no longer disposable vessels of oil and fire—they had become vessels of culture as well, showing the people of today how ancient people used to live.

Lamps continue to be vessels of history and culture even when gas lamps replaced the oil lamps in the 17th century. During this era, materials for making lamps depended on the resources available on the country it was crafted, and the design relied on the art style that the lamp maker was exposed to. Additionally, lamp makers found a way to innovate both the lamp’s functionality and aesthetic properties. Glasses were added to protect the flame from air drafts and burners were equipped with knobs to control the flame’s intensity. Also, painted and embroidered shades function both as decoration as well as a dimmer. 

Kerosene Lamp - Ambiore

But the time of gas lamps would soon end as another human invention was about to take the spotlight. Just as gas lamps replaced oil lamps, gas lamps were about to be replaced by electric lamps—the history of lighting was about to change.


Revolutions and rebirths

As humans evolved, their lamp designs evolved with them.

The first industrial revolution in Europe and North America became a pressure point for inventors and businessmen like Thomas Edison and Joseph Swan. The revolution was an opportunity to improve the lighting conditions of working facilities and increase the workers’ productivity.

During the late 1800s, electric (incandescent) light bulbs and lamps were introduced to the public by Edison and Swan. Before long, there was a high demand for electric lighting with most demands coming from factories, stores, offices, and other business establishments. 

Lamp Design Evolution Quote - Ambiore

The invention of electric lighting paved the way for the second industrial revolution which increased the demand for electric lamps even more. Due to the critical need to mass-produce electric lamps, practicality became a major priority over art and beauty. Before that point, most lamp makers are the same ones who design their lamps. With the need for faster production, industrial designers were hired to conceptualize lamp designs that could be easily mass-produced by machines and quickly assembled by factory workers. For a period of time, decorative lamps were replaced with more basic, less ornate lamps. Ceiling lamps, table lamps, streetlamps, and wall lamps were designed for cheaper and faster manufacturing. This continued until the climax of the art movement famously known as Art Nouveau.  

Art Nouveau began in 1880 and dominated the world in 1890 until the early 1900s. It was the response of the art community to the increasing industrialization taking over Europe and most of North America. Just like the industrial revolution, this historical phenomenon affected lamp designs. With the birth of Art Nouveau, artistically designed lamps were reborn, starting a major change in the lamp design and lighting industry. Perhaps the most unforgettable product of electric lighting and Art Nouveau is the Wisteria Lamp, one of the many beautifully-made Tiffany Lamps in the early 1900s.

Wisteria Lamp - Ambiore


Modernism and Postmodernism


Even after the hype for the Art Nouveau movement died down, the transformation of lamp designs did not. Lamps continue to change with time, even when the Art Deco style took over the world during the decade known as the Roaring Twenties (1920s) and was then replaced by Modernism after the Second World War.

While Art Deco was mainly known for its glamorous design, Modernism was a complete opposite—it turned away from traditional forms of art, sciences, and economy. The Second World War had changed how people see the world. Artists and designers, both from Europe and the American Continent, had a new design principle: Form follows function. This meant that buildings and even everyday objects including lamps were designed to maximize their functionality. One of the most famous and stylish arc floor lamps invented in that era was the 1960s Modernist Arco Lamp.

Lamp Design Evolution - Quote 2 - Ambiore

However, just as Modernism emerged to replace the art style and design preceding it, Postmodernism stepped forward to introduce a new art theory in contrast with the “form follows function” principle. To prove their point, Postmodern artists and designers formed like-minded communities and proceeded to craft domestic objects such as affordable luxury table lamps that were both decorative and functional. 

Today, lamp designers are more unconstrained than before: Industrial artists can experiment and combine lamp design features from different periods and styles. Societies are more receptive to new designs and technological advances continue to help engineer better lighting—showing how far mankind and their lamp designs have come.