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19 Iconic Lamps You Should Know About

Jul 12, 2023

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Here's what to look for when vintage hunting.

You don't have to be an expert or a history buff to appreciate a well-made piece of renowned furniture. The proof? Ottentimes, such works are instantly recognizable—even to those who don't consider themselves design pros. For instance, if you’ve seen any Pixar movie, you are familiar with George Carwardine's 1227 Task Lamp, which appears at the beginning of every flick from the studio. And there's much more where that came from.

As shopping editors who peruse everything on the market—vintage, contemporary, neutral, colorful, complex, and simple—we've done our fair share of research on furniture design from all eras. And we're here to share our findings: We’ve covered the most iconic chairs, and now we’re moving on to lighting. From Noguchi's paper lanterns to OTF's kitschy Toucan table lamp, there are quite a few acclaimed lights out there—plenty of which were designed during one of the most beloved design movements, the midcentury modern era.

We’re here to give you the backstories on lights big and small you’d definitely recognize out in the world. One of the ones we see most often? Tiffany lamps, whose intricate stained glass shades have sold for a pretty penny in recent history. Back in 2018, for instance, a lucky bidder scored a circa ‘Pond Lily’ table lamp for a whopping $3.37 million at Christie's.

If you want to brush up on your design history, learn the complicated histories of your favorite lamps, or even snag one for your home, keep scrolling.

Danish lighting manufacturer Louis Poulsen was founded in 1874, but it flew relatively under the radar until 1958, when architect Poul Henningsen designed the PH5 pendant lamp for the brand. Contrary to popular belief, the cool shape isn't what made this fixture so intriguing; it's the unique layering of the shades and reflectors that casts a warm and diffused glow that radiates both vertically and horizontally.

Though it looks rather imposing, Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni's (commonly known as the Castiglioni brothers) Arco floor lamp doesn't require soaring ceilings and sprawling floor plans. You can squeeze the unique lamp, which the brothers designed in 1962, in just about any space. The Italian duo were known for their meticulous attention to detail, which is obvious upon examining the lamp. The Carrera marble base, for instance, boasts beveled corners less likely to bruise passerby.

Japanese-American designer Isamu Noguchi is best known for his iconic paper lanterns, which he called Akari light sculptures. Rumor has it Noguchi crafted his first paper lamp when he was visiting the Japanese city of Gifu City, at the mayor's request. He added electricity and the famous design that would later define his career was born.

The Ultrafragola mirror was originally designed in 1970 but had a big comeback in early 2020. Ettore Sottsass went on to found the ultra-influential Memphis Milano Group, which is equal parts kitschy and bold. The mirror, which lights up and glows a peachy pink, is considered a perfect embodiment of the playful design movement.

Italian industrial designer Vico Magistretti designed the Atollo table lamp for Oluce back in 1977, and it hasn't really gone anywhere since. Crafted in either brushed metal or glass, the lamp has changed the lighting game for the better. Not only has it garnered a slew of awards, but it's made its way into the permanent collections of such museums as MoMA and the Guggenheim.

It may be hard to imagine how a light comprised of nothing more than a simple brass base and a enameled metal shade could become so famous, but here we are. Stilnovo was one of the most prolific lighting manufacturers of the 20th century. This specific light isn't necessarily the most famous design bearing the Stilnovo name, but the metal shade is a beloved trademark that collectors worship.

It's no surprise that many of the most remembered light fixtures were designed by Italians. After all, their use of material and shape is unparalleled—and the Nesso table lamp is a prime example. Designed by Giancarlo Mattioli in 1967, the charming lamp boasts its now iconic mushroom-shaped dome that's made entirely of injection-molded ABS resin. Want to see it in person? Head to New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art's permanent collection.

Once a light becomes famous, we can expect to see myriad iterations by different designers, but we always remember the original. Such isn't the case for the Sputnik chandelier, whose origins are rather unknown—or at least, up for debate. At this point, the Sputnik is more of a style than it is a specific light.

Serge Mouille's 1956 masterpiece boasts a spider-like quality that shook up the design community in a big way. Some say it's because French modernist Jacques Adnet, who hired a young Mouille, influenced him. Over the course of Mouille's storied career, he produced hundreds of designs, but midcentury fans always seem to come back to this one, which comprises two fixed arms and one that swings.

Midcentury modern design was all about rounded edges and non-fussy materials, which explains Verner Panton's Flowerpot VP7 pendant. The Danish designer created the now-famous light in 1968 using lacquered steel, casting an elegant light below.

We don't like to play favorites, but who wouldn't love to decorate their desk or nightstand with the punchy Toucan Bird table lamp? Designed in 1964 by Enea Ferrari, the lamp was originally intended for children, which is why it was made of plastic rather than glass or metal. As design got more playful through the years, plenty of adults have scored a Toucan for themselves.

Another iconic Castiglioni brothers piece is the Taraxacum pendant, which they designed in 1960. It may look simple, but the process of building such a fixture took months of brainstorming. Finally, the two landed on a process that worked: The white powder-coated internal steel structure, which you can't actually see, was sprayed with resin, creating a permanently diffused look.

You could spend your whole life trying to find two of the same Tiffany lamp, but you probably wouldn't succeed because the designer, Louis Comfort Tiffany, rarely created two identical pieces. That said, Tiffany lamps feature a certain look that is easy to spot: All of them are covered with a handmade, came glass shade in the Art Nouveau style.

Designed by George Nelson for Herman Miller in 1952, this sculptural pendant has been a best-seller ever since. Nelson sought to create a simple fixture that appeared to gently float overhead—perhaps that's why it's giving us UFO vibes.

Similar to the Sputnik light, this Venini one is more about the style than the specific fixture. The Italian glassmaker was founded during the peak of the Art Deco movement, in 1921. Many of the heavy glass lights, including the Polyhedr, feature glass container shaped like soda bottles.

Louis Poulsen commissioned pieces from some of the world's most well-known designers, including Arne Jacobsen. The Danish architect designed the AJ table lamp to mirror the specific angles of his popular furniture pieces, the Egg and Swan chairs. It was all about sharp turns and bright colors.

Poul Henningsen was certainly no one hit wonder. He designed his famous Artichoke fixture shortly after releasing his PH5 pendant, and the public loved both. The former, however, is a bit more intricate, with solid copper leaves finished with a rosey hue on the inside. These days, it's available in quite a few finishes.

Concrete and lighting don't often come together, so when Le Corbusier introduced the two in 1952, the design community went a little crazy—in the best way. Ironically, the French architect didn't intend for his piece to become a luxury good that would one day cost more than $1,500. He created the little lamp for Unité d'Habitation, a modernist residential housing building in France.

And finally, the Pixar lamp itself. Unlike the rest of the designers on this list, many of whom had prolific careers in design, George Carwardine was an Englishman who worked as an automobile engineer, only to discover his passion for design in 1929, when the car company that employed him went bankrupt. Though he had an appreciation for beautiful things, his real interested rested in springs and levers improving regular, household items. Six years later, he released the Original 1227 task lamp, which features a never-before used spring that let the lamp to articulate.

Poul Henningsen is largely considered the most famous lighting designer, as he created hundreds of pieces, which, at the time, were not only streamlined but also affordable.

Jessica Cherner is House Beautiful's associate shopping editor and knows where to find the best high-low pieces for any room.

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