Lighting in the Atomic Age

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The PH5 chandelier from Louis Poulsen had an otherworldly appearance—and an otherworldly glow, thanks to its ability to diffuse light both vertically and horizontally.

The PH5 chandelier from Louis Poulsen had an otherworldly appearance—and an otherworldly glow, thanks to its ability to diffuse light both vertically and horizontally. (Photo: Tim Street-Porter)

While many folks think of the 1950s as an era of conformity, in the realm of home decor a revolution of sorts was quietly taking place. Traditional furnishings—the heavy, ornate, and wooden items crowding Grandma's house—were giving way to simpler, more streamlined creations. Spurred by the postwar economy, suburbia was growing across the United States, and the influx of smaller, more affordable, housing for returning GIs created a demand for fittings to accomodate the new, downsized footprint of the American Dream. Consumers had less practical reasons for wanting these designs, too. In Mid-Century Modern, author Cara Greenberg explains, "The members of our parents' generation were all motivated by the same desire: to escape the stuffy, old-fashioned rooms of their own youths and be, as every young generation wants to be... 'modern'." Where lighting was concerned, modern meant a host of new options, most of them decidedly functional, fresh and new.

Breaking Tradition

A squadron of George Nelson bubble lamps appears to be flying in formation across a modern-day Modernica showroom.

A squadron of George Nelson bubble lamps appears to be flying in formation across a modern-day Modernica showroom.

Take the common chandelier as an example. After centuries of designs based on oil or gas flames, there'd been minimal changes to its basic form—with most centering on the number of arms and color of glass. Now the chandelier suddenly appeared as...a bubble? George Nelson's line of pendant lights (commonly known as bubble lamps), featuring sensuous, organic shapes—from perfect spheres, to cigars, to pregnant-looking diamonds—quickly became popular when the Herman Miller furniture company started producing them in the early 1950s. Maybe it was their innovative use of fiberglass as a shade over a wire frame, or maybe it was their seeming homage to the phases of the moon—whatever their appeal, these bubbles had staying power. "The bubble lamps typified lighting design in houses," says Stephen Van Dyk of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, "not only in their biomorphic, space-age shapes, but also their use of new technology."

Other decade-defining trends made their mark on consumer goods. According to Bo Sullivan, a designer and historian at the reproduction lighting company Rejuvenation, the primary '50s influences were the reach for supersonic speed (think of all those test pilots), outer space, and a fascination with extra terrestrials. You can see the convergence of all three in the design of the PH5 chandelier, which looks decidedly like an unidentified flying object about to land on the dinner table. Manufactured by Louis Poulsen, this lamp designed by Poul Henningsen had layers of arcing metal that softly moved light both vertically and horizontally, accentuating its otherworldliness.

The ubiquitous pole lamp, which stretched from floor to ceiling and had adjustable-to-any-angle lamps, can be seen in this endearing 1950s family scene typical of lighting catalogs of the era.

The ubiquitous pole lamp, which stretched from floor to ceiling and had adjustable-to-any-angle lamps, can be seen in this endearing 1950s family scene typical of lighting catalogs of the era. (Photo: Rejuvenation Collection/Moe Light)

A Twist on New Technologies

New materials were everywhere. Technological advancements honed for the military could now be applied to consumer goods, and the dearth of metals after the war left people creatively embracing new substances. Fiberglass, so successful on the bubble lamps, became de rigueur in more traditional lampshades, too. Not that lampshades looked so traditional—boasting, as they did, a gravid circumference, taller rise, and a host of patterns and designs intended to enhance the glow of the light traveling through them. These shades were perched atop jumbled wire stands, or on solid-looking pieces of pottery (some of which doubled as planters). Later examples, which were influenced by Scandinavian design, appeared poised above pieces of gracefully curved wood.

Is it a sculpture, a light, or both? The PH Artichoke from Louis Poulsen brought a new art form to lighting designs; made of layers of aluminum leaves—each diffusing the light in interesting ways—the pendant is once again popular in modern-minded homes.

Is it a sculpture, a light, or both? The PH Artichoke from Louis Poulsen brought a new art form to lighting designs; made of layers of aluminum leaves—each diffusing the light in interesting ways—the pendant is once again popular in modern-minded homes.

Aluminum increasingly found its way into lighting designs as well. Many conical shades were made of spun aluminum, a process improved during the war. Cone reading lamps with star-shaped cutouts were mounted on the walls of many bedrooms. One advertisement for these exclaims: "Pivot the heavy aluminum reflector in any direction—up, down or sideways, it throws the light where you need it." A memorably wacky aluminum example was the PH Artichoke. This pendant light featured layers and layers of aluminum leaves splayed out at cascading angles. While this ambitious lamp-sculpture resembles the vegetable for which it is named, it could just as easily be mistaken for an interplanetary probe.

Multi-Functioning, Please

Other types of lighting were redesigned as well, with flexibility as a key goal. Floor lamps went from bulky, strapping creations to winsome concoctions that seemed to defy gravity. Lamps appeared with multiple, stiff arms attached to a rod base by an adjustable socket—affording them radial movement to sustain seemingly impossible poses. Other desk and floor lamps had appendages that could be snaked medusa-like into a variety of positions ("Here are three reasons you'll never be left in the dark," hawks a 1950s ad). Perhaps this speaks to folks rearranging their furniture more frequently. Certainly, flexible designs reduced the need to have to buy fresh lights to fit changing demands—whether they resulted from redesigning a room, or the morphing needs of a growing family.

Outer space was a recurring theme in 1950s lighting, as evident in this kitchen's ceiling pendant, which appears ready to fly away; the light, from Rejuvenation, is a new design based on early models.

Outer space was a recurring theme in 1950s lighting, as evident in this kitchen's ceiling pendant, which appears ready to fly away; the light, from Rejuvenation, is a new design based on early models.

One innovative design of note was the pole lamp. A spring-loaded shaft that stretched from floor to ceiling, the lamp was adorned with three lights, each with a swiveling shade that could adjust in every direction and angle. The creative design allowed several people to use the same reading lamp at once; its sculptural quality was an added bonus. Another flexible creation was a chandelier whose height could shift up or down via a nifty retracting mechanism, hidden in a bullet-shaped housing on the cord. Putting the lamp higher or lower with a simple flick of the wrist let hosts set the mood for their parties, or change the height of their table centerpieces at will.

Yet another approach to flexibility could be found in lights attached to walls via a pivoting, hollow tube. Since the lamp's cord ran through the tube, its height could be adjusted by pulling the cord in either direction, easily positioning it to accommodate a reader in a chair or one lounging on the floor. And on the subject of accommodating, Greta von Nessen's Anywhere lamp—which could sit on a table or hang on a wall, and had a rotating shade that adjusted to myriad positions—gave the word new meaning.

A Case for the Case Study

This ultra-hip living room featured in a 1954 Lightolier catalog has adjustable, wall-mounted sofa lamps reminiscent of flying saucers, a fiberglass-shaded floor lamp/side table combo, and a spun-aluminum torchière hanging from the ceiling.

This ultra-hip living room featured in a 1954 Lightolier catalog has adjustable, wall-mounted sofa lamps reminiscent of flying saucers, a fiberglass-shaded floor lamp/side table combo, and a spun-aluminum torchière hanging from the ceiling. (Photo: Rejuvenation Collection/Lightolier)

Another influence of the era was the Case Study housing project. Launched immediately after World War II by John Entenza, the editor of Arts and Architecture magazine, the project challenged leading architects of the day to create affordable, modern homes for the general public. These visionary homes—designed by now-legendary names like Richard Neutra, Pierre Koenig, and Charles Eames—were greeted with enthusiasm and fascination, and got a tremendous amount of coverage in the popular press. Their stark and thoroughly au courant interiors had a big impact on consumer tastes; furnishings that looked as though they belonged in Case Study homes got a boost in sales, and like-minded creations began trickling down to the masses.

The hallmark of a good design is the lasting impression it creates; many of the emblematic lights of the '50s can be found once more in stores around the world. What's more, a number of lighting manufacturers from the era—Artek, Modernica, Lightolier, and Louis Poulsen among them—are still in business. Perhaps the most iconic lights of all—at least as far as collectors are concerned—are the Astral series of chandeliers from Lightolier. These lights had 16 to 24 outstretched metal arms protruding from an orb center, each ending in a glowing sphere (some versions even bore star-shaped bulbs). The Astrals were so strongly associated with outer space that when the Russians launched their Sputnik satellite in 1957, the chandeliers were renamed accordingly. Clearly, lighting designers of the 1950s were reaching for the stars, even before the Space Age made such things possible.