Collecting Notes: 20th century lighting design

Editorial Staff Art

Although Louis Comfort Tiffany stills commands the lion’s share of the market for 20th-century lighting design, many collectors have eschewed these opulent art lamps for mass-produced lightning by international, often anonymous designers—embracing the functional as well as the aesthetic value of their designs. Several dealers have carved a niche in this specialized field, and I recently visited a few New York-based galleries to see some of their offerings firsthand. Below is just a small sample of the collectible and covetable lighting fixtures available.

Gregg Wooten, co-owner of the 20th-century design gallery Mondo Cane, stocks plenty of lighting fixtures in his two-story Tribeca showroom. Lighting, he points out, is a practical and utilitarian investment, but there is a great range of beauty to be found as well. Wooten admits a bias toward mid-century Italian lighting, which he feels offers the most interesting and best-made designs. He cites manufacturer Arredoluce’s 3-armed Trienalle lamp as an example of Italian lighting design at its best-sculptural, utilitarian, beautiful, and timeless. However at Mondo Cane he is committed to integrating more obscure and anonymous designs into their inventory, since they offer great value to collectors, he says. Wooten advises novice lighting enthusiasts to “do a little homework” before making that first purchase by visiting museums and looking at period examples and reading up on the history of lighting. Nonetheless, he urges them to buy pieces that they love, regardless of pedigree.

Prague Kolektiv, located in Brooklyn’s design-rich DUMBO district, specializes in design from the former Czechoslovakia, where owners Barton Quillen and Giovanni Negrisin spent extensive time and discovered a mutual love for the region’s avant-garde prewar and mid-century designs. Quillen says that he

was initially struck by the quality, craftsmanship, and efficiency of materials he found in mass-produced Czech products, and the lighting fixtures on display at Prague Kolektiv, which date from the 1930s to the 1950s, embody the simplicity of form, transparency of construction, and playful nature that originally attracted him. Hand-blown spherical shades evince the venerable tradition of Czech glassblowing, while whimsical details of color, scale, and repetition subvert the functionalism often found in mass-produced international style lighting from the period. Most of the pieces imported by Prague Kolektiv are by anonymous staff designers, though occasionally an example by the celebrated Czech designer Jindrich Halabala will surface. At present collectors of central European design are challenged by the lack of scholarship and research of this field, however, much to Quillen’s delight, vintage Czech lighting is beginning to draw attention from design enthusiasts and collectors.

At Guéridon, a mid-century European design dealer based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, co-proprietor Jean-Philippe Mathieu is passionate about the lamps designed by fellow Frenchman Serge Mouille. Mathieu laments that authentic, original versions of Mouille’s iconic wall lamps with their spidery armatures and breast like shades are not only rare and expensive, but frequently in poor condition. However, his gallery is the exclusive New York retailer and primary US distributor of the twenty-one Mouille lamp designs officially re-issued in the 1990s, which are coveted by interior designers shopping for clients and serious collectors alike. In addition to the Serge Mouille re-editions, Guéridon’s lighting inventory features a range of anonymously designed European examples priced to be accessible to budding collectors—such as an aluminum dish-form French ceiling lamp in the style of Poul Henningson, or a brass and wood Italian desk lamp. When considering a lamp designed for use in a foreign country, Mathieu cautions new collectors to make sure the wiring and voltage will be safe to use with a standard US outlet, and to consider replacing the European-style “bayonet,” or “type B” base bulb socket with the US standard “Edison” or “type E” base screw-in socket to easier facilitate the acquisition and installation of replacement bulbs.

To learn more about vintage lighting design, be sure to check out:

1000 Lights: 1878-1959 by Charlotte and Peter Fiell (Taschen, 2004)

Italian Lighting Design 1945-2000 by Alberto Bassi (Phaidon 2004), the online design and antiques marketplace is a great place to find 20th-century lighting:

Images from above:Triennale three-arm lamp, Italy, 1960s; bedside lamp, Italy, 1950s; courtesy of Mondo Cane. Pair of table lamps, Czech Republic, mid-20th century; Pendant lamp, Czech Republic, c. 1936; courtesy of Prague Kolectiv. Ceiling lamp by Pierre Guariche, France, 20th century; desk lamp, Italy, 20th century; courtesy of Guéridon.