Between Lights


Lamps and artefacts of illumination with style
Teresa-M. Sala (University of Barcelona)


“There is no light so domestic as nocturnal light, nor space so private as that which is tenderly illuminated by lamps”,[1] with these words the architect Luis Fernandez-Galiano introduced one of the areas of an exhibition on interior spaces referring to nocturnal lights. It is to say that the private space is recognized by nocturnal lighting, which, according to the moment, is the flame of a candle that trembles or the lampshades
which project conical incandescent forms as if they were domestic lighthouses. Light transfigures that which it touches and the variety of lamps is not as important as the variety of lights. Thus, light sources determine a particular atmosphere.
To write about a type of artefact which is so familiar as lamps seems to lead to a reflection on their appearance and function, which have varied over time. By way of introduction we will sketch out a few considerations, that are in no way intended as a history, nor a stylistic sequence. In fact, we want to offer you some ingredients with which to reflect and which could be useful for future in-depth study on the fascinating history of human light.


In the nineteenth century, the desire to capture the duration of the day at night becomes ever stronger, until illumination by gas light appeared and changed ways of living and sleeping. Light and darkness, that of the day as much as that of the night, mark the stages of work, rest and sleep in humans. And the lights and shadows of the day or night can create a world of highly diverse sensations and perceptions. We can follow the traces of the concept of ostentation up to that of the intimate back from the eighteenth century and right throughout the nineteenth, according to what may be referred to as the art of living. The new conditions of hygiene and comfort set the trends in architectural and decorative programs. For example, new buildings have better ventilation and more natural lighting [2].
The gas street lighting created a sense of security and allowed travel without fear, while in the intimate spaces of houses this strange new light would not require the same attention as oil lamps or candles, though it was to produce some domestic accidents, and consumed more oxygen, which led to people suffering from headaches in poorly ventilated rooms.


The writer Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) in his essay The Philosophy of Furnishings [3] discussed light in the American interiors of his time, to quote: “We are violently enamoured of gas and glass. The first is totally unacceptable in interiors. Its rough and uneven light offends the eye. Anyone who has a brain and eyes will not use it. In contrast, an average light, what artists call a cold light – with their corresponding warm shadows – will work wonders, even in an ill equipped room. There has never been an invention more charming
than the astral lamp. We allude, it is understood, to the astral lamp properly stated, of Argand, with its original shade of transparent glass and its clear rays of moonlight so soft and uniform” [4]. This lamp invented
by the Swiss physicist Argand is a contrivance popularly known as an oil lantern and produced a light equivalent to to 6 to 10 candles. It quickly displaced all other varieties of oil lamps and was manufactured in a great variety of decorative forms. However, interior lighting was scarce and at most occasional, with certain lit points, as we see in the literary descriptions of the time. For example, Narcis Oller in the novel The Gold Fever wrote of of a wealthy interior where “the multi-coloured glow of the magnificent chandelier”
or “admirable bronze lamps hung from the ceiling”, dominated the darkness of the nineteenth-century house. It wasn’t until the end of the nineteenth century that life at night would become more brilliant with the advent of the incandescent lamp. It is an invention that revolutionized the lives of people so that now we can’t imagine a world without electricity. The artificial lighting devices take different forms depending on the period. In fact, throughout history artefacts have been produced that have to do with inventions that have helped to illuminate the night and during the nineteenth century we find gas and electric light sources that exist side by side for a time. They are important as decorative items and adopt different forms and styles. However, the installation of electric light in cities has lead to improvements in lighting for interiors. This translates into improved comfort and also in the proliferation of new designs of light related objects. At the time of Modernism many workshops executed appliances such as lamps to light, chandeliers, ceiling lights, candelabras or lanterns, sometimes with systems of mixed gas and electricity. If we look at paintings or photographs of interiors of the time we can distinguish the different types of artefacts mentioned above. The details of everyday life that are present in images painted on the effects of light on objects remind us of the painting of seventeenth century Holland. For example, scenes of women with reading lights and the intimacy characteristic of nocturnal illumination. One of the painters who knew how to capture this, with great sensitivity, the unusual effects of artificial light, was the Frenchman of Swiss origin, Félix Vallotton.


The models of lamps and lighting that accompany the text are a collection of beautiful examples of desktop, standing, ceiling or wall lamps, made with different techniques at different times, from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. The styles make their transit through the eclecticism of tastes, Art Nouveau and Deco stand out on the tulip shaped lampshades with the different types of glass or nautilus, with a special treatment of the glass and colour, achieving multi-coloured perceptions, translucency and light of different intensities. The naturalistic design of some models, like that of a magnificent butterfly hanging from the ceiling, combined with the terracotta desktop, where the woman becomes the main protagonist. From the Nancy school, Gallé and Majorelle created a decorative universe full of plants and insects that also adorn the lighting apparatus. Gaspar Homar and Joan Busquets designed some models of special beauty, and also worked in fine carpentry shops, on reproductions or decorative objects such as seen in Masriera or Esteva House, Hoyos and Co. Barcelona. For his part, Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) was one of the most creative and prolific designers, employing new and later much imitated methods in the manufacture of glass. The American firm patented the opalescent glass window which created three-dimensional effects from a new material that was to be a great success. From their New York studio an industrial art flourished with a workshop where over a thousand people worked and where he mastered his fascination with nature. The lamps were the result of a happy coincidence with Thomas Edison, who made him think that electric light bulbs could be applied successfully in lights of medium and small size, with coloured glass that would sift the light in a wonderful way.
Many other manufacturers were to dedicate themselves to the production of lighting equipment.
Poetic lighting devices that when turned off are beautiful bibelot sculptures of decorative lamp stand figures
for the corners of new interior locations in the home or in any collection that manages to rescue them from the current shipwreck [5].


[1] LFG, “Lamp” in The private space. Five centuries in twenty Words, Madrid, Ministry of Culture, 1990, p. 215.

[2] See Jane Brox, Brilliant. The Evolution of Artificial Light, Boston – New York, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

[3] We have relied upon a translation of Julio Cortázar into Spanish of Essays and critiques, Madrid, Alliance, 1973, pp. 214-221.
[4] Ibid.

[5] Lumina Domestica is the name of a singularly themed museum dedicated to the lamps of Bruges, it is owned by the company Eddy Van Belle. The private collection open to the public is composed of 6000 pieces.