Shades of Brilliance: A Vintage Lamp Shade Primer

Lot 16, T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings floor lamp, mid-century modern, Palm Beach Modern Auctions (May 14)

Lamp shade is an element of your home decor you may tend to overlook, or at least take for granted. The slope of a perfectly proportioned pagoda shade, the drama of a large drum shade, or the dappled light filtered through a vintage Tiffany lamp can add drama, elegance, whimsy, and interest to just about any room.

Whether you’re looking for a replacement shade for your favorite lamp, the perfect shade for your functional floor lamp, or looking for a custom shade, this guide will help you choose the perfect size, shape, material, and style of shade to compliment your decor, accent your lighting fixtures, and add “oomph” to your end tables.

By the Era

While the lampshade has often been overlooked as an important element of home decor, there are some standouts.

Glass shades were very popular when kerosene or gas lights were being used from the late 18th through the early 20th century. Hand blown were among some of the most popular. While the glass shade eventually gave way to the fabric shades of today, the graceful curves and gentle slopes originally seen in glass shades have influenced newer lamp shade design.

Lot 1078, Manhattan Brass Company lamp, c. 1900, Kaminski Auctions (May 7)

Lighting progressed alongside the detail found in the glasswork. As the electric bulb came into widespread use during the early 20th century, Tiffany hand-leaded glass lamps of the Art Nouveau aesthetic were among the most coveted lamps and lampshades, and remain as coveted today. In 1997, an original Pink Lotus Tiffany lamp fetched $2.8 million at Christie’s in New York, the most ever paid for an authentic Tiffany lamp.

Lot 144, Tiffany Studios Arrowroot table lamp, Fontaine’s Auction Gallery (May 21)

During the Art Deco era, it was not uncommon for the height of chicness to use bakelite or acrylic shades in strong geometric shapes.

By the time the Mid-Century Modern era hit, lampshades had gone through a redesign once more. “Atomic” or “meteor” style shades in more free-spirited shapes, colors, and designs became popular. In the true mid-century vein, these shades were made of more rustic, natural, materials like waxed linens and using details like hand-stitched seams.

Lot 320, Vernor Panton VP-GLOBE pendant lamp, mid-century modern,
Palm Beach Modern Auctions (May 14)

Elements of Style: Proportion

How can you tell if you’ve got the right sized shade for your lamp base? A lot of that depends on your aesthetic and the desired overall look. But a simple rule of thumb to keep in mind when auditioning shades for your lamp is this: The shade should be 40% and the base the other 60% of the overall height. The width of the shade should be twice as wide as the largest point on the base.

Elements of Style: Color


Lot 665, Pair of French gilt bronze cherub lamps, J. Garrett Auctioneers (June 5)

Darker Shades: If you’re looking to cast a dramatic tone darker shades are a good choice. The darker the color, the more opaque the shade. Dark shades help to direct and focus light, much like a spotlight on a stage, and cast light in a specific direction or on a specific area of a room. Darker shades are great options in libraries, home offices (where focused light is needed for reading or working), bedside tables, and intimate dining rooms.

Lot 3, Handel reverse painted autumn scene desk lamp, c. 1900, Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers (May 7)

Patterned Shades: Often overlooked, a patterned shade can make a bold statement or be the perfect finishing touch to tie a room together. Think about matching your lamp shade pattern to a detail pulled from the wallpaper or a rug, or draw inspiration from surrounding garden views with a floral print or organic motif.

Lot 1192, Large mid-century designer lamp, Kaminski Auctions (May 7)

Lighter Shades: These shades let the most light through and act as a diffuser for your bulb to cast light evenly throughout a room. Lighter shades are great for high traffic areas, gathering places (where you want to see your guests’ faces) and multi-use living spaces.

Elements of Style: Shape

Lot 170, O. Noel Coulson lamp, c. 1958, Shapiro Auctions (July 2014)

Drum Shades: It doesn’t get more versatile than the drum shade. Symmetrically proportioned and able to scale up or down depending on your desired effect, drum shades mix well with a variety of lamp bases and decor styles. Your decor doesn’t have to be minimalist to be conducive to a drum shade; they are thoroughly modern and compliment Mid-Century Modern, Art Deco and Craftsman-style furnishings.

Lot 41, Wilkinson Nouveau floral table lamp, Fontaine’s Auction Gallery (May 21)

Pagoda or Bell Shades: The full-bodied curves of this ornate lamp shade style lend drama and a sense of opulence to any space or lamp base. Pagoda and bell shades go well with more traditional base styles including pottery and ceramic bases, ornately carved bases, bases that depict painted scenes, and sculptural bases. Pagoda shades can also serve as a lovely “frame” when used in pairs on either end of a couch.

Pagoda or Bell lampshades go nicely with furnishings of some of the older, more illustrious eras of design including the Georgian, Rococo and Louis XVI eras.

Lot 65, Pair of brass and chrome table lamps, 1970s, Stair Galleries (June 2014)

Square & Rectangle Cube Shades: Angular and precise, square and rectangular cube shades bring an element of form and structure to any space. Popular options during the Art Deco era, they tend to feel more formal as they are more detailed in their construction, but can be paired in a variety of rooms. Cube shades go well with simple bases that don’t have much of their own adornment. With their flat sides, cube shades are also a great functional option for spaces that require lamps to be placed close to an abutting wall or to stay tucked away on a small bedside table.

Elements of Style: Materials

The materials you choose for your lamp shade can have a big impact on the overall look of the shade, both when the lamp is illuminated and not. Here are some ideas for experimenting with materials and textures in your shades:

Lot 285, Poul Henningsen copper and brass table lamp, 1927, Wright (May 5)

Metallics: One of the main advantages of metal shades is their appeal when illuminated and not. Shiny brass and copper shades can add a lustrous appeal to any room. More subtle brushed metal gives an industrial edge to a space. Metallic shades are often seen used paired with Arts and Crafts style lamps.

Lot 52, Vasque Rinceaux lamp by Rene Lalique, 1926, Artcurial (May 24)

Glass: A classic, leaded glass shades are some of the most iconic and recognizable shades from the 20th century. Tiffany lamps are known for their organic forms and floral motifs, while the modular stained glass designs of the deco and craftsman periods offer an appealing linear effect. Whatever your aesthetic preference, the impact of a glass shade when illuminated is truly theatrical and can be a showstopper in a room. Art Nouveau is a very popular era for stained glass lamp shades, Art Deco also saw its fair share of this varietal.

Lot 640, Mid-century modern lamp with fabric shade, c. 1940, Kamelot Auctions (September 2014)

Textured Fabrics: A heavily woven textile can add great dimension to a lamp shade. Pulled linen, knotty tweeds, and soft brushed suedes are all lovely options for textured shade fabrics. The Mid-Century Modern era saw an uptick in the usage of heavy textured fabric shades, which played nicely with the design era’s return to natural materials.

Everything Else

Floor lamp with walnut root base by George Nakashima, 1977, Moderne Gallery

Lot 300, Morgan Bent panel floral table lamp, Fontaine’s Auction Gallery (May 21)

It depends on the space, but there are some adventurous lamp shade materials to be had for the adventurous decorator. Feathers, beads, sequins and animal print are all fun options that might go well in a teen’s bedroom, while oyster and tortoise shell offer a more sophisticated look.

What are you waiting for? There is a world of shades out there, just waiting to be discovered and married to the perfect lamp.