The Task at Hand: 100 Years of the Adjustable Desk Lamp

A technological breakthrough and a little-acknowledged bellwether of Modernism, the task lamp finally gets its due.
15 Tischarm Midgard

A No. 113 lamp from the 1920s (left), which Curt Fischer designed under his company Midgard, and designs from Anglepoise and Artemide Courtesy Jenner Egberts/Midgard

Few types of industrial design embody its rote, iterative nature like task lighting. Curt Fischer, a metal workshop owner in Germany, seemed to understand this when he invented some of the earliest examples of task lighting in 1919. Under his company Midgard, his first designs were the result of intense, almost ontological contemplation of human behavior and the prescriptions of context, from the slightly asymmetrical lampshade that mimics a worker’s deskside slouch to the punctilious placement of arms and selection of axial joints. Those initial products kicked off what has become an omnipresent but often overlooked lighting typology.

Lesesaal Bundesschule Bernau

Emerging around the same time, Midgard and the Bauhaus shared an affinity for industry and function: Walter Gropius was, by his own admission, an “utter devotee” of Fischer, and Marianne Brandt wrote she “envied the inventors of Midgard’s arms.” The lighting brand often furnished Bauhaus interiors, from the 1923 showcase Haus am Horn in Weimar to later studios in Dessau. Type No. 113— with its nickel piping and enameled lampshade, probably the best-known Midgard design—lined tables in the reading room of the ADGB Trade Union School (1930) in Bernau bei Berlin, codesigned by Bauhaus Dessau director Hannes Meyer. Courtesy Estate of Walter Peterhans, Museum Folkwang, Essen

“The driving force behind the development of adjustable light in the 1920s and ’30s was its use in factories and workshops,” says Thomas Edelmann, journalist and curator of the roving exhibition 100 Years of Positionable Light: The Origin and Relevance of Adjustable Lighting, currently on show at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg, Germany. From early on, the typology enjoyed a synergistic reverence for industry with the nascent Bauhaus, then coursing through the beginnings of corporate work culture, and today continues its ubiquity in interiors.

Midgard Typ 113 New Bauhaus Chicago ©bauhaus Archiv Rgb

Bauhauslers brought Midgard with them across the Atlantic to the short-lived New Bauhaus in Chicago, which a late-career László Moholy-Nagy was recruited to lead from 1937 to 1938. (It later became the Institute of Design, a constituent school of Illinois Institute of Technology.) In MoholyNagy’s self-designed director’s office, a single Midgard Type No. 113 desk lamp supplements daylight streaming in from Prairie Avenue to illuminate the space. (The photographs along the wall were taken by the Hungarian-born artist-designer.) No. 113 was also used in the Gropius House in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and Lyonel Feininger’s New York studio. Courtesy Henry Holmes Smith © ChristopherSmith, Bauhaus-Archiv, Berlin

Countering the trouble some shadows cast by overhead lighting, positionables did indeed take root in the studio and workshop, but quickly made their way into all sorts of less-demanding settings, such as residences and hotels, through midcentury. The exhibition assembles dozens of adjustable lights, paying Midgard its due for antecedence and prominence in that history, but also includes important designs from the likes of Artemide, Gras, and Kandem (the latter two companies produced adjustables that arguably predate Fischer’s). A century of material, technological, stylistic, and social shifts is thus nestled within the esoteric and abstruse trajectory of task lighting.

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LAMPE GRAS 1921 Bernard-Albin Gras DCW Courtesy Jenner Egberts/Midgard

That history, like any other domain of design, is still being refined and retold (though Edelmann says the advent of neon tubes in the postwar era nearly made adjustable lighting superfluous). Earlier this year, for example, Munich-based designers Stefan Diez and Lina Fischer created Midgard’s first new design in decades, a thinstemmed Calder-esque lamp called Ayno. But despite its contemporary flair and more appealing colors, what makes Ayno remarkable is its formal and functional similarity to its centenarian ancestors—“entirely in the spirit of Curt Fischer,” comments Midgard owner David Einsiedler. Maybe, as the old saw goes, good design really is timeless.

You may also enjoy “10 Minimal Light Fixtures That Turn Technology into Poetry.

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Categories: Lighting