Great moments in design: Illumination for the masses
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Design icons: The Anglepoise Lamp

Great moments in design: Illumination for the masses

Words— Jeremy Freed

Like the paperclip and the bicycle, some designs are so successful that they become victims of their own ubiquity. Over the last 90 years, the Anglepoise lamp—and countless others that borrowed its design—have been adopted by schools, homes and offices around the world. You may have seen hundreds of them, or might even own one yourself, without ever giving a thought to the fact that at some point someone had to sit down and think it up. His name was George Carwardine.  


In 1931 Carwardine was a successful engineer working on car suspensions in England when he came up with an idea for a new kind of lamp. The design’s signature was a set of springs that controlled the tension on an articulated arm, allowing for the light to be precisely and easily positioned. A heavy base kept it steady, while a metal shade focused the light’s beam. It was a perfect—and perfectly versatile—task lamp. 





Considering that until this point the height in desk lamp design had been the classic green-shaded banker’s light, the Anglepoise offered nothing short of a revolution in functionality. After three years, with demand for Carwardine’s invention outpacing his modest production capabilities, he licensed the design to Herbert Terry & Sons, his spring supplier, and the Anglepoise model 1208 was officially born. The 1227, a 3-spring design for the domestic market available in a range of fashionable colours, followed soon after, and both have been in continuous production ever since.


“With a heavy base to stabilize, a moveable arm with tension springs to direct the light where required, and a small shade to concentrate the beam without dazzle, this is an enduring mass-produced design that still functions for today’s user,” says Gemma Curtin, Curator at London’s Design Museum, which includes the Angelpoise in its collection. “Its industrial appearance reflects its early use in the workplace,” she continues. “However, during the second world war, the lamp moves into the home.” Not only did the lamp’s design help to conserve energy, she says, its focused spotlight proved an asset during the wartime blackouts.





Over the decades that followed, the Anglepoise would become a common element of British life, used everywhere from WWII bomber cabins to the offices of the BBC. So revered is the Anglepoise in British culture that along with the Concorde, the Mini Cooper and the red double-decker “Routemaster” bus, it was featured on a set of 2009 stamps celebrating the best of British design. Its impact was no less significant globally. In 1986 Pixar released Luxo Jr., a short film starring an anthropomorphic lamp of similar design—the Anglepoise being an essential tool of animators, draftsman and illustrators everywhere. Luxo Jr. became the first CGI animated film to be nominated for an Academy Award and now resides in the Library of Congress, while the lamp itself became Pixar’s mascot.


Under the leadership of Simon Terry, Herbert Terry’s great-grandson, Anglepoise continues to produce the 1227 in a wide variety of sizes and finishes, from a 2/3 scale desktop mini version to the Type 75 Maxi, a giant floor lamp. British designers Paul Smith and Margaret Howell have also come on board to create new versions of the lamp. Smith’s features his trademark pops of primary red, blue and yellow, and Howell’s lamps are painted in a range of pleasantly muted tones, but even these accomplished creators can’t offer much to improve upon George Carwardine’s original design. Such is the power of a truly illuminating idea.



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