How do you pick the right lamp?
Decorating your house or apartment is exciting, but it can be a challenge too. There are so many decisions to make: design style, color and price point for everything from furniture, rugs and accents to lighting. Choosing a lamp is an important step in creating a beautiful and livable home. But, which lamps should you buy? There are so many options. This guide was created to help you navigate some of the lamp choices and give insight into things important factors to think about.
Table of Contents
- 1 How do you pick the right lamp?
- 2 Types of lamps
- 2.1 Table lamps – Setting your task and ambient lighting
- 2.2 Additional things to consider when evaluating table lamps
- 2.3 Floor lamps – Grounding your ambient and task light
- 2.4 Additional things to consider when evaluating floor lamps
- 2.5 Wall lamps – Hanging on for dear light
- 2.6 Additional things to consider when evaluating wall lamps
- 3 How do you pick the right lamp shade?
- 3.1 What is the right shape for a lamp shade?
- 3.2 What is the right size for a lamp shade?
- 3.3 What is the best material for lamp shades?
- 3.4 How do you choose a lamp shade color or pattern?
- 3.5 What are potential safety concerns with lamp shades?
- 4 Light bulbs
- 5 Miscellaneous lamp features
- 6 Cool lamps – Novelty lighting for the fun of it
- 7 FAQS
- 7.1 How do you measure lamp shades?
- 7.2 How do you clean lamp shades?
- 7.3 How do you clean brass lamps?
- 7.4 How do you pack lamps for moving?
- 7.5 What is a spider lamp shade?
- 8 References
- 9 Photo Credits
Considering the form and function of your lamp
One way to streamline the number of choices is to determine the function and form of your lamp. What kind of lighting do you need? Will it sit on the floor or a table, or will it be mounted on the wall? Once you have answers to these questions, picking the correct lamp will be easier.
Five basic types of lighting
- Natural lighting – This is the light that occurs naturally in a space during daylight hours. It can have a positive mental and emotional effect by improving attitude and reducing stress. It also reveals the truest colors.
- Ambient lighting – This form of lighting is often referred to as “general lighting” and is intended to provide uniform overall illumination in a room. Typically, it’s what we think of when we flip on a light switch as we enter a space. Ambient lights are often ceiling fixtures or sconces, but they can be portable lamps or wall lamps as well.
- Task lighting – This kind of lighting can be thought of as illumination specific to performing a particular activity. For example, reading in a living room, doing paperwork in a home office or preparing food over a kitchen counter are all activities that benefit from additional brightness via task lighting.
- Accent lighting (a.k.a. focal lighting) – This sort of light creates an atmosphere or is used to draw your attention to a particular object or aspect of your home’s architecture or landscape. Maybe you have a particular piece of sculpture or artwork that you want to highlight. Perhaps it’s an antique china cabinet or Zen garden bonsai tree. Some accent lighting precisely focuses the light on whatever you want to visually celebrate indoors or outdoors. Other accents lights set the mood and tone with warm or cool colors, depending on the ambiance you want to create.
- Decorative lighting – This lighting is for purely aesthetic purposes. Think of it as jewelry for the architecture – ornamental lighting to catch the eye and reflect personal style or affluence. These lights typically do not emit light well, but simply add to the overall illumination in a minor way.
[M Karlen, C Spangler, JR Benya 2017]
Types of lamps
Once you’ve determined where your lamp will go and how it will be used, you still have many choices from which to select. There are essentially three primary categories of lamps: table lamps, floor lamps and wall lamps.
Table lamps – Setting your task and ambient lighting
These mid-sized lamps are the most common portable light used in homes today. Based on where they’re placed, table lamps can improve activity performance or simply enhance the ambiance of a room. Modern lamps of this variety may include USB charging for small electronic devices.
Accent lamps – Reinforcing design style
These lamps typically provide ambient light and make a personal statement of style. While functional, their primary purpose is often to reinforce the interior design theme of a room or simply add a whimsical decorative touch. Accent lamps have a wide variety of characteristics and finding the right one really depends on the aesthetics that matter most to you. They’re an easy way to infuse a room with some vibrant color, add some curves and texture, or celebrate a theme that speaks to you.
Reading lamps – Lighting by the book
Ever found yourself moving a magazine closer or felt eye strain after finishing a chapter in your favorite novel? If so, it may be the result of insufficient lighting (or you could just be getting old). Even in a decently lit room, it can be a challenge to scan text. Reading lamps provide a brightly focused light and can adapt to changing conditions. Dimmers are valuable features in living rooms lamps if you read throughout the day or bedside lamps at night. They should also allow you to direct the light toward your reading material, regardless of your height or book position.
Desk lamps – Adapting to your home work environment
Whether you have a spacious partners desk or a small mobile workstation, having a great desk lamp is critical to lighting a home office. You perform a variety of tasks at your desk: typing on a computer, paying bills, making to do lists, etc. Your desk lamp must provide reading light and be able to accommodate items across the tabletop. Most have tilting shades that redirect light onto paperwork across your desk or away from computer screens. Many have adjustable arms and necks that can rotate or extend to cover surface areas all over the desktop.
Buffet lamps – Thin lights in the thick of things
If you host dinner parties and take pride in the presentation, buffet lamps are a great touch. Not only do they raise the elegance factor of your dining room, they also serve a practical purpose – they help people see the food that they’re about to enjoy. Typically, they’re used in pairs and placed on the ends of sideboards, consoles or other serving tables. Buffet lamps tend to be tall and thin to prevent the bases and shades from getting in the way of hands and arms. Their light is usually softer and focused downward to create a welcoming ambiance and mood.
Floor lamps – Grounding your ambient and task light
These tall lamps are extremely versatile and may be used to light the entire room, augment overhead lighting or provide much needed reading light. Due to their large scale, they’re often placed in the corner or behind sofas and lounge chairs. Some modern floor lamps include touch controls, USB ports and storage compartments.
Console or shaded floor lamps – Traditional downward lighting
These large standing lamps are what you typically picture in your mind when you think of floor lamps – a tall body with some sort of shade. Their statuesque bodies are often straight pole-like spindles, but they can be more decorative or even have a tripod design. The bases are usually wide or heavy to provide stability. Most console floor lamps have standard drum shades and are used for general ambient light. However, pharmacy style shades and swing arm floor lamps can adjust to provide ample direct light for reading.
Torchiere floor lamps – Uplifting illumination
These stylish floor lamps are similar to console lamps. The main difference is that they have inverted shades that direct light toward the ceiling, where it reflects and provides ambient light. Torchiere lamps generally resemble torches (hence the name), although the shade may take on a variety of shapes. Because their light is indirect, torchiere floor lamps are not particularly good for reading. They’re often placed at the edges or corners of the room, instead of to the side of chairs or sofas. On the plus side, they don’t have the glare that can occur with some downward shades.
Arc floor lamps – Lighting that’s ahead of the curve
These sleek modern floor lamps feature a long curving arm that gracefully arches up and out from a heavy base. They’re often used in living rooms to provide general overhead lighting for wide lounge areas with multiple chairs, sofas or even a sectional. Typically, they’re positioned behind a couch or table, so that the shade hangs over the center of the seating area. The most iconic example of this type of light is Achille Castiglioni’s Arco Floor Lamp, which is one of the most recognizable pieces of mid-century modern lighting.
Track tree floor lamps – Branching out in new lighting directions
These dynamic floor lamps feature a main body that branches into three or more arms. These appendages can adjust to focus light in any number of directions. Track tree floor lights often include rotating and tilting shade heads, whose height can be adjusted individually. They can be used to accent multiple decorative elements or provide direct light to an entire book club seated around the area. Variations are also known as octopus, spider and multi-arm floor lamps and are typically placed alongside seating.
Wall lamps – Hanging on for dear light
I can guess what you’re thinking – don’t you mean “sconces” or “vanities?” If we’re going to be nitpicky, then yes, wall lamps, sconces and vanities are all technically wall lights. However, sconces and vanities tend to illuminate a limited area. Wall lamps, for our purposes, provide both task and ambient light, and are much more substantial in design and function. They may or may not have shades, but most can be used around seating areas or tables where you need direct light. They’re also effective when horizontal space is at a premium and you can’t use a desk lamp.
Swing arm wall lamps – Lighting up the joint
These handy wall lights have adjustable arms which can pivot and swing into a variety of positions. They make it easy for you to move the lighting source. Some have multiple joints and adjustable shades that enable you to manipulate the light angle even further. This adaptability makes swing arm lamps ideal for reading or performing other precision tasks that need close-up direct light. Position them between seats, so you can take advantage of their mobility in both spots. Later, you can fold it up and out of the way when it’s not in use.
Accordion arm wall lamps – Extending your lighting capability
These dynamic wall lights offer many of the same advantages as swing arm varieties, although they are usually a bit more limited in the degree to which they can adjust. They often have a rotating hinge near the wall mount that gives you some left and right movement. The key feature is a multi-jointed accordion-like arm that extends and retracts in one direction. The shade is moved manually or by means of a small lever. Typically, these wall lamps have an industrial steampunk look, which makes them as much an aesthetic choice as a functional one.
How do you pick the right lamp shade?
Alright, you figured out what kind of lamp to get, but you still have other options to consider. For example, what kind of lampshade should you get? Shades have functional responsibilities, but they also add character and can reinforce the decor style and create a cohesive look. Lamps often come with coordinating shades, but you may have an option to swap them out. Other times, shades are sold separately. The most important characteristics to consider when evaluating lamp shades include shape, size, material, color/pattern and safety.
What is the right shape for a lamp shade?
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to the shape of lamp shades since aesthetics are subjective. However, in general, it’s a good idea for the lamp base and shade to have a similar contour. If the lamp base is curved, a rounded shade is likely to look better than one with sharp angles. The same goes for straight edged bases and squared shades. Mixing and matching shapes might appease your eclectic spirit, but it can lead to cognitive dissonance – something just feels off.
The angle of the sides of the shade is another thing to think about. Virtually all shades have tapered or vertical sides, which may be straight or slightly concave. Shade corners may be sharp, rounded or cut at 45° angles. Finally, the bottom edge of the shade may be straight or scalloped (rounded sections). Much of the decision is really just personal preference.
Most popular shapes for lamp shades
This simple cylinder shade has round openings with vertical sides. It disperses light equally up and down and complements transitional and contemporary style lamps.
This elliptical shade is essentially an elongated version of the standard drum shade. Its rounded ends give it a softer feel than sharper geometric shades.
These square, rectangular, hexagon or octagon shaped shades usually have vertical sides, but may be tapered. They go well with lamps that have a modern designs.
This classic cone or “frustum” shaped shade has a slightly smaller top diameter. It distributes more light downward than up. You’ll see this shade on many traditional styled lamps.
This extreme cone shaped shade has a significantly larger bottom diameter. It brightly lights below, while emitting a softer light above. They create a striking profile on contemporary lamps.
This graceful cone-like shade has concave sides and usually emits ambient light through soft shade material. Usually, this sort of shade is used for lamps with a vintage traditional look.
What is the right size for a lamp shade?
Are you replacing an old shade and want something different? Or, are you buying a new lamp that doesn’t come with one? Either way, it can be difficult figuring out the proper size to get. There are aesthetic and functional factors to consider. It’s also important to take a couple key measurements of the lamp base: the height from the bottom to just below the socket fixture and the diameter or width at the bottom.
- Diameter/width – Table lamp shades are roughly as wide as the base is tall. They should be half an inch wider than the base on each side. Floor lamp shades are at least 18” in diameter or larger.
- Height – Table lamp shades should be approximately ¾ the height of the base.
- Position – All shades should cover the top of the lamp fitter, socket and bulb. This ensures that you cannot see any of the hardware from the side.
- Proportion – Table lamp shades should not be wider than the table. Floor lamp shades should be a size commensurate with the free space in the room (use common sense).
What is the best material for lamp shades?
The primary function of a lamp is a key determinant of the ideal shade material. For instance, if the main purpose of a floor lamp is to provide bright ambient light, then a translucent fabric shade is appropriate. On the other hand, a table lamp meant for reading would be better off with a darker shade made from denser material. The backing also plays an important part in how the lamp shade performs.
Lampshade interior lining types
- Hard-backed shade – This shade may have a metal framework and is lined with plastic or another firm material. It reflects light away from the interior surface (usually gold or white) and out the top and bottom. This makes the light seem brighter.
- Soft-backed shade – Shades of this kind usually have a metal framework with vertical supports between the top and bottom. They may have a flexible lining (paper or linen) that allows light to pass through the walls.
Lampshade exterior surface materials
Lamp shades can be made from a number of materials with distinct characteristics, benefits and drawbacks.
- Silk – Elegant smooth fabric whose fibers act as tiny prisms to scatter light with a unique luster, filters light effectively and absorbs dyes easily [S Nivedita & PK Mishra 2016]
- Linen – Long-lasting laid back textile that has a beautiful natural color and provides a subtle textured look
- Cotton – Inexpensive fabric option that can absorb bold colors and be rolled smooth or gathered in a pleated design
- Parchment – Lightweight paper with clean contemporary look that holds bold colors and vivid printed designs
- Glass – Opaque white glass works well for kitchens and bathrooms, where you need bright light, while art glass and Tiffany lamps have vintage appeal in any room
- Plastic – Similar to glass, but you have unlimited modern color choices and varied opacity, although it is more susceptible to scratches
- Metal – Great directional lighting material with an urban industrial look, but it can get a bit heavy and hot to the touch
How do you choose a lamp shade color or pattern?
Are we to the fun part yet? Yes and no. Like most things, there are tradeoffs based on various shade choices. The darker the shade (and thicker), the less light will filter through. So, a matte black drum shade might look ultra-chic on your minimalist modern table lamp, but it will provide less ambient light than a white one of the same material. You have to consider the implications and make a decision based on your priorities.
The good news is that there are many stylish options within each color palette. If your lamp base is multi-colored, you might want to consider a solid colored shade that closely matches one of the accent colors. Otherwise, neutral hues are your safest bet. Bright solids and vibrant patterns make lively contrasts to lamp bases with more subdued tones. Think of them like you would a tie with a suit – a little fun is not just accepted, it’s appreciated.
Lamp shades are great for picking up colors used in other areas of the room. They can also provide a complementary accent to break up a monochromatic room. If you want to create a calm environment, neutral colors provide soothing light and coordinate with virtually any color scheme. Don’t forget about textures – visual appeal can come from understated tactile patterns as well.
What are potential safety concerns with lamp shades?
An oft-overlooked aspect of choosing a lamp shade is safety. Confused? To put it simply – the greater the amount of heat generated by a light bulb, the more ventilation is required. The wider or larger the shade, the greater the amount of ventilation. With incandescent bulbs, the higher the wattage of the bulb used, the greater the heat generated. In general, 2-3 a 2-3 inch separation between the center of the bulb and the inside edge of the lamp shade wall (i.e. “critical radius”) is sufficient. However, you may want to consult the table below from Underwriters Laboratories (UL) for more detailed insight. Cooler burning bulbs like LEDs and compact fluorescents (CFLs) don’t emit as much heat. But, they are often larger than hotter burning incandescent bulbs and may require a wide shade.
Underwriters Laboratories Heat Ventilation Recommendations
|0-25 Watts||1 ⅝”|
|41-60 Watts||2 ½”|
|61-75 Watts||2 ⅞”|
|76-100 Watts||3 ½”|
|101-150 Watts||4 ¾”|
So, you found the perfect lamp and selected a great shade. You’re done, right? Well, not quite. What about the light bulb? Just like lamps and shades, bulbs are available in many varieties. Your lamp should come with some restrictive bulb guidelines, such as plug/base type and maximum wattage. You still have many choices to make regarding performance and appearance.
For a deep dive into light bulbs, take a look at our in-depth article: Lighting Guide – How to choose the right light bulb.
Miscellaneous lamp features
Some lamps offer additional subtle accents and unique functional capabilities that are not available on most lamps.
- Finials – These decorative accents screw into the top of a lamp and securing the shade to the base.
- Dimmers – Certain bulbs permit a manual switch to dim or brighten the illumination.
- USB ports – Modern lamps are increasingly outfitted with USB ports for charging smartphones, tablets and laptop computers.
- Double pull chains – Lamps with multiple bulbs often include two chains for controlling the sockets individually.
- Storage & shelves – Some table lamps have storage compartments for pens and other small items. Floor lamps may include fixed or rotating tabletops for setting books and magazines.
- Touch control – Some lamps offer touch controls for power or dimming, rather than switches or knobs.
Cool lamps – Novelty lighting for the fun of it
Sometimes, you want something for no logical reason. It’s not practical and doesn’t serve a necessary purpose, but you still want it. It’s whimsical, fun, spiritual or just plain cool. Whatever your reason, novelty lamps are a great expression of the inner you, whether that’s a child, a dreamer or a total geek. Remember the fishnet stocking leg lamp from “A Christmas Story?” It’s totally impractical but unforgettable. Sometimes, you just have to have fun decorating, regardless of whether others think it’s cool or not.
Himalayan salt lamps
One of the most popular specialty lights these days are Himalayan salt lamps. These granular blocks are made from pink salt crystals harvested from the Pakistani Khewra salt mine. They’re hollowed out and fitted with bulbs to produce light and generate heat. The glow ranges from light pink to bold orange, depending on the concentration of the mineral. In addition to their natural aesthetic appeal, salt lamps are said to possess health and wellness benefits, because they’re “natural ionizers.” Air ionizers produce negatively charged ions, which neutralize pollutants in the air. Himalayan salt lamps are believed to improve air quality, mood and sleep. While they do have a soothing pinkish glow that creates a relaxing atmosphere, there is no scientific evidence to support these claims. The benefits of salt lamps may be psychosomatic, but the mind is a powerful thing, so…
These dynamic colorful lamps are iconic symbols of the psychedelic hippie movement of the 60’s and have become popular kitsch items. The original lava lamp was invented in 1963, by Edward Craven Walker and it was called the Astro. Lava lamps consist of a simple base and glass cone filled with clear liquid and a special colored wax. An internal light bulb heats the wax, which causes it to rise through the liquid and then cool. At this point, the wax loses its buoyancy and falls to the bottom of the cone, where it begins the process all over again. The viscous cycle is reminiscent of pahoehoe lava flows and if you’re not careful, you can quickly become entranced in the mesmerizing undulations of the wax. Lava lamps come in a wide variety of styles and colors, and massive floor versions can be seen in trendy bars and restaurants.
There’s something truly magical about a full moon in the night’s sky. It has been a symbol of the divine and mystical power throughout time immemorial. Moon lamps capture that timeless sense of wonderment and create a serene and calming ambiance. These unique spherical lamps are made from high-grade plastic, sit in a cradle and emit a gentle glowing light. The cradles can vary from the simplest angular holder to a graceful and artistically sculpted hand. There are even contemporary stands that can suspend and rotate the globe in the air. The best moon lamps are created using high tech 3D printing techniques to capture a realistic rendering of the lunar surface. Most versions provide some sort of color adjustment capability and dimming options. Moon lamps are great as nightlights or decorative accents for bookshelves and tabletops.
What is it about rain and gentle thunderstorms that soothe restless minds and make it easier to drift off to sleep? Is it the faint, but perpetual sound of the raindrops coming down or the soft rumblings that calm our subconscious? Cloud lamps look and sound like actual thunderclouds, creating a relaxing environment. Polyester fiber is often used to create the fluffy cloud-like appearance of the outside of these lamps. Lightweight plastic is used to protect the internal speaker and LED lighting systems. Some interactive models are Bluetooth® compatible and have motion sensor technology. So, you can control the sound and illumination remotely or through simple movement. They also enable you to control the color and they can be synced with music or set to nightlight modes. How great is that? Most versions hang from the ceiling, but there are also tabletop models.
- Karlen, M., Spangler, C., & Benya, J. R. (2017). Lighting design basics. John Wiley & Sons.
- Nivedita, S., & Mishra, P. K. (2016). Novel Applications of Silk Nonwovens in Living Enclosures. In International Conference on Inter Disciplinary Research in Engineering and Technology (Vol. 1, p. 04).
- Lenk, R., & Lenk, C. (2017). Practical lighting design with LEDs. John Wiley & Sons.
- Underwriters Laboratories
- Elis Lamp from the Windsor Smith Collection – Arteriors
- Concorde Desk Lamp – Authentic Models
- Yasmin Floor Lamp – Arteriors
- Accordion Wall Lamp – Shades of Light
- Lamp Shades – Public Domain
- Lamp Shade Materials – Public Domain
- Lamp Shade Color & Patterns – Public Domain
- Bridgewater Table Lamp with USB Port – Aidan Gray
- Himalayan Salt Lamp – Public Domain
- Lava Lamp – Mathmos
- Moon Lamp – The Original Moon Lamp
- Cloud Lamp – Richard Clarkson Studio