To the average person, the Lampe Gras may appear unremarkable. Dorm rooms and work spaces around the world have enjoyed the light thrown by it or one of its hundreds of knock-offs for nearly a century, so it’s easy to underestimate it. Nonetheless, this deceptively humble lamp is nothing short of historical.
The Birth of Lighting Design
Bernard-Albin Gras (1886-1943) had no aspirations to greatness; he was simply an engineer and prolific inventor who saw problems and tried to solve them.
Electric light, though increasingly popular, seemed chained to forms born from the traditions of flame-based light. As a result, electric lamps were usually inconvenient, cumbersome, and/or dangerous.
Gras’ solution was simple, elegant, and, above all, useful: metal-armature-based table lamps, floor lamps, and desk lamps that could be adapted to a space and then, within the space, easily adjusted to suit one’s needs.
This dynamic purity of function led to awards, such as the gold medal in the Lépine Competition of Inventions, but, more than that, served as the first true instance of lighting design, ie. a lamp whose beauty was a product of its functionality. Moreover, this unison of form and function is what turned it into a phenomenon.
An Accidental Paradigm
Modernism had been growing as a movement for decades by the time the Lampe Gras was patented in 1921, and many modernist architects took an early interest in the Lampe Gras, using it extensively in both their studios and their designs. Perhaps most notable among them was famous Swiss-French architect, Le Corbusier, who championed the Lampe Gras, and held it up as an archetype of his own philosophy.
Le Corbusier sought a sense of harmony in design, with his ideal being objects that were “perfectly convenient, perfectly usable, and whose genuine luxury flatters our minds and exudes the elegance of their design, the purity of their execution, and the efficiency of their services. They are so finely elaborated they feel harmonious and this harmony is enough to fill us with satisfaction.” To Le Corbusier, the Lampe Gras was such a device.
There is no element of the Lampe Gras that does not serve a purpose, yet it is this austerity that gives it a sense of sleek elegance: its form and function are harmonious. Moreover, by defying the capriciousness of style, it transcended it. Unfortunately, that also became its downfall.
All Good Things…
As years passed, Ravel SA—the company that manufactured the Lampe Gras—made no substantial alterations to the Lampe Gras. Nonetheless, tastes changed. Technology developed. Competitors entered the market. Supply-chain companies stopped producing necessary parts. Eventually, sales began to falter.
At last, faced with the choice between discontinuing the Lampe Gras and spending money to update it to current safety and design standards—while demand was already dwindling in the face of increased competition—Ravel chose to end production in 1970.
Everything Old is New
In 1970, changing standards and tastes led to production of the Lampe Gras ending after fifty years. Leading the Lampe Gras to be forgotten by some, and treasured by others. Countless installations were scrapped by over-eager renovators in favour of more decorative lighting fixtures, even as a community of devoted collectors began to grow.
Original Lampes Gras became hugely sought after, and knock-offs could only do so much to sate demand. Fortunately, in 2008, a new company called DCWéditions heard opportunity knocking…