Friday, July 31, 2009

Art Nouveau and Electric Lighting

There was an often bizarre assembly of electric lighting when, after initial experimentation and testing, the idea of the use of electricity to light domestic homes was first introduced.

In many cases electric lighting was seen firstly as a novelty, and at best a support for the prime lighting techniques of gas or oil. Bulbs were often of such a low wattage and had such a short life span that they couldn't hope to compete with other forms of lighting that had a much longer history of dependability. Also, electricity supplies were often intermittent and were fraught with a number of teething problems that many of the new companies supplying the technology, were ill prepared to deal with.

The early electric lamps shown here by Galle, Tiffany and Majorelle were all produced within a couple of years of the start of the new twentieth century. However, due to a lack of understanding of the new technology and a need to display electricity as a novelty rather than as a necessity, the function of the lamp has been submerged, thus producing a piece of equipment that has little practical use and is more closely affiliated with a piece of sculpture than with any form of practical lighting.

Louis Comfort Tiffany Pond Lily lamp 1900

A good example of the confusion and lack of understanding of the function of electricity in the home, was the impractical application of lamp shades. Rather than being clear, or at least lightly coloured, many were often made from opaque glass that was so heavily coloured or patterned, that there was little if any artificial light available for an interior, from an already feeble electric bulb.

This implies that the technology had arrived before the designer was fully aware of the constraints and foibles of that new technology. Admittedly electric lighting was very often packaged and presented to the public as an amusement. Many of the carnivals and funfairs of the period had venues that were lit by electricity. The technology may very well have been portrayed as the wonder of the age, but to many it was still very much a case of Yes, but what do we do with it?

As the century progressed and electricity became much more of a casual and everyday technology, manufacturers soon learnt to deal with the new opportunities and admittedly also the constraints of electricity, and much more practical applications, particularly in the form of lighting, were available for domestic use. However, the early Art Nouveau attempts to deal with the coming modern world are an interesting example of a the confusion that can be caused by a technology with no previous history and therefore no standards or guidelines. Misunderstandings between designers and the real applications of a future technology have been a fact of life of the twentieth century, as they will be of the twenty first.

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