Despite feeling like it should be an easy finishing touch (after all, it is an accessory) choosing a lampshade can be devilishly tricky. Perhaps this because it is all about a relationship - one of scale, pattern and proportion - with the lamp it sits on. Luckily, this is one aspect of decorating that comes with some really great rules of thumb, rules that a good decorator will know by heart. Considering shape, size, material, pattern and colour, Ruth Sleightholme shares some of the golden rules of lampshade selection, so that you can throw shade like a true decorator.
There are a multitude of shade shapes on the market, all of which have their own connotations. Most traditional decorators will gravitate towards the most classic shape, known as an ‘Empire’ shade: a robust shape which gently tapers in towards the top. If decorating in a traditional decorative style, this shape is a very successful first port of call. An Empire shade will have specific proportions of 16” base diameter with a 10” top and a 10” slope; 18” base diameter with a 12” top and a 12” base, and so on up and down the sizes. Note, lampshade makers do tend to work in 2-inch increments.
‘Drum’ shades, which are straight up-and-down cylinder-shapes, tend to feel very modern, and are usually made with an un-gathered, smooth fabric or card. For an even more modern look, a square or rectangular shade can be an interesting choice, but one to be handled with a care in a traditional interior.
What used to be called a ‘Coolie’ shade - a name which has fallen out of favour because of its insulting association with hats worn by Asian labourers - is now more often called a ‘Cone’ shade, and is known for its very steep flair. This shape is decorative, but a little more jolly and informal than the ‘Empire’ style, perhaps because of its association with enamelled metal or glass utility lighting, it has also been used by modernist lamp designers like Paavo Tynell. This gives the shape a light, easy-to-use touch which is great for most schemes. Note, the shape works particularly well for a slender lamp, but can be jarring with particularly squat, ornamental shapes. Unusual, low lamps, instead, can be very successfully paired with square shades.
Henriette von Stockhausen of VSP Interiors advises us to ‘always consider the base of your lamp whether round or square or hexagonal, and choose your shade accordingly.’ Bear in mind, though, that more often than not opposites will attract. A low ball-shaped lamp base may well look great with a tall Drum shade; a tall, rectangular lamp may work well with a Cone shade, and so on.
Within those broad shapes: Empire, Cone, Drum and Square, there is an infinity of variation, and flourishes on the basic shape can add interest and fun to your lamp. Susan Deliss’ petal-scalloped Empire shades are incredibly pretty, for example, and Munroe & Kerr X A Considered Space’s wavey cone shades are already a classic. Just be careful to look beyond the design’s flourishes, in order to see what basic shape your shade adheres to.
Size really does matter when choosing a lampshade, and there is a super handy rule of thumb that all decorators will know off by heart. The height of the lamp should be the same as the base diameter of your lampshade. Of course, there will always be exceptions to this rule. For example, a very skinny candlestick lamp will require something smaller, or else the proportional difference between lamp and shade would be huge! Similarly, if you have a very short fat lamp then you may need something considerably wider than the lamp’s height.
Another rule of thumb is that the shade should be twice as wide as the lamp base, and, if you measure the entire lamp, including the shade, the ‘lamp’ part of what you see, including any fittings, should comprise two-thirds of the total height, and the shade should comprise a third of the total. Again, these proportions are a very handy starting point and will work more often than not, but deviation can be very successful if done thoughtfully.
Most lampshades are either made from card, which can be beautifully hand-painted or sharply pleated; or fabrics, which can be stretched over card, hand-gathered, or box-pleated. A pleated fabric lampshade is a thing of beauty, especially if it is hand-gathered neatly, with a fine band top and bottom, in the traditional way. Alvaro Picardo's hand-painted card shades are amongst the chicest.
The most important things to look at when choosing a shade material are how the material works with the actual light of the lamp, and what material the shade is lined with.
In terms of lining material, a warm-coloured lining such as a gold card or a yellow or pink-toned fabric will create a warmer light, and a blueish or silver lining will create a colder light. A lined fabric shade will create a more beautiful light that one without a lining, and some makers, such as Susan Deliss, even silk-wrap the metal spokes to keep them visually soft. An exception to the rule on lining fabrics is if the shade fabric is intentionally sheer and glowy, such as a sari silk which lets out a lot of light, then it could be left without a liner.
In terms of the outer material, consider how much light escapes from the material, and with what level of evenness. There is a helpful demonstration here, of how different Porta Romana fabrics work when back-lit. A velvet shade will block out almost all light, which can be unsatisfying, but a gold card lining will help pool the light that does escape downwards. On the other hand a gathered, light-weight textile with a lining will let out an attractive, gentle light. A light-coloured card shade will let out a good amount of light all around for a lovely even glow. Pierced lampshades, like these ones from Robert Kime, play with the release and shade of light in a beautiful way.
More and more natural materials have appeared on the market, and they all have different qualities. Card-backed rattan or cane shades in the style of Matilda Goad are so popular partly because they let out a nice, even peppering of honey-toned light: always a winner. More ‘gappy’ natural materials such as wicker or un-lined raffia can let out quite big bands of light and cast patterns on the wall, and so should be handled with care. They are perhaps best paired with a very dim, warm bulb.
Ask about lampshades, and most decorators will talk dreamily about Robert Kime’s papyrus shades. This popularity is all about the quality of light that they emit, dappled and gently golden. They are truly pitch-perfect for almost every interior, especially with their modern, hexagonal take on Empire. Parchment and vellum shades, and certain qualities of Japanese rice paper, which can be much more affordable, will have a similarly soothing effect.
Shade pattern and colour
Finally, we can leave some rules behind, because shade pattern and colour is an area where you really can please yourself and go with your eye. Consider, though, that gathering a fabric will distort its pattern. This can be a nice thing, disrupting and softening perhaps harsh stripes or motifs - it is for this good reason that Ikat fabrics are so perennially attractive. A lampshade is a great excuse for a dash of colour, and rich colours can work very well for shades: consider a wonderful magenta or emerald green. But bear in mind that warm colours in general: yellows and pinks, may be the most flattering option for the humans in the room.
When it comes to pattern, it can be worth noting that a lamp that has a predominance of figurative motifs or patterns on it can be successfully paired with a plain colour shade and vice versa: a beautifully bold plain-coloured ceramic lamp may well appreciate a patterned or striped shade. Try contrasting the scale of a pattern or motif on the lamp with that on the shade: large with small and so on. An entirely matching pair of lamp and shade is, in actual fact, quite a statement and is more likely to feel jarring than harmonious, but this can of course be done to brilliant effect, as Bridie Hall demonstrates with her plain colour shades and cylinder lamps.
This story originally appeared on House & Garden UK.