Light and Shade

By on January 20, 2014

2014 marks 120 years since the birth of Danish lighting designer Poul Henningsen, whose iconic lamps have remained in continuous production since the 1920s. Peter Olive sheds some light on the subject.

In the early 20th century, frustrated by the inconsistent, patchy illumination of incandescent lightbulbs, Poul Henningsen set out to design a system that would disperse light evenly. To do so he turned to mathematically ‘golden’ ratios found in nature. Determined to find a design of utmost practicality, he knew that the proportions of the natural world would also provide a solution delightful to the human eye.

To eliminate glare, Henningsen’s designs centred on a flower-like formation of three concentric shades, which would reflect and soften the harsh light of a bulb. Diffusing white light through opalescent glass, the studied perfection of Henningsen’s design ensured a uniform glow with no loss of brightness. The design, perfected in 1928, was an immediate success. Through the 1930s, the eponymous ‘PH’ lamp quickly grew to encompass a range of lighting for any occasion, adorning desks, offices, pianos, dental surgeries, train carriages and concert halls.


His progress was interrupted by the First World War, during which Henningsen fled German-occupied Denmark for Stockholm. On his return, he continued to design even more zealously. As austerity measures relaxed, architects’ commissions followed, such as the ‘artichoke’ lamp [pictured], which Henningsen designed to decorate the Langelinie pavilion in central Copenhagen. Henningsen’s original designs illuminate diners there even today.

Still though, Henningsen did not rest in his pursuit of ideal indoor lighting. Continual changes in lightbulb manufacture threatened to upset the scheme he had worked so hard to perfect. 1958 saw his solution: the production of the PH5 pendant lamp [pictured]. The PH5 was a hybrid design, incorporating a new, trumpet-shaped top shade, which could house bulbs irrespective of shape. It remains the bestseller of Henningsen’s lamps, and today is said to hang in more than half of Danish homes.


Luxury lighting firm Louis Poulsen continues to produce a range of Henningsen’s lamps, and has recently relaunched the PH5 in a new series of matt colours. In honour of his 120th birthday, a commemorative silver edition of the PH lamp will be produced. Vintage models remain highly prized in Chelsea antique shops, while the houses of Alvar Aalto, David Lynch film sets and even the office of ‘M’ in James Bond films are adorned with these timeless designs. Copenhagen’s Danish Design Museum permanently showcases Poul Henningsen’s work, along with design museums internationally.


Henningsen’s lamps have a subtle allure, their curvaceous shades seemingly grown rather than manufactured. The shades appear to hover, nestling together in perfect formation. Their harmonious proportions have an organic quality, making them exotic blooms from outer space. Henningsen’s use of mathematical ratios subconsciously familiar to us from the natural world certainly seems to have imbued his designs with the enduring appeal he was looking for.

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