J.P.’s little table lamp, at about 24 inches tall, is a strange looking combination for us to see today – it is a lamp and a bowl, and light inside– it is a sculpture (a bowl of fruit) and a lamp; Why? Because it is a “period piece,” speaking of its time, and that time was confused about what a lamp actually could be.
The shade is a piece of hand blown glass, molded to resemble fruit, and then overpainted. Lamps that were “kind of” lamps and “sort of” sculptures were popular in the late 1920s and through the 1930s when the U.S. was deciding what a lamp was for.
Electricity in the house was new and the tradition of lighting a home was originally from the walls or the ceiling. Table lamps therefore often had a theme, something dramatic-thematic, to make a person look at that lamp.
As to these fanciful fruit bowl lamps, they were more popular than you can imagine. That is because the tradition of a bowl of fruit often signified a house that had ‘extra’ – think of the cornucopia, where abundance was indicated.
Czech glass blowers made two kinds of fruit bowl lamps for the U.S. market- one, like J.P.’s, where you see the shade is one piece of blown glass set across an armature of a “bowl,” and the other, much more intricate, and more valuable in the market today, of tiny beads of glass dangling upon a mesh of wire to create a shade, over a wire mesh and glass marbles accentuated “bowl.” In today’s taste, we do not like a representative image. But in the 1930s, glamour and tradition were intermixed, and people loved to bring something unique and “referential” of both tradition and glamour into the house for a decorative accent. This is completely not commensurate with Mid-Century Modern, but fits into the Hollywood Regency Style.
Think of the movies in the 1930’s, where a slinky blonde in a slinky gown rests upon a satin bed in a bedroom of flowers. This is where the fruit bowl lamp originates, stylistically and philosophically speaking.
The area once called Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic, was a glass-making center since the 1250s. Between the two world wars, the U.S. discovered Czech glass, and brands like Moser Glass were exported.
Nobility in Europe had always loved Bohemian glass, only second to jewels as, in those days, glass collections were arbiters of prestige, and Louis XV, Elizabeth of Russia, and Maria Theresa of Austria each had numerous Bohemian glass chandeliers made for their palaces.
If you have visited Milan’s La Scala, Rome’s Teatro del Opera, Versailles, or St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, you have stood under a Bohemian glass chandelier.
J.P.’s little lamp was born from the plentiful minerals found in Bohemia and Silesia; namely, potash, chalk, limestone, and silica. Schools to train glass artists still exist today and were a tradition in Bohemia: during Communist domination of the area, they were allowed to flourish, because there was not much of the political you can say as a glass artist. In the mid-19th century teachers and schools of glassmaking in Bohemia exported teachers and workers all over Europe.
Czech crystal is different from U.S. crystal in that Czech crystal contains 24% lead, and the U.S. crystal can contain less than 2% lead. Lead softens the glass and creates a fine surface for cutting; lead adds to the weight of the glass and therefore light disperses through the crystal “brighter.” From the 18th and early 19th centuries, when a room was lit by candles, the crystal light fixture dispersed more light and refracted more off the pendant drops of the scones or the chandelier. These drops were not just pretty; they dispersed and “threw” light across a room as big as a ballroom.
J.P.’s fruit bowl, as I mentioned, is also an allegory on the theme of abundance; the fruit bowl, usually seen with real fruit on the sideboard or as a centerpiece on the table, is designed as a lamp to replace that fruit bowl.
Museums in the Czech Republic today collect and maintain collections of Bohemian glass, even such modern designs by Prof. Libensky, a Bohemian glass mid-century legend, who designed an entire glass environment in the 1960s for the Czech Embassy in Stockholm, including melted glass sculpture for the walls and a glass light wall. He also designed a set of barware that is famous today and sold only at the Prague Museum of Glass. The value of the fruit bowl lamp is $500.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.