Lampshades are tricky to get right. Of all the elements that make up a decorated room, they are perhaps the most confusing. Should their shape be drum, coolie, straight, pembroke or empire? What should they be made from? How should they be attached to the lamp base? How about a trimming? A badly chosen lampshade can be the downfall of a room: the convex, flared, beige silk ones are my nemesis. It is no wonder that the opportunity is often lost to a simple plain card drum option.
High-level lighting is the answer if you want to flood a room with light. But it is mid- and low-level lighting that give a space a sense of atmosphere. Table lamps and reading lights can provide the most moody and flattering of illumination. Interior designer David Hicks knew this better than most – he used a pink pastel crayon on the inside of cream card shades to cast a healthy glow onto anyone sitting close by. We use similar tricks nowadays by lining opaque shades with a matt gold card that softens the light cast from modern, colder bulbs.
Lampshades are the perfect way to inject personality – and an element of surprise – into a room. Think of them as hats or wellchosen accessories, which can elevate the simplest of outfits into something special. Hannah Woodhouse (hannahwoodhouse.com) makes the most fanciful creations to pair with her sculptural lights; the organic swirling shapes in buckram and stiffened toile would not look out of place at Ascot. Tobias and the Angel (tobiasandtheangel.com) adorns shades with strings of found objects such as beads, buttons and ribbons draped about them like necklaces. With shades no longer confined to off-white card, their colour, pattern and fabric can all play a part in adding interest to a room.
It is also critical to hide the light source from view, so always ensure that a shade is low enough to cover a bulb. Shade carriers in different heights are invaluable in allowing you to adjust the way in which a shade sits on its base in order to achieve this.
I like to use shades that subtly tie in with other colours in the room. Drawing a particular hue from a carpet or painting, or cross-referencing other fabrics is a great way to link schemes together and create harmony. In a traditional bedroom with a four-poster, a shade pleated in the same lining as the interior drapery shows great attention to detail. A clever shade-maker can play with textures, too. At Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler, we often use horsehair fabric to give modern texture to a plain shade, while raffia or linen fabrics will give an informal country feel on a rustic pottery lamp base.
Designers such as Robert Kime (robertkime.com) pioneered the use and mix of traditional fabrics from around the world. His shades in ikats and Japanese cottons work perfectly with his style of interiors. He also perfected the art of using papyrus: though fragile, his hexagonal designs give the most beautiful mellow light.
I love using antique silk saris. They are the ideal weight for making romantic pleated shades, diffusing light in a way no other fabric can. They also solve the problem of what to do with textiles collected on foreign trips. I wish I had bought more in India now that I know what can be done with them. Similarly, my sheets of hand-printed marbleised paper (bought on impulse in Florence) have been made into shades – they look amazing in a library where the patterns echo the endpapers of antique leatherbound books. Rosi de Ruig (rosideruig.co.uk) hand-makes shades from similar marbled papers. Cheaper options are available from Pooky (pooky.com).
Shades truly can be works of art. I have some treasured models hand-painted by Angel Hughes from Tobias and the Angel, which may well have been inspired by the Bloomsbury set, whose Omega Workshops painted everything in sight, including the lampshades. Angel’s fabric designs are also available printed onto card shades.
Another of my current favourites on Instagram is Alvaro Picardo (alvaropicardo.com). His skill in hand-painting onto card is unique, with spiralling geometric patterns taking inspiration from everything from Ballets Russes designs to African barkcloth and back again. Such a shade can elevate even the simplest of lamp bases.
At the end of the day, however, it is all about proportion. So when trying to make a choice, gather, borrow and scrounge as many old shades as you can. Then hover them over your lamp bases and hopefully you will find the perfect size.