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Choosing the Right Lamp Shade to Enhance Your Lamps
Last Updated: 04/12/2011
Choosing the best shades for your lamps is easy with a little knowledge. Vocabulary first - you and your lighting professional can communicate better once you’re speaking the same language.

Starting at the top: What’s the business that holds the shade to the lamp?

The metal frame at the top of the shade is called a spider. Round ring in the center, usually four straight “legs.” The simplest version of this has a clip, either round or oval, to hold the shade on the light-bulb. This is most frequently used on small shades for small lamps.

There are various other risers, European adaptors, candelabra adaptors, torpedo adaptors as well as a few other size and shade adaptors but these are best suited to be demonstrated in-person and are beyond our scope here.

harpHarp: Larger and more substantial lamps use a spider-and-harp assembly. This prevents possible accidents that could occur while clipping a shade to a bulb, while also holding a shade firmly in place. A wider assortment of shades is available for lamps with harp assemblies.

Coordinate your shade with the proper harp. The harp will determine how high the shade sits above the lamp. How do you find out the best fit? Just like a hat try it on. Our lighting professionals can simplify this process for you. Harps come in several heights. Look also at the ring in the center center of your shade’s spider - it will tell you whether you need a narrow or broad finial.

finialFinial: This is the finishing touch, the top that screws the shade and harp together. Finials are no longer those little brass knobs that roll under the couch when you try to put them on. Choosing a finial is like going to the jewelry store—fun shapes, colors, elegant, whimsical and stately. Plan to spend a little time, to give your lamp a truly personal touch.

That’s really all the lamp-part terms you need to get this right. Of course, there’s a little more language that will help you pare down the wide variety of shapes and styles of shades to make your choices easy.

Shade Shapes. While most shades are round, you will also find oval and square versions of a number of basic shapes. Professionals general suggest that the shape of the shade echo the shade of the lamp, so you may want to consider an oval or square shade because of the lamp base.

Square (or rectangular) or oval shades can also be useful in certain spatial situations—end-tables close to the couch; shading the lamp in a small hallway, or saving space in a home-office/guest room. Round, square, rectangular, or oval, the same general shape-descriptions apply:

bellBell: This shape was probably something you looked at by your bedside every night as a child. Bell-shaped shades, with a distinct curved flare, were the hallmark of fine décor for many years, representing the best of the soft-fabric market. While they still work well in traditional decorating, they can also create a slightly old-fashioned air if used with more modern decorating styles.

The bell's slightly feminine quality has increasingly encouraged their use in bedrooms, although fine bell-shaped shades are still created for table and standing lamps in living rooms. They work well where softer lines and softer light are wanted.

empireEmpire: This is the most frequently used name for a slightly flared shape with straight sides. Again, a good shape for traditional décor. The top is slightly smaller than the bottom, but there are no curves. Also sometimes referred to as a FLARE. Available in soft and hard-back shades.

coolieCoolie: This unfortunate-ethnic nickname describes a straight-sided shade with a very small top and broadly-flared bottom (resembling a Chinese “coolie” hat). This shape is a natural for lamps with short, round jar-like bases. It also, unsurprisingly, is well suited to lamps with Oriental glazes or decorations.

The coolie shape adds warmth, a sense of hospitality, and cozy light to a seating area. For a number of years, pleated coolie shades were many customers’ first introduction to vinyl shades attractive enough to be welcome in a living room. Today coolie shades have blended into modern lighting, often in glass.

drumDrum: Straight sides, no flare; looks a whole lot like—a drum! This shape works well in a classic setting and is especially useful when you want to extend the height of your lamps. A drum-shape can be found in both soft-fabric and hard-surface shades. wanted.

victorianVictorian: If a bell-shaped shade exudes a slightly feminine air, a Victorian shade takes that to enthusiastic extremes. From a flared top, through a suggestively-corseted wasp-waist, to an exuberantly curved, flared “skirt,” often scalloped and sometimes fringed, a Victorian shade exists to be noticed.

Victorian shades are perfect for a lamp with an intricate metal base, and just the right touch in a spot with enough space for its features to express themselves.

Dome: Like the Victorian, the dome shape has been retrieved from earlier times, first reappearing as the most frequent shape for stained-glass; Tiffany-style shades. Like coolie shades, dome shapes, whether half-circle or elongated, have also made the transition to modern décor in glass and other innovative materials.

Making Choices

For many years, lampshades were made by hand, and creative craftsmanship made the reputations of family-owned companies still in business.  Fine shades still feature hand-pleating, smocking, and embroidery techniques passed on by generations of European craftsmen. 

Constructing new shapes constantly challenged shade-makers.  New materials and technologies lift, rather than impose, limits on this construction.  Shades can be found in wonderful combinations of shapes:  round at the top, flaring into a square bottom; deeply fluted, hexagon, octagonal, ribbed, unribbed—a breath-taking number of choices. 

How to handle such a variety of choices?  A few simple strategies. 

1) Consult a professional. A specialty lighting center (or site) will have a better, and wider, assortment of shapes, sizes and materials than a chain-store. You’ll also benefit from informed advice. 

2) If at all possible, take your lamp on your shopping trip (or provide images).  Even good measurements are no substitute for seeing lamp and shade together. 

3) Tell your professional where your lamp fits into your decorating scheme.  Your professional will be able to suggest the right shade with information on the setting your lamp will occupy.

4) Be willing to consider alternatives. Your professional may have ideas you haven’t even considered.  A little time with a knowledgeable lighting professional means getting it right the first time. 

Fabrics and materials

Lamp shades are roughly divided into soft-back and hard-back categories.  Soft-back shades consist of a metal frame, with straight or curved ribs that determine the shape of the shade.  Soft-back shades can be made from many fabrics—silk, cotton, synthetics, grass-cloth and other materials. They are backed with light, translucent fabrics. Generally, a soft-back shade provides an even, diffused light, whether bright or dim.

Care needs to be taken to use appropriate wattage, so as to prevent excessive wear on lining fabric or an unwanted bright spot, where the bulb shows through the shade fabric. Dark colors in fabric bring some limits to the amount of light without markedly affecting its generally diffused quality. Detail on a soft-back shade can be elaborate but tends to work as a delicate enhancement to overall light quality.

Hard-back materials, including metal and glass, do not usually need linings.  A rigid material such as vinyl provides the basic shape, with fabric or a wide variety of papers applied to this shell.  Light can be either diffused or focused, depending on materials. Color and texture play a large part in the choice of a hard-back shade because both will come visually into play even when the light is on, directing light more above and below the shade than through it. Linings of foil and other reflective materials can enhance this focused quality of light. A hard-back shade can often stand on its own as a decorative element, whether the light is on or off.

Measuring Up

Although the final look is a matter of taste, here are some guidelines for measuring lamp shades and bases that professionals use:

1)  Height: a shade should be approximately ¾ as tall as the lamp base. You may choose to adjust this slightly, with a taller shade for a visually-heavy base. Your professional may describe the correct size in terms of “slant-height”—the length of a flared shade, measured along the flare.  A vertical height of 12 inches may therefore translate into a 14 inch slant-height—you and your professional are still talking about the same shade.

2)  Width:  Again, the dimensions of the lamp base prevail.  To avoid looking skimpy, the lower rim of the shade should have a diameter of close to ¾ the height of the base. Base shape also plays a large part: for example, picture a large, ginger-jar shaped base with a dark-colored foil-lined shade.  Much of the light cast by this lamp will depend upon the difference between the shade- and base-diameters.  The height of the shade may be less of a consideration than the diameter.

3)  Perfect fit, or “necking” with your lamp:  Making a shade fit perfectly is best understood in terms of body parts.  Between the “shoulders” of the lamp base and the “head,” or socket, which holds the on-off switch, lies the neck, which is usually a short, straight tube (on a broad-shouldered lamp, the neck may be barely visible).  Whether the neck is long or short, shades tend to look perfect when the bottom rim comes just to the middle of the neck.

Caring for Lamp Shades

To keep your new shades looking their best, ask your professional about cleaning products or techniques for your particular kind of shade. In general, regular dusting or vacuuming should keep your shades bright and fresh.  If you have used the small brush attachment on your vacuum cleaner on other surfaces, give it a quick wash to avoid transferring dark marks to your shades.  Some tech-minded people use their compressed-air computer cleaners with good results.

Hard back shades may also benefit from wiping the inner liner with a barely damp sponge, and all-vinyl shades can be given a thorough sudsy bath or treatment with a multi-purpose spray-on cleaner. Dry shades promptly and thoroughly to prevent any deterioration or staining from metal parts.  Do not immerse any shades in water unless so advised by your lighting professional.

Accidents happen—a streak of ball-point pen, a splatter of red wine, something undefined but definitely sticky . . . that’s why we call them accidents!  Quick action definitely counts.  The longer a stain sits, the harder it sets.  Your lighting professional is your ally. Return and seek advice about dry-cleaning or stain-removal. You’ll be glad you did.

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