The Mushroom Lamp: Why The ’70s Icon Is Back
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The Mushroom Lamp: Why The ’70s Icon Is Back

For a new generation of interior designers, mushroom lamps are a playful way to shake up décor and connect it to nature.

By Dale Hrabi
Thu, May 26, 2022 11:17amGrey Clock 4 min

LET ME introduce you to the least-cool name for a suburb ever: Pleasantview. That’s where I grew up, in 1970s Canada, in a split-level with an uncool fake fireplace in which my parents proudly displayed a book called “Gnomes.” The only, only cool thing we owned—sorry, “Gnomes”—was a white, plastic mushroom lamp, the slimmest of connections to foreign concepts like grooviness, Studio 54 and Cher. But even its stubby glamour was compromised: It sat on the TV, forced to coexist with “The Waltons,” surrounded by kitschy figurines: a china shepherdess, a prayerful child, a buffalo, none of which had ever snorted cocaine with Halston. Still, as a kid aspiring to aesthetic sophistication, I disproportionately pinned my hopes on that white, glowing lump of plastic we likely bought at Sears.

I hadn’t thought about it in years. But on a recent, soggy April day in New York City, where I now live, I ducked into the MoMA Design Store to escape the rain and could not ignore the many, many mushroom lamps with their distinctive semispherical shades that, priced from $30 to $1,430, had sprouted in nearly every corner. And so began a quest to find out how the sole ray of chicness in my oppressively pleasant childhood has resurfaced as a décor (and social-media) darling in 2022.

“Design from the 1960s and ’70s is back,” said Chay Costello, associate director of merchandising at MoMA, when I inquired about her store’s profusion of shrooms. “Then, like now, people were trying to connect with nature. But another reason we ended up with this preponderance of mushroom lamps is that there’s an affinity between the form of a mushroom and the function of lamps.” A fungus has a stalk and a cap, she pointed out—close, if somewhat moister, cousins to a lamp’s base and shade.

Ms. Costello is personally a fan. “I see them as delightful little mascots that suggest the natural world,” she said. “The life of the party but an old soul at the same time.” An old soul like Dolly Parton? “I was thinking of the word ‘primordial.’”

Next, I turned to Jonathan Adler, the New York design titan who, like me, grew up in the 1970s, a period that clearly influenced his pop aesthetic. “I didn’t have a pivotal encounter with one like you did,” he confessed. “I was never abused by a mushroom lamp.” Still, he acknowledges the motif had an outsize presence in design then and has again. “I don’t know why mushrooms have such reach and resonance. Maybe the Mushroom Council had an incredible publicist in the ’70s.”

As to why they’re back? “In the amped-up, Instagrammable age, people are always looking for an escape from the basic,” said Mr. Adler, who festooned the stem of his Globo version with Lucite balls. “And the mushroom lamp is just not basic.”

The earliest, looniest examples hammer this home. Charlotte and Peter Fiell, U.K.-based design historians and authors of “1000 Lights” (Taschen), opened my eyes to art nouveau designer Émile Gallé, whose c. 1900 glass ‘Champignons’ lamps—literal riffs on fungi—appear to be collaborations between Mr. Tumnus the Narnian faun and LSD enthusiast Timothy Leary. In 1950s Italy, glass mushroom lights again reared their domed heads, now abstracted but just as swoopy, an avant-garde reaction to uptight Bauhaus geometries. Then came plastic and the mainstreaming of the lamps. “There was a 10- to 15-year delay from the avant-garde to Kmart,” said Mr. Fiell.

Ironically, just as the lamps got cheaply plastic, their appeal as a link to nature mushroomed in the hippie ’60s and ecological ’70s, decades when psychedelic “magic mushrooms” were giving people agreeably irrational views of their fern-filled décor. A similar vogue for nature in pandemic America has given rise to the popular Instagram hashtags #mushroomlove, #mushroomporn and #mushroommonday and even a one-off 2021 magazine called Mushroom People, an offshoot of the cannabis-themed periodical, Broccoli.

“I’ve definitely seen a lot of people communicating the desire to be more present and have less screen time, and you cannot do that better than when you’re mushroom hunting,” said Anja Charbonneau, the Portland, Ore.-based editor-in-chief and creative director of both magazines. Beyond six pages filled with several kooky mushroom lamps she bought on eBay for a total of $600 (“I was drawn to the weirdos and also they were cheaper”), Mushroom People includes a feature on a discontinued cult scent called “After the Flood” by Apoteker Tepe, famed for making one smell, as Ms. Charbonneau enticingly put it, “like decay…dank, humid, like a mushroom on a rotting stump.” Who needs Chanel No. 5?

The design pros I talked to favoured vintage mushroom lamps of a higher-than-Kmart caliber, and all offered variations on this decorating advice: Use the “playful,” “sculptural,” “funky” fungi form to vary a room’s lighting scheme. Said interior designer Neal Beckstedt of Neal Beckstedt Studio in New York, “If all your lamps have the typical lamp shapes”—the more formal of which he’d personify as doctors, lawyers and “certainly accountants”—”it gets stiff and repetitive. The mushroom lamp is more modern and creative, so it breaks up the repetition.”

Mr. Beckstedt, who describes his aesthetic as “laid-back luxury,” is so smitten with the laid-back form that he’s used it in up to 100 projects, usually atop desks. “A mushroom lamp is more casual,” he said. “It feels like wearing a T-shirt instead of a collared shirt to me.” His favourite: the Pipistrello Table Lamp, a 1965 iteration by Italian architect and designer Gae Aulenti whose shade combines bat and mushroom forms, which sells on 1stDibs for up to $5,275…a not especially casual price. “OK,” conceded Mr. Beckstedt, “really expensive T-shirts.”

The mushroom lamp’s ability to lighten up a serious room like the mute décor equivalent of Amy Schumer came in handy when interior designer Melanie Liaw was tasked with updating a c. 1700 storefront in Assisi, Italy, for a purveyor of watercolour paints. Ms. Liaw, co-founder of Duelle, with offices in London and Milan, spent weeks sadly rejecting “hundreds” of lamps in search of the exact combination of levity, chicness and unpredictability to offset sombre, century-old floors and the hard lines of new wooden shelving. She and her design partner, Micaela Nardella, ultimately drove “four hours in a crappy rental car” to pick up the winner: a roughly $300 1970s design, the Libellula by Italian designer Emilio Fabio Simion. “The shop felt too tall and everything felt crisp and meticulous and serious,” she said, “and as soon as we put in the white mushroom lamp it felt balanced. It added playfulness.”

I can’t say I thought of the $5 white plastic version on my parents’ TV as “playful.” To my unfulfilled and antsy cub-scout self, it represented earnest high glamour, a possible escape from Pleasantview and its mini-marshmallow-clogged “dessert squares.” And it certainly never occurred to me to take it outside, which the latest portable, rechargeable mushroom lamps allow—a deepening of their ties to nature that Mr. Beckstedt says he particularly values when designing for kids: “I’d love to see a mushroom lamp in a treehouse.”

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