Let There Be Lamps

The utilitarian veers toward the divine in some local accessory stores

I'm into lamps lately. Not just lamps as décor but also lamps as art. Let me explain.

It all started innocently enough. While relatives were in town, we inevitably ended up on Las Olas Boulevard. A little light lunch, a little light shopping, and lots of walking. Blame it on the heat, but suddenly I found myself raptly staring at a lamp at Paradise Gallery(702 E. Las Olas Blvd., 954-463-1900).

I had bought a Haitian painting or two at Paradise over the years, but I had never particularly noticed lamps there, which is understandable. This small shop just east of the Riverside Hotel is packed from one end to the other with a vast array of items ranging from the sublime to the touristy ridiculous.

The lamp, of course, was among the sublime, at least to my eyes. An ornate metal base gives way to an elephant on the move, its head thrown back, its trunk curling back over its head. A goofy-looking little monkey sits atop the elephant, perched on the edge of what looks like a container of some sort. The stem of the lamp rises from this container in segments that don't quite match: something resembling a knob from a cabinet, a ring of petals, a length of bamboo, two rings of leaves that look sort of like palm fronds. The whole strange concoction culminates in an old-fashioned velvety brown shade topped with a fleur-de-lis finial and fringed with dangling little amber beads.

Trust me, it looks a lot better than it may sound.

Something came over me. We saw many other lamps as we wandered through Paradise that day, but I kept going back to the elephant lamp. I ended up buying it, and soon, it hit me: I thought of the lamp less in terms of its ostensible purpose -- illuminating a room -- and more as a loopy piece of sculpture. And so it sits in my living room, rarely used but often admired.

This, however, was only the beginning. A week or so later, I found myself in the strangely named Ruinations Co.(1428 NE 26th St., Wilton Manors, 954-568-1675), a little shop I had noticed in passing in a Wilton Manors strip mall, drawn in by -- you guessed it -- the soft glow of some lamps. I left with another lamp.

This time, I began branching out into lamps that can more easily be rationalized as art. The elephant lamp, however odd, is still clearly traditional enough that most people would find it a bit of a stretch to label it art. My first Ruinations acquisition is a three-foot-tall hexagonal structure made, as far as I can tell, from heavy-duty, orange corrugated paper. (The store also has floor models that are probably twice as tall.) Since its 15-watt bulb makes it a source of no more than ambient light, it's clearly a piece of abstract sculpture, with undulating lines and textures that make aesthetic sense regardless of whether it's turned on or off.

I managed to hold off awhile before returning to Ruinations for another look at an even more abstract lamp/sculpture I'd spied previously. Did I buy it? Of course. How could I not? It's a futuristic-looking piece in chrome and glass, with a shiny, round, chrome base that sprouts ten flexible, curving...rods, for lack of a better word. At the end of each of these metal rods is a small, cobalt-blue, tulip-like form that houses a little halogen bulb. The adjustable rods make the lamp interactive art, as far as I'm concerned, although so far, I've kept them in a fairly conservative spray of more or less symmetrical arcs. (A backup set of white frosted "tulips" makes this an easily customized lamp.) A steadily expanding spiral of thick metal wire runs up the base to complete this Jetsonsesque piece of sculpture.

Another visit to Ruinations yielded another tiny lamp that's also obviously just for show. (By this point, the owners knew me by name, and my friends were eyeing me suspiciously and saying, "You're obsessed!") Its base features a pair of addled-looking monkeys among dozens of coconuts, although I bought it in spite of the monkeys, not because of them, even though they sort of match the one on the elephant lamp. No, the selling point for this little piece -- less than a foot tall -- is the shade, which consists of intricately detailed coconut palm fronds fashioned out of glass that glows green or gold, depending on your vantage point. And with a mere 15-watt bulb inside, it sheds about as much light as a nightlight.

In trying to make sense of what I thought was a newfound fascination with lamps as sculpture, I realized that the "obsession" has spanned much of my adult life. First, there was a gift from a friend, an oddball lamp with a yellow wooden pyramid for a base and a big round globe that enclosed the bulb. It was functional, but I also treated it as a piece of latter-day pop art.

Since then, I've dabbled in lamps that incorporate handmade papers with plants embedded in them, lamps with decoupaged shades, lamps that awkwardly teeter between décor and art. That gray area, finally, is where the old question of form versus function plays out. Is all art utterly useless, as Oscar Wilde declared, or is it possible to reconcile utility and aesthetics?

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