I’ve always loved low light; my apartment is typically so dim that people (my mom) have been known to complain that they could not complete a crossword — or read — after dark, and in evening Zoom seminars I loom like some kind of Victorian spectral photograph. My living room isn’t even wired for overhead, but I’ve never minded. I crave a dimmer; I adore a pink light bulb; I live for a red lampshade. All others get lined with cream or sepia to cast a flattering light. I guess it’s not what you’d call “task lighting,” unless the task is to make everyone look amazing. I just have to occasionally remind people where their drinks are.
Table lighting is a particular obsession. (There was this one restaurant off the Saw Mill Parkway that, as a kid, my family and I would pass while driving north on some family errand, and through the windows, on each table I could see a small shaded lamp. I remember my mom saying it looked “crummy” and being totally shocked. It was glamour; it was elegance; it was quite obviously the apex of couth.) To me, there’s nothing cozier than a convivial pool of light in a dim room, and to this end, I’ve amassed a pretty good collection of what’s called “fairy lamps” (little vintage glass-shaded tea-light holders, easy to find on Etsy), as well as milk-glass hurricanes, brass things you stick on tapers to affix a shade (fire hazard), and a lot of votive holders. I’ve been repeatedly talked out of drilling holes in my table so as to use actual wired lamps and obtain a “La Grenouille” effect.
By far the easiest and cheapest lighting hack is something called a luminary, or sometimes just a wineglass shade. This is simply a vellum cone that you stick atop any stemmed glass. Put a tea light (or an LED one) inside, and voilà! Instant filter. You could certainly make your own and paint them to look like one of the little lamps at Bemelmans Bar. I tried to paint some to look kind of Bloomsbury-ish, but it looked terrible, so now I just buy them by the 12-pack. You can get these in all sorts of prints, from very pretty to very loud, but once the candle is lit, these don’t show up very well, so I stick to white or cream or pink.
In terms of glasses, I like the stability of snifters (and it’s nice to actually use them), and any kind of faceted glass makes beautiful patterns on the shade when the candle is lit.
I also think it looks great to mix up the height of the bases, so go to a thrift store, pick up a couple of single glasses, and go to town. Run a bunch down your table; put one in the bathroom for a party. Stick one in your window so a passing child can develop a lifelong obsession. As I don’t need to tell anyone who’s worked in a restaurant, pour a little water at the base and the melted wax won’t stick.
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