Completed in 1940, Sir George Gilbert Scott’s extension to Oxford’s Bodleian Library, The New Bodleian, has recently been given a major refurbishment. Re-opened as The Weston Library, the building has been significantly redesigned complete with a high central atrium, café and shop. However, faithful to its history, it has also retained many of the architect’s original fixtures and fittings. Amongst these, in some of the library’s reading rooms, are some very unusual, not to say rather strange, American Black Walnut chandeliers. Having been invited to look around the site during the redevelopment with a view to designing items for sale in the new Library shop, these hexagonal curiosities stood out as being sufficiently idiosyncratic to inspire other products.
There is something really engaging, not to say perverse, in the notion of a wooden lampshade, creating an item normally highly translucent in a material so utterly opaque. Although the originals have a polished metal lining, it is hard to see how with their tungsten filament bulbs they were ever thought sufficiently illuminating for a library’s reading room, not to mention the potential issue of heat build-up in a flammable material. However, modern LED technology allows us to use a directed spotlight, removing the need for the polished lining, and with very little heat production.
Having taken the hexagonal shade design from Gilbert-Scott’s original chandelier, I repeated the motif to create the base block, and linked the two components with a curving wooden arm, a pared down version of those that connect the five shades of the chandelier to their central boss. We tried various different material options for the lamp, finally settling on English Oak, a timber actually more prevalent in the library’s woodwork than the original Black Walnut. Inspired by the chunky and retro nature of these elements, I chose a large chrome toggle switch, complete with chrome indicator plate, to operate the lamp. Unlike many modern rocker switches, it has a really solid action, the hefty click reverberating through the wooden block of the base. The supporting ropes of the original chandelier are echoed in the use of fabric covered cable for the power supply, which is available in a great range of vivid colours. By running the wiring from the lamp to the base switch in an open recess on the connecting arm, we created a bright strip of colour against the woodwork. On bringing the final prototype to the library, one of the Library’s staff was kind enough to tell me, entirely enthusiastically, that the new lamp had ‘an ugly beauty’. In which case it looks like its predecessor, and has true Bodleian Library DNA.
The Gilbert Scott Bodleian Reader’s Lamp was designed in collaboration with Bates and Lambourne, furniture makers based in Oxfordshire, and is available for sale exclusively through the Bodleian Library’s new Broad Street shop.
Josh Howard-Saunders, Bates and Lambourne 30 Apr 2015