Edith Stern had such a penchant for lamps and shades that she changed them seasonally throughout her home. The home—now a museum, Longue Vue House and Gardens—is archetypal of the way the stylish, yet conservative affluent decorated their homes during the 1930s and ’40s.
Mrs. Stern, the wife of businessman Edgar Stern, even had a room in the well-respected New Orleans couple’s three-story Classical Revival style home dedicated solely to storing her precious lamp coverings.
As a tribute to Mrs. Stern’s affinity for the beauty of lamps and lamp shades Longue Vue has organized exhibit, “The Art of Illumination.”
This three-part exhibition—on display through June—showcases Mrs. Stern’s lamps and ornate shades, some of which will be available for view for the first time. Also on display are lamps made by local contemporary artists, which illustrate how lamps have evolved and the possible future of lighting incorporating pieces of metal, paper, glass and ceramic.
“As a house museum we have a fairly static collection in the period rooms, so to highlight the different collections we find that it is good to do changing exhibits which concentrate on one feature. In the past we have done ceramics, silver and textiles, so we were trying to choose a topic that had not been done before,” says Lenora Costa of Longue Vue. “Also, some of the exhibits we have done before were for luxury items, and the city in general seems to be in more of a utilitarian mode. This was a good way to show that even though an item is very useful and serviceable, it can still be unique and attractive.”
One of the most unique lampshades in the exhibit, made especially for Mr. Stern, is a hexagonal light which has six etchings each of a different American Revolutionary War figure: Israel Putnam, Henry Knox, Le Baron de Steuben, John Paul Jones, Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee and Marquis de Lafayette.
Other standouts include an oil table lamp, ceramic with blue and green organic designs topped with a pierced brass shade, circa 1890, by Henrietta Bailey from the Sophie Newcomb College at Tulane University.
Through the eras
The exhibit will also include a timeline of lamps detailing both technology and style of the period Mrs. Stern lived, 1895 to 1980. A lamp will represent each decade ranging from handmade oil lamps to a touch-sensitive aluminum table lamp.
“Our timeline of lamps displays an interesting array of decorative and technological features. My personal favorites are the two extremes from the 1890s and the 1980s because they are different in so many ways,” Costa says.
The invention of the light bulb revolutionized lighting. Before, lamps were fueled with oil and tallow; and while oil lamps did use shades, they became even more necessary with electric lamps because of the steady light and brightness, says John Keefe, curator of decorative arts for the New Orleans Museum of Art.
The shade came in all shapes, sizes and descriptions, Keefe says.
“The development of the cloth shade followed the stylistic trends of the time. It followed the evolution of style just like with anything else,” he adds.
At the turn of the 19th century, art nouveau was the reigning international style. Glass shades sprang from that era. In the 1900s, large shades made from cut velvet, silk chiffon and heavy fringe dominated the style, changing after World War I to simpler designs such as shades crafted from white silk. Lamps sported a tailored look with pleated shades made from white translucent paper.
Tycoon John D. Rockefeller’s interest in the Colonial period and early America influenced designs like the milk glass baluster form, which became popular in the 1930s.
Lamps took a more abstract appearance in an attempt to make them look like art in the 1970s, and they tended to be more structural made from chrome, brass and bronze, Keefe says.
“We have combined so many different time periods and styles into one space to show not just what the past had, but where it is going in the future,” Costa says.
For more information about “The Art of Illumination,” which is sponsored by New Orleans Homes and Lifestyles and St. Charles Avenue magazines, call (504) 488-5488 or go to www.longuevue.com.