We all need a little light in our lives, but just how do we choose the right one from the dazzling array? Our panel pulled the plug
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As anyone who has gone out on a dark night and shone a torch up at the sky will know, light is invisible; we only see its reflection off a surface. Their mythic function as genie-containers aside, this is what lamps do - and none more specifically than a desk lamp, which illuminates a small area such as a piece of paper or computer keyboard. Simple enough, until you consider different light sources, such as halogen, tungsten and Son; different wattages and output efficiency, aesthetics and flexibility.

Unfortunately, most lamps are chosen in department stores already ablaze with light, where the usefulness (or otherwise) of individual products is not always apparent, and detailed information about the lamps is often scant. Small wonder that many consumers fall in love with the look of a lamp and buy it regardless of any other factors.


The panel included antiques collector Robert Farrant, management consultant Donald Hudd, film critic Nigel Floyd, myself and expert witness Jill Georgalakis, architect and director of the Interior Design Faculty at Inchcape. Despite our polarised tendencies to respond either to the traditional or contemporary ends of the market, the panel's choice of winning lamp was unanimous, perhaps indicating that if only consumers were shown desk lamps in a realistic setting, then sales of pretty, but useless ones would be very low indeed.


We asked our group of panellists to assess a representative selection of desk lamps, taking into account their ease of adjustment, spread of light and eye comfort as well as decorative effect.

**Brass trough desk lamp

pounds 195

Jill Georgalakis felt impelled to issue a health warning with regard to this small, pretty trough lamp in distressed brass, which has a 40-degree swivel on the trough. It was supplied by the retailer with a 25-watt candle bulb, and can't take more than 40 watts because of the heat radiating through the metal. "This would promote considerable eyestrain unless the background light in the room were brighter," she said, pointing out that our eyes are very efficient at registering contrasts between light and dark by expanding and contracting the pupil. "With such a small pool of light in a dimly lit room, looking up and down from the desk could give you a headache over a period of time. It's pretty and decorative, but only just adequate to work by" - which must explain why Donald Hudd dubbed it "a seducer's lamp", despite approving its "clean, simple lines". At the other end of the scale, Robert Farrant felt the tiny area of light it gave marked it out "for a swot", and puzzled over the price: "I just don't see where the pounds 195 comes in." All reported that adjusting the trough meant burning your fingers if you wanted to try it out with the light on.

Banker's lamp with books

pounds 173

Perhaps for nostalgic reasons, most panellists were eager to see an example of a banker's lamp, with its characteristic opaque green-glass shade and brass stand. Unfortu-nately, this version, embellished with a stack of repro antique books as a base, and a pillar as a stand, met with nobody's approval. "I can't see the point of this," said Jill Georgalakis; "it gives a rotten light and is a hideous design. It's a cheaply made, bastardised antique." Other testers didn't mince their words either, many complaining about the oddly pale shade, which seemed more translucent than the traditional style. A great deal of light from its tungsten candle bulb emanates from the top instead of being directed downwards. "I suppose it would be okay if you were sitting down with an expensive fountain pen to sign all your cheques once a week," conceded Nigel Floyd. Robert Farrant could only shake his head in disbelief. "Who on earth sat down and designed that?" he wanted to know, adding facetiously, "And I think they could have made a better choice of books."

Bipedal candle desk lamp

pounds 79

This bold and brassy two-candle desk lamp exploits a traditional design, with its integral claret-coloured shade which can be moved vertically on a central post, but all the panellists agreed it had aspirations above its station. The metallic finish inside the shade reflects too much light, dazzling you no matter how you adjust the shade. Jill Georgalakis found its unavoidable bright glare "really upsetting" and, in a gesture typical of panellists who wouldn't give a particular lamp desk space, suggested "putting it in a corner somewhere as an uplighter".

There is no switch on this lamp; you have to turn it off at the plug. "It's like something in a cheap hotel room," pronounced Donald Hudd. "Hideous" was an adjective which appeared in several reports, but at least it served to illustrate the fashionable appeal of the "distressed-brass" finish on many of the other lamps tested.

***Smartie adjustable desk lamp

pounds 425, plus 12-inch `deed and seal' shade, pounds 24

While only extending itself on a horizontal plane, this immensely heavy, tall desk lamp takes a regular tungsten bulb, much to the relief of panellists, who felt that the effort of obtaining the correct replacement bulb for some of the other lamps, not to mention their cost, was too much to bother with. It also gives more light, and was thought universally to be the best of the traditional-style lamps; it lost points on the price, which does not include the shade. "A shade measly, under the circumstances," punned Nigel Floyd, who liked it despite its incongruity with his modern office. "If you had an open-plan house where the desk was in the living- room, then this is a cross between a table and a desk lamp," said Robert Farrant, approvingly. Jill Georgalakis was also enthusiastic about the lamp: "The height is very good, because it gives a bigger spread of light over the desk and above into the room. It needs a bigger shade, but at least you can choose your own."

****The Student

pounds 20, plus optional Signatur base, pounds 7.50

"The defining instance of the desktop lamp is the anglepoise," lectured veteran user Nigel Floyd, who said he wouldn't trade his in for any of the desk lamps tested. Unsurprisingly, then, despite its shiny chrome, almost clinical look and old-fashioned aesthetics, "The Student" anglepoise lamp impressed all the panellists when in use. Its one drawback was a shoddy switch which is off-centre and difficult to press without grasping the hot shade. But otherwise this was acclaimed as well-balanced (it doesn't flop like some) and "brilliantly thought out", since it comes with a clamp to attach to the side of a small desk where space is at a premium, or you can buy a heavy metal base incorporating a desk-tidy. "This is all you need if you're on a budget, " said Robert Farrant, who imagined the desk-tidy would be useful for all-night study, when the supposed student could stub his cigarettes out in it. If you are a typist, this sort of lamp really does focus light on the keyboard and away from the screen, to avoid glare. "I love the flexibility of this," said Jill Georgalakis. "You do need flexibility in lighting because you don't always use it in the same way, and this is wonderful value. It's perfect for the younger person, you really can't fault it."

***Spinnell desk lamp

pounds 45

Quickly dubbed "the witch's hat lamp" because of the shape of its distinctive metal shade, the Spinnell desk lamp with its jointed stand and matt silver and black finish makes use of a lower wattage halogen bulb to produce more light than a tungsten bulb. Typically, halogen gives a light equivalent to two and a half times that produced by regular bulbs, and while tungsten offers a warm, reddish glow, halogen is coldly white - more business-like, some of the panel thought. A silver spike protruding from under the shade is designed to allow repositioning of the lamp when hot, but Robert Farrant was entranced by the light flashing off it "like a spaceship coming in to land". In short, everybody liked the look of this lamp; it disappointed in its rather wobbly construction and, as Jill Georgalakis mused, "It has an exciting, sculptural appearance, but from an ergonomic point of view the light it gives is intensely concentrated and would lead to eyestrain." Computer users should also bear in mind that halogen lights with transformers built into the plug effectively prevent the use of a two-way adaptor at the socket, because they are so bulky.

*****Halogen Deco Light

pounds 49

This robust, metallic-green halogen lamp with a shade like a Chinese hat and a base which echoes the same shape struck everyone as nicely designed and, despite its ultra-modern look, was unanimously declared to be the best desk lamp in our selection.

The lamp doesn't swivel like an anglepoise, but it does swing back and forth like an elegant stork, and a rocking switch incorporated into the base offers two intensities of light - bright and directed, or soft and humane. This feature was immensely popular, as was the much wider spread of light than most of the lamps, achieved by a cigar-shaped bulb surrounded by a reflector. "This gives the best light at the best price," declared Jill Georgalakis, and, despite half the panel's predilection for traditional designs, they all agreed.

**Paco desk lamp

pounds 90

Available in white (most suitably) , green, orange or blue, this cleverly designed and very simple Italian lamp, with a shade of plastic tiles like a belly-dancer's bra, comes beautifully packaged, but holds a nasty surprise: you have to assemble the shade yourself. It takes about 45 minutes of Lego-like construction and would be a job best delegated to a 10-year- old, if only the connecting clips could be taken off in the event of a mistake - but, be warned, they can't. The lightweight, tubular base conceals the electric flex and a neat plastic dangler forms the switch. Nigel Floyd protested at his "ghastly green" version, but Jill Georgalakis said it was "great fun as a decorative light", and Donald Hudd enthused about the tactile shade, which "the worried executive could stroke during stressful telephone calls".


Brass Trough desk lamp, Banker's lamp and Smartie desk lamp from Besselink and Jones (0171 584 0343) and Harvey Nichols (0171 235 5000); Bipedal Candle desk lamp and Halogen Deco Light from Selfridges (0171 318 3117); Paco lamp from Space (0171 229 6533); Spinell desk lamp and the Student from IKEA, branches nationwide. !