April 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 2
The extraordinary lilac bouquet on the opposite page is a “puffy” table lamp, a distinctive breed of lighting fixture that flourished in American living rooms at the beginning of this century. Puffies were the creation of the Pairpoint Company in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and this splendid example, produced around 1910, demonstrates the maker’s preoccupation with idealized, floriferous subjects. It was a common preoccupation of the times.
Exuberant, lusciously colored flowers—emblems of a new Eden because they represented the rewards of voluntary labor—had been a favorite motif in the decorative arts since the mid-nineteenth century, nearly as popular in the United States as in Victorian England or Second Empire France. When Thomas Edison patented his incandescent light bulb in 1879, he inadvertently helped ignite a revolution in lamp design by liberating designers from the formal tyranny of flickering candles and slow-burning wicks. Consequently, table lamps with hand-painted glass shades began to blossom into extravagant, glowing bouquets, functioning not only as sources of illumination but as works of art that signified the cultivated tastes of their makers and owners.
Pairpoint was among the companies that most successfully catered to this taste. The manufacturers turned out a wide array of table lamps with domical glass shades meticulously painted with landscapes and bouquets. At their most extreme these shades assumed complex configurations with portions of the surface bulging outward in relief. Their makers called these shades blown-outs in recognition of the mold-blown technique by which they were produced. The nickname puffies , however, caught on with antiques dealers.
Founded in the late nineteenth century, Pairpoint initially manufactured silver-plated metalware, including all the decorative stands and holders that a neighboring glassworks bought for its more ornate products. In the 189Os Pairpoint took over the glassworks, and by 1900, according to Albert Christian Revi, author of American Art Nouveau Glass , the company employed 100 workmen in the glass-blowing room and 350 glass cutters, producing a wide assortment of pressed, cut, and fancy “art glass”—and lamps.
The puffies’ origins remain something of a mystery. Apparently, the earliest blown-out shade dates from 1907, when Albert Steffin, who may have been a company employee, patented his design for a glass shade with a floral bas-relief and assigned the patent to Pairpoint. The puffies were mold-blown, then had their exterior surfaces treated with acid to produce the appearance of frosted glass. Afterward the shades were passed on to artists, who painted the interior surface. Next, the shades were fired to fix the pigments to the glass, and they were finally fire-polished on the exterior to refine and finish.
While the superb creations of Louis C. Tiffany dominated the high end of the lamp market after the turn of the century, he had strong competition from Pairpoint as well as the Handel Company of Meriden, Connecticut. Both Handel and Pairpoint produced bronze bases that were scaled-down effigies of gnarled tree trunks or bulky vines, as Tiffany did, and both specialized in hand-painted glass shades; but Pairpoint alone created blown-out shades.
The puffy lamps were passed from one artist to another, each adding a particular color or depicting his or her specialty. Customers could place special orders for the shade model of their choice in whatever colors they wished. If the client wanted a dark green or burgundy-pink background, all she had to do was ask for it. That accounts for the tremendous variety of hues in otherwise identical shades.
Unfortunately Pairpoint’s ingenious designs for table-lamp bases could not survive the erosion of its client base. For many years the company advertised its lamps in leading magazines and successfully marketed them through better department stores. But Pairpoint, like much of its upper-middle-class clientele, was sideswiped by two events: the Great Depression, which made the lamps virtually unsalable, and, even more lethal, changing taste. Although the business limped along for a few years, Pairpoint, like both its major competitors, Tiffany Studios and the Handel Company, capsized during the Depression.
Loyal Pairpoint fans have always treasured their puffies, and today they are considered highly collectible commodities on the antiques circuit. Pairpoint’s reputation for innovative design and quality craftsmanship promises to remain bright. The floral shades are, after all, eternally luminous bouquets that will neither fade nor dim. Their soft, tinted aura is inescapably evocative, stirring our fantasies of cozy domesticity in times past.