Keep the Flame Alive
Joe Armitage, former design director of lighting brand Tala, has launched a collection of lights in his own name that honour a family legacy
In 1952, British architect Edward Armitage was commissioned to design a hospital in Ludhiana, India. A peer of Maxwell Fry, Jane Drew and Le Corbusier, who were all at that time working on the city of Chandigarh, he got the gig because Fry had had a spell in hospital, where he was badgered by officials to take on the job: Fry said that he was too busy building his modernist utopia, but recommended Armitage.
The hospital still stands, but the two years that Armitage and his wife Marthe spent in Punjab have had a more unexpected – and much more domestically scaled – legacy. Designer Joe Armitage, Edward and Marthe’s grandson, has revived a light that his grandparents designed for their home, a unique fusion of modernism and the materials and skills that were available in 1950s rural India. “Resources were scarce, so the ring at the back was an old paint tin, attached to some motorbike spokes, and the shade was just paper, sewn to the ring,” explains Joe Armitage. The floor light nonetheless has a refinement about it, with an ever-so-gently arching rosewood stem steadied by a V-shaped base in the same timber, topped by a conical shade. “It’s got this animalistic quality about it,” says Armitage. “It’s got a stance, and a real personality.”
Now in her 90s, Marthe Armitage is a revered wallpaper designer known for her traditional hand-block-printing methods – the seeds of her creative practice were sewn back in India, watching local craftsmen printing on to fabrics using wood blocks. “She had some of the press over for tea one day; the original lamp was in her living room, and they were asking about it,” explains Joe Armitage. “The next day she came over to my house and said ‘Joe, I’ve got 20 orders of that lamp for you. Can you make them?’ She chucked me in the deep end – at the time I’d just finished part one of my architecture degree, and I didn’t have a job.”
He developed an updated version of the light, sold a few, but then got sidelined by work, ending up as the design director of lighting brand Tala. Now, he’s found the time to set up a company in his own name to sell not just an updated version of the original floor lamp, but a whole family of lights with the same design DNA as that first model.
Armitage has also tried to retain the spirit of the original’s innovative use of waste materials. The shade – which in the first remake was a specially designed piece of his grandmother’s wallpaper, which didn’t react well to the heat of the bulb – is a material he has developed himself made from waste plastic water bottles, with a fine layer of felt sandwiched in the middle that gives it an organic look not unlike Japanese paper; it emits an ambient glow, dimming as the cone diminishes to its point. Armitage’s version of the floor lamp is made from American walnut (rosewood now being endangered), and 10cm higher than the original, “just to give it a bit more presence”.
Joining the floor lamp are a desk lamp, accent table lamp, wall lamp and two pendants, one linear with two shades and the other with three. The desk and table lamps have retained their avian appearance – squat pelicans, perhaps, as opposed to the tall crane that the floor lamp resembles. There’s nothing cartoonish about it, but Armitage says that “it’s almost like having a little companion in your house,” adding that he spent a while getting the angle of the cone just right on the table lamp: “If you think of the shade as a beak, sometimes it looked too much like it was being told off, but other versions it looked more…aspirational.”
The collection was recently shown at the London Design Festival alongside 20th-century and contemporary furniture by Brazilian brand Espasso, holding its own alongside pieces by greats such as Oscar Niemeyer and Sergio Rodrigues. A limited-edition floor lamp was also produced for The New Craftsmen, with a digitally printed shade designed by Marthe Armitage. Does Joe Armitage feel the need to succeed in his endeavour because of his family’s creative heritage? “There’s definitely a pressure, but that’s just part of it. I’ve always wanted to do this. It’s a passion project for me.”