Arts, Architecture & Design


Some designs barely date. The Dove Lamp was designed by Marco Colombo and Mario Barbaglia for the small Italian lighting company PAF in 1984. I first came across a photo of it in a book of contemporary design in the early 1990s, and was immediately taken with its minimal, elegant but hi-tech poise.

The blade of the lamp has a very thin side-profile, and it almost hovers in mid-air, only being supported towards one end on two thin metal legs, reminiscent of a bird just before landing. Seen from above, the blade tapers slightly from tail to the head. The angle of the lamp head is adjustable, and thanks to a counter-weight hidden in the tail, the lamp can be placed in any position. I think it looks best at a low angle with a long reach, almost defying gravity. The head is also beautifully slim with a perfectly-judged compound curve to its upper side, and the whole supposedly evokes a bird in flight – even if, to me, that head is more reminiscent of a duck than a dove.

Either way, Dove won many design awards, and was featured on the front of the International Design Yearbook in 1985. It was a fortune-maker for the small company that designed and manufactured it, and reputedly became the second-best-selling desk lamp in the world. It was also the subject of a famous litigation case, when the original company took the manufacturer of an inferior copy to court.

At the time, the price of the lamp meant there was no prospect of owning one, but the design stuck in my mind nonetheless, and in due course the matter was rectified. I remember walking down a street in Lausanne, past a rather cutting-edge interiors shop, and seeing one in the window. It still seemed fearfully expensive for a desk lamp – but I decided to stick my neck out – the first time that I had seriously dug deep for a piece of great design. At the time it was much more difficult to obtain these things in most of the U.K. It was duly carted home on the plane.

That version of the lamp incorporated an early attempt at infra-red on/off control – simply by swiping one’s hand above the base one could turn the light on or off, or holding it there dimmed the light. It had many years’ service in my home, being sufficiently eye-catching to grace the living room rather than my desk. Sadly, one day a freak flash of lightning gave the sensor a shock, and the thing gradually degenerated into a nervous breakdown, seemingly incapable of switching on and off properly – or staying such. Eventually, the flickering became so bad that it had to go.

The earlier design with the PIR base.

Some years later, I was in need of a new desk lamp – so I had a second go with Dove. This time, it was easy enough to order from the U.K. – but the PIR version had been discontinued. So my second Dove lamp has the more conventional flat base with manual on-off switch. It loses a little of its elegance compared with the earlier version, whose base sloped in opposition to the arm, but it is still a great piece of design. This one came from Nemo, the company that seems to have taken over the design before discontinuing it in 2020. It seems that Dove is now quite sought-after.

We have been making some changes around our home in recent months. Out has gone the T.V. (which we never watched) – leaving a hole in a rather key location. Having viewed literally thousands of other lamps online (I am not keen on the clunky retro-Scandi styles that seem to be everywhere at present), it suddenly struck me that I should move the Dove lamp from the office back into the living room – and suddenly that space came right. The Dove fits perfectly – that poise is still magnificent, the tension between the elegant weightlessness and the matt black surface still attracts – and the white wall it is now against sets off its slim silhouette beautifully. It is as much a sculpture as a light, particularly since the actual light source is now concealed.

1980s design seems to be going through the phase that many do, of being deeply out of favour – but as with all eras, the decade threw up a few items that have gone on to have iconic status, and never seem to date no matter what their setting. The Dove lamp is now perhaps not as well-known as it might be – Richard Sapper’s Tizio lamp for Artemide eventually eclipsed Dove in the icon stakes – but in my opinion, it is Dove that is the more appealing – an item whose presence immediately elevates its setting – and it fully deserves pride of place and its entry in the list of great, enduring works of design.

Hole filled

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