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A Birthday Present that Shines a Light on a Better Future

Stephen Colegrave considers how a birthday present of a refurbished Anglepoise lamp presents a guide to how we can create a more sustainable world.

Photo: Wikimedia
A Birthday Present that Shines a Light on a Better Future

Stephen Colegrave considers how a birthday present of a refurbished Anglepoise lamp presents a guide to how we can create a more sustainable world.

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I had a birthday celebration last weekend and my favourite present was a 1930s Anglepoise lamp refurbished by my friend Henry, with whom in the 1980s I used to sell 30s and 50s radios, phones and lights in one of the Stables at Camden Market.

The lamp is perfect. It has been re-chromed and rewired with period-looking flex and a working spring mechanism. With an energy-saving light bulb and a new plug to connect to the grid with its high percentage of renewable energy, this lamp is eco-friendly, but also of a perfect design that has never been bettered, as well as completely practical.

Although Henry gets a very good and well-deserved price for his refurbished lamps, in their day, they were seen as very utilitarian and affordable enough to be in just about every office.

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent”

E.F. Schumacher

As I adjust the lamp on my desk, it is hard to believe that it is more than 80 years old. Henry assures me that it had been in continual use until he bought it from an office where it had been in situ since its purchase last year. He is confident that, in its present state, it will last another 80 years, perhaps with some rewiring.

So sitting on my desk I have a practical item, the design of which has never been or likely to be bettered with a 160 years life expectancy. This is not a decorative antique but a hard-working practical piece of kit.

An Iconic Design

The humble Anglepoise lamp is one of the most iconic and important designs of the last century.

Unfortunately, George Carwardine, who designed it in 1932, is not a household name but his skill as a designer of car suspension systems was put to good use when he designed and patented his unique balanced-arm lamp.

It was a nifty innovation as its joints and the tension enabled the lamp to be moved and maintained into virtually any angle without being clamped. For the first few years, Carwardine even made the lamps himself in Bath before finding a manufacturing partner in London.

Soon, the Anglepoise lamp was a staple of all aspects of British society and abroad. They could even be found in Second World War bombers and their invincibility was proven when an Anglepoise lamp was salvaged from a Wellington bomber discovered in Loch Ness in 1985. With a new battery it worked perfectly, despite being under water for 40 years.

The Anglepoise lamp didn’t always have its own way. In June 1949, Michael Standing, the head of the BBC Variety Department, issued a memo to staff forbidding them to switch on the main ceiling light instead of using an Anglepoise lamp, as he believed that its relatively low wattage light would nurture furtive ideas and lead to degenerative programme material.

Consumerism Gone Wrong

The BBC aside, my Anglepoise lamp is a perfect example of where consumerism needs to go if we are to achieve a sustainable future.

Previously on my desk I had a very cheap and inferior rip-off of the real Anglepoise. It was made by a nameless mass manufacturer with cheap springs, badly fitted into weak arms. After a couple of months, the lamp could no longer hold the required angle. Reluctant to throw it out, I downgraded it to a less exacting role as my bedside lamp where it does not need to be re-angled all the time.

This is more than a metaphor for what is wrong with a marketing and consumer-led world in which resources are wasted in a mad rush for continual sales at discount prices. My refurbished lamp, with its 160-year life cycle, will easily outlast 10 inferior lamps with the associated carbon and resource savings.

If we pursue an Anglepoise lamp strategy to product development and marketing we would completely change our approach to fast fashion, cars, furnishings and most other products we buy.

Sustainability needs to be designed into products from the very beginning. George Cawardine’s expertise in car suspension, his creativity, but also his attention to every detail of design to manufacture all worked on the basis that this product performed perfectly, but also had a real durability and sustainability built into it. There was no designing to an unsustainably low price point, no management consultants looking for the minimum costs and maximum short-term profits or just in time manufacture.

Marketing Takes Over

We are past the point where our marketing-led discount world can be sustainable. We need AnglePoise solutions in all product categories.

This will only happen if designers and research and development (R&D) departments are reinstated as the leading authorities and marketing is told to butt out. Marketers only need to be involved at the very end of the process and then to promote the true benefits of the product, not to influence its degradation.

Marketing seems to have started to take over product development in the 1950s and accelerated in the 1970s as the oil crisis and inflation pushed manufacturers to reduce build quality and increase built-in obsolescence to chase discount sales.

At the same time, marketing created the complexity cycle, pushing R&D departments to continually add more features and options to entice consumers to trade in cars or get rid of unwanted white goods. This was completely at odds with the simplicity and function of the Anglepoise and increasingly meant that consumers could no longer repair or get their products repaired. This was lazy business and sidelined the true genius of great design with mindless product development.

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent,” explained E.F. Schumacher in his 1973 book Small is Beautiful. “It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.” 

The Anglepoise Test

Even Apple, one of the most iconoclastic and innovative companies of this century, has not tackled obsolescence and the complexity cycle.

Although John Ive designed simplicity and beauty into Apple products from the Ipod to the Iphone, neither he nor Steve Jobs appeared to worry about the limited life cycle of their products as continual upgrades were, and are, ingrained in Apple’s business model.

Perhaps we should require all marketeers to have a lamp like mine on their desk to remind them of the Anglepoise test for product design, development and marketing: “Can I design this product to perform perfectly and simply – and, oh yes, to last 160 years?”

If we can do this, our overall consumption will fall through the floor, less resources wasted and carbon emissions slashed.

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