Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Anatomy of a Paul McCobb Lamp

Time and again I have seen the most spectacular misattributions when it comes to the Paul McCobb lamps. Some are entirely figments of an overactive imagination and as such are easily discounted, others being of very similar design to the actual lamps are the far more difficult to debunk since the three blind men and the elephant principle applies. Partial information almost always leads to incorrect conclusions.

So let's pose the question: What makes a Paul McCobb lamp a Paul McCobb lamp? Are there any specific design features which separate out the McCobb lamps from all the others on the planet? Not surprisingly the answer is yes... the greater portion of the McCobb lamps manufactured by Northcraft Lighting and Excelsior Art Studio had specific and unique design elements which are not repeated anywhere else in the centuries long canon of lamp manufacture.


First off no McCobb lamp for Northcraft Lighting and/or Excelsior Art Studio used a lamp harp to hang the shade. There are no lamp harps on these lamps. None whatsoever. Rumors of lamp harps are greatly exaggerated. Did I mention that there aren't any lamp harps? Yup, no lamp harps here, not even the hint of a lamp harp on a cold and blustery winter's day. No lamp harps!


So how the hell do you put on a lamp shade? The lamp shades would sit atop a piece of conical glass which was also used as a diffuser. Now those of you who know something about lamps and lamp manufacture in the 40's and 50's might say "Oh you mean those fairly common Milk Glass diffusers..." to which I would reply with a slight sigh of exasperation "No, not those"... The McCobb diffuser was a specially produced 7-1/8" tall tapered cylinder of white glass (called opal glass in the catalogs) measuring 3" at the base and 4-1/4" at the top, this conical glass diffuser would then sit into a purpose made metal cone. You can see this arrangement quite clearly in the photo (below left) of a Northcraft #2001 floor lamp currently offered for sale by Reform Gallery and also (below right) in this 1951 Directional advertisement introducing the Northcraft Lamps.






And though you cannot actually see the glass diffuser in these images of the Excelsior Art Studios lamps below, you can clearly see the cones into which the glass diffuser sat. 




The arrangements are almost identical for both lighting groups, the one subtle difference being that for the 1954 Excelsior Art Studios lamps the receiving cone is not quite as deep as it is for the the 1951 Northcraft Lighting group. The 1951 Northcraft Group uses a cone 6-1/2" deep and the 1954 Excelsior Art Studios' cone is 5" deep. Northcraft lamps manufactured post 1954 also frequently use the same 5" deep cone. The Northcraft lamps came in either bright brass or a matte black finish btw, the Excelsior Art Studios lamps are only ever found in an bright brass finish.






Unfortunately time and the elements take their toll. These glass diffusers were quite fragile and easily broken, and, since their design was unique to the McCobb lamp designs, once one became damaged there was absolutely nowhere to go and get replacement parts. I imagine that once a diffuser got broken the lamps were most likely taken out of service (i.e. thrown away), this I suspect is one of the major contributing factors to the exceptional rarity of these lamps today. 

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for this terrific information. There is one point I'd like to make though. I don't think you can state universally that a lamp with a harp cannot be a McCobb. I write this simply because my father ran a lamp business for 40 years and in that time he was often brought broken lamps to repair. Many times a customer asked to have the diffuser replaced with a harp set-up so they could "update" the look of their lamp with a new shade. In fact, I remember more than one McCobb lamp coming in to my Dad's shop that he was asked to modify. My point is simply that just because a lamp has a harp does not mean it cannot be an authentic McCobb. It may no longer be totally original but it is absolutely possible to find a modified McCobb lamp with harp. So, if one does find a lamp that has all of the attributes of a McCobb except for one part, it is good to remember that alterations were common in lamps up through the 1980s and you may have to investigate further. Today people do seem to toss lamps in the trash when they no longer work or are no longer in fashion but this wasn't always the case. Not all that long ago many household items were built to be repaired instead of thrown away; Things like vacuum cleaners, shoes, clothes and yes, even McCobb lamps.

    I continue to thoroughly enjoy your posts and can't wait to learn more from you! Thanks and keep up the good work!

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  2. You make a good point about damaged lamps being altered after the fact to keep them in service. And where a lamp that has had a harp put in might be a McCobb design I still maintain that a Paul McCobb lamp is not complete unless it has it's original glass (or plastic, some of the diffusers were plastic for the Northcraft lamps) diffuser.

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  3. Hello,

    I do believe its quite difficult to clearly define a McCobb original.
    I actually have a lamp that I believe to be Excelsior for McCobb and I do think its modified. Ill try to post a photo soon

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  4. I disagree Jeff.

    There's more than enough information about the various design hallmarks to clearly define what is and isn't a McCobb lamp and what has all of the pieces or is missing parts and has been modified to accommodate continued use without a direct replacement part.

    The inclusion of an after-market lamp harp was never a significant enough alteration to draw any question of whether a lamp is a McCobb design or not.

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