Made In The Shade

Choosing The Right Shade


Looking for that perfect finishing touch to complete your decorating scheme? How about an updated look for your den or a quick makeover for your living room? For each of these situations (and many others) lampshades can be the perfect solution, as they can quickly and easily transform a room or tie all of your design elements together to make a stunning finished product.

But how do you know what to choose? Because lampshades come in all shapes, sizes, styles, colors, materials and textures, picking the right one can be challenging. However, once you understand the basics of form and function—from the elements you should consider to the factors you must know—choosing shades can be an enormously creative, rewarding process.

To help you make the best lampshade selection, we've composed this comprehensive guide. By following these simple rules and exercising your imagination, you'll have everything you need to know to choose the ideal lampshade.

Completing Your Style

First, keep in mind that style really is "made in the shade." Think of the lampshade as the icing on the cake or the crowning design feature that will "make" the room. At times this will mean keeping it simple and understated, to create a clean aesthetic or emphasize different accessories; other times it will mean making a decadent, bold statement where the shade commands attention and becomes a focal point of the room.

Because the effects of a lampshade can be so dramatic and divergent, determining the function and placement of your fixture is the first order of business. Begin by asking these questions:

  • Which of the four types of lighting will this shade be used for—decorative, accent, task or ambient? The answer will determine if the shade needs to be broad and translucent (task and ambient) or colorful and opaque (decorative and accent).
  • If the lamp is being used for a task light, how many people will be using it at once? The answer will determine how broad the bottom of the shade needs to be (the greater the audience, the wider the shade).
  • Where will the lamp be placed? Generally, the lower the placement of the lamp (e.g. on an end table), the shorter the shade can be; the higher the placement (e.g. on an upper shelf), the longer the shade must be because otherwise the bulb and assembly will be in view.

The cardinal rule of lampshade size and placement, according to Ron Leddusire, Senior Designer at Destination Lighting, is, "Never let the hardware show at eye-level." Mixing and matching styles, shapes and colors are all acceptable, but if the shade is too short—especially if the lamp is placed on a mantle or higher surface—then the hardware will show, and that's definitely a fashion faux-pas.

Next, consider proportion and scale. The size and shape of the lamp base will determine which shades will work—for example, square bases typically go with square shades and slender bases pair well with sleek shades. But there can be exceptions—for example, a rounded shade might look fabulous with a square base when placed on an oval table. "Just go for a shape that works," Leddusire says. "The lampshade that you like is always the correct one."

Leddusire suggests that although the choice is personal, you should keep the three S's in mind when choosing a lampshade: Shape, Size and Surface. The shape of the shade—bell, coolie, drum, empire, hexagon, square (see diagram)—is usually determined by the size and shape of the lamp base. While there is no simple formula for fitting shades to floor lamps, there is one for table lamps: The height of the shade = 2/3 the height of the base; width of the shade = 1/2 inch wider on each side than the widest point in the base.

Shade surface—the material the lampshade is made of—is a little trickier, as that decision is based on both function and room decor. For example, if the purpose of the lamp is to provide accent lighting or to create a diffused effect, then a dark-colored shade of a dense material is ideal because it will project light from the top and bottom but not much through the shade itself. On the other hand, if the purpose of the fixture is to provide powerful illumination for bright ambient light, then a translucent fabric shade is needed—this can be soft or hardback, and most commonly would be an eggshell, natural fiber or off-white color.

Other than functional constraints, there are no hard and fast rules governing what materials work best for which shades. Generally, you want to match furniture finishes, wall color, window treatments or floor coverings but, as Leddusire says, "it's a fashion industry." And that means surface choice is always subjective. Pick what pleases you.

Designer's Rules Of Lampshade Selection

  1. The more light you need, the more transparent the material and larger the shade.
  2. The higher the wattage, the larger the shade.
  3. Never let hardware show at eye-level.
  4. The shade you like is always the right one.

Serious Shade Safety

lampshade diagram

A major yet often overlooked aspect of lampshade selection is safety—specifically, heat generation in relation to shade size. Higher wattage bulbs generate greater amounts of heat and require more ventilation, which means larger or wider shades must be used. Very simply, the higher the wattage, the larger the shade.

The crucial information you need to obtain in order to determine if the shade is large enough for the bulb strength you are going to use is the "critical radius" or measurement taken from the middle of the light bulb to the inside edge of the lampshade (see diagram). For example, for a 60-watt bulb, there must be at least 2-7/8″ of space between the filament and inside edge of the lampshade in order to operate safely.

The Underwriters Laboratories rating (UL rating) listed on the socket will indicate the highest wattage bulb allowed for that shade and this rating should be strictly adhered to. Through extensive testing they have determined the following safe critical radius ratios:

Heat Ventilation Guide

Lamp Base / Bulb Size Wattage Critical Radius
Medium 0-25 Watts 1 5/8″
26-40 Watts 2″
41-60 Watts 2-1/2″
61-75 Watts 2 7/8″
76-100 Watts 3-1/2″
101-150 Watts 4-3/4″
Candelabra 0-25 Watts 1-5/8″
26-40 Watts 2″
41-60 Watts 2-1/2″

If you do not have a measuring tape handy, a simple way to determine if a lampshade is providing sufficient ventilation is to turn the lamp on for five minutes, then feel the top of the shade. If it is hot to the touch, the opening is too narrow.

Lampshade Shopping Made Easy

If it's the perfect lampshade you seek, you'll find it at Destination Lighting. Shopping for the right shade is a breeze using Product Finder™, which allows you to sort shades by color, type (size and material), shape and decoration (fringe, piping, etc.). Simply select your criteria from the drop-down menu and, voila!, a pre-sorted selection of products is displayed for you to choose from.

In addition, Destination Lighting offers a plethora of designs, from the latest fashions to tried and true traditionals, plus all of the hardware and accessories to add just the right finishing touch. With our exclusive designs, easy to use search, competitive prices and helpful customer service you're sure to find the ideal shade to transform your living space. So, what are you waiting for? Shop Destination Lighting Lampshades now!

bell lampshadeBell  Popular in the Victorian era, bells are well suited to traditional interiors.
coolie lampshadeCoolie This shape gives any base a contemporary look.
drum lampshadeDrum At home in midcentury modern interiors, a drum shade is best paired with spherical or pure geometrical bases.
empire lampshadeEmpire This classic shape looks right atop nearly any base.
hexagon lampshadeHexagon This unusual shape evokes an early-twentieth-century rustic feeling.
square lampshadeSquare Match a square shade with a square base, or contrast it with a round one for an unexpected twist.

Shade Assembly

shade assemblies

Once you've picked the appropriate size of your lampshade, you need to consider how it will attach to the base. The three most common types of lampshade assemblies are: Spider, Uno and Clip-on (see diagram). The Spider or Standard assembly is the most conventional, consisting of multiple spokes positioned at the top of the shade that meet at a central point which attaches to the harp. The harp comes with the base and can be adjusted to move the shade up or down (see diagram). It is secured at the top with a finial. The Uno assembly attaches to the lamp base at the socket with a ring; wires descend from the shade to form a "V", which attach to the ring, just below the light bulb. The Clip-on assembly is attached to the shade itself and clips onto the light bulb.

Most lamp shades come with Spider assemblies but can work with the Clip-on or Uno assemblies if the size of the shade and bulb are appropriate. Simply remove the harp from the lamp base to use with a different shade assembly—either installing the Uno ring fitting (for Uno assemblies) or clipping on the lampshade over the bulb (for Clip-ons).

Measure for Measure

shade measurements

Deciphering lampshade measurements can be difficult, but the system is logical once you know what the numbers mean. Basically, lampshade sizes are expressed in three dimensions: the first represents the top diameter, the second indicates the bottom diameter, and the third states the length of the slant—e.g. 6 × 12 × 10 means that the top opening is six inches wide, the bottom is twelve inches wide, and the shade has a slant that is ten inches long (see diagram). Sometimes the fitter recess depth (or "drop") is also taken into consideration and listed fourth.

Top it Off

When you've settled on a lampshade, you may consider topping it with a decorative finial. The fastener that holds the shade in place, the finial doesn't have to be boring or flush with the top of the shade; it can add a whole new dimension—literally!—to your fixture.

Finials come in an array of designs, sizes and temperaments—from an opulent, sparkling star-cut crystal to a whimsical, life-sized porcelain golf ball. By adding an ornamental finial you can entirely transform the look of your lampshade or complete its design. Changing the finial—like changing the lampshade itself—is also a cost-effective and easy way to update a fixture and a room.

Remember the Four S's

As you can see, choosing the right lampshade involves a good deal of thoughtful consideration and a host of optional elements. But if you follow the guidelines we've set forth, you can transform any environment into a spectacular and functional living space quickly and easily. Just remember the four S's: Shape, Size, Surface and Safety, identify the shade setting and function, and let your imagination run wild!

Ultimately, choosing the ideal shade is a personal decision. If you love it, it is the perfect choice. So, tap your creativity and start shopping—you'll soon have it "made in the shade."