Do You Want a Boring Floor Lamp or an Ugly Floor Lamp?

The internet has everything—except the one thing I need.

An image of a floor lamp that is drooping over.
Getty; The Atlantic

Buying a floor lamp should be pretty easy. You don’t have to try one on for size. You don’t have to sit on it to make sure it’s comfortable. You don’t have to worry that, once in your home, it will behave in ways substantially different from what you expected. It’s a floor lamp. As long as you have a tape measure and the ability to look at photos on your phone, you should be good to go. Target alone has more than 1,300 options available on its website, starting at $10. Pick one.

And yet I have been shopping for a floor lamp for, conservatively, five years. The process, which repeats itself a couple of times a year, always starts the same way: It’s too dim to read a book after dinner on my end of the couch. I get frustrated but dispense with the idea of a table lamp—no outlet, too little end-table real estate. Eyeing the narrow opening between a potted plant and a shelving unit along the nearest wall, I begin the search for a floor lamp anew. But the process always ends the same way too: An hour later, full of disgust at zillions of heinous options that somehow all look like the same five stupid lamps, I toss my phone onto the cushion next to me and go to bed, like some exasperated infomercial character.

What I’m experiencing is, admittedly, the dumbest and least important problem on Earth, but it’s made all the more irritating precisely because it feels so obviously solvable: In all of human history, buying things has never been easier. I want exactly what the internet has ostensibly been designed to offer me, and it is nowhere to be found. Instead, I’m teased with things I can’t use: What about all these beautiful table lamps and chandeliers and pendants and sconces? Too bad.

Until last week, I assumed that this was a personal problem—that I’m too picky, or too indecisive, or too snooty to settle for what’s in my price range. Then I wrote a flippant tweet about my inability to find a good floor lamp and, quite unexpectedly, so many people agreed that it achieved a level of virality I had previously not thought possible for a missive on lighting. Many people told me that they, too, had been on the hunt for years, to no avail. Unless you want a shiny metal orb projected into the middle of your living room, a spare metal tripod with a cream-colored shade, or an Edison bulb on a stick, most of the options sort of suck. But that left me with a whole new question: Why do decent floor lamps stump the Leviathan of internet shopping?

If you’re just an average person trying to furnish your home, there’s no reason you’d pick up on this, but floor-lamp design appears to have mostly stalled out more than 50 years ago. When you search for a new lamp and are presented with a barrage of the aforementioned shiny metal orbs, what you’re really seeing is a rip-off of the Arco lamp, designed by Achille and Pier Castiglioni in the 1960s. If you’re looking at a fluorescent tube on a minimalist stand, you’re seeing the influence of Eileen Gray. A desk lamp made tall? Gino Sarfatti or Serge Mouille or Gaetano Pesce. A paper lantern? Isamu Noguchi. If it feels like you keep finding meaningless variations on only a handful of themes, it’s because you do.

Other types of lighting don’t seem to suffer from this problem. Indeed, if you need anything but a floor lamp, your options are full of color and angularity and cleverness. David Weeks, an influential lighting designer who has been running his own Brooklyn studio since 1996, told me that the form itself is the first obstacle. Tall, skinny objects are an engineering problem: You need to balance the weight of the material, the height of the lamp, and the diameter of the base to get something that stands up, looks nice, and fits in easily with other furniture. And in order to comply with commercial-building codes or to be carried by many retailers, lamps also have to pass muster with UL, an independent safety-certification company. (You’ve probably seen its little symbol on plenty of product packaging, floor lamps and beyond.) For standing lamps, that means sitting securely on an incline without falling over.

To prevent tipping, Weeks said, you need either a material so heavy that the base doesn’t need to be very wide or a base so wide that sitting the lamp near a wall or other furniture can be difficult. That’s why most standing lamps are metal, specifically steel: It’s one of the only materials that’s heavy enough, affordable enough, and easy enough to manipulate. But steel’s ubiquity also really limits what your lamps will look like. “We’ve designed lots of wood standing lamps, but you can’t make them heavy enough,” Weeks said. “They all fall over.” Even if you do manage to design something sturdy and functional, the stretched proportions of a floor lamp don’t necessarily lend themselves to aesthetic pleasure. When you get to more than four feet tall, he said, a lot of things end up ugly.

Despite these limitations, Weeks said he really likes floor lamps, and enjoys the challenge of designing a good one. But they’re definitely harder to pull off than all the other forms he makes. “That’s kind of the secret of lighting,” he said. “When you want to design furniture, you have to hold up 200 pounds and someone has to stand on it and hang on it and put weight on it. Lighting, it hangs from the ceiling, so it has no rules.” Floor lamps, in that way, are more like furniture than fixtures—down here on the ground with the rest of us, beholden to gravity and the needs of humans moving through space.

“It can be very artistically freeing to design something from the ceiling down,” Lindsey Adelman, a New York–based lighting designer who has run her own studio for more than 15 years, told me. This approach, she said, also appeals to her clients, who are looking for an art piece as much as a functional fixture. Hanging something from the ceiling gives them much more space to work with and many more options for how it might look; it also guarantees the piece’s visibility and permanence, which can be important at the top of the market, where large fixtures run $50,000 or more. Adelman said that client interest in floor lamps is pretty infrequent, even though most of her collections include an option or two. Some of the young designers she knows don’t even offer them.

Lighting, of course, doesn’t exist in a vacuum—it’s chosen to fit a particular type of space. When you look at the kinds of homes that wealthy people tend to be decorating, the decision to hoist something up in the air makes sense on a functional level. Since the postwar era, the American home has become steadily less formal, according to Sarah Schleuning, a senior curator of decorative arts and design at the Dallas Museum of Art. Floor plans have opened up, furniture arrangements have gotten less standardized, and how we interact with decor has changed. People now zigzag across breezy, high-ceilinged living spaces with multiple points of entry, so cords need to be totally hidden and accessories—like lamps—become tripping hazards if they stick out. Schleuning, who co-curated “Electrifying Design: A Century of Lighting” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 2021, told me that floor lamps have historically tended to get stuck in corners or against walls. But if none of your other furniture is against a wall, you probably don’t want a floor lamp, and if you do want light around the perimeter of a room, you might install some sconces instead: They offer more design variety, hide all the wiring, and don’t take up any floor space.

By virtue of being a renter, I cannot rewire my apartment to install fixtures of my choosing, and by virtue of being a journalist, I do not have tens (or even ones) of thousands of dollars to spend on lighting of any kind. But the nature of mass-market design, whether it’s fashion or home decor, means that the tastes of the wealthy help determine what’s available to me anyway. As Americans—encouraged by HGTV and shelter mags and home-decor Instagrams—have begun to demand better-looking home products at lower prices, much of what populates Target and Wayfair and H&M Home is, shall we say, inspired by the products at the top of the market. If high-end clients aren’t pressing designers to solve the engineering problems of floor lamps in artful ways, it probably won’t get done. “If there’s not much innovation happening,” Weeks said, “there’s not a lot of opportunity to exploit ideas.”

As a result, the most popular design tropes of mid-century modernists such as the Castiglioni brothers are typically the most attractive things to be had for a few hundred bucks, even if you’re sick of looking at them. And I am. I may have answered my questions, but I still haven’t bought a floor lamp.