Filaments – the porno of the lamp world

Exposed brick? Check. Salvaged woodblock floors? Check. Surface-mounted steel conduit? Check. Over-engineered industrial pendants reclaimed from a Northern factory? Check.

Yes our café/restaurant/workspace/bar/apartment/shop/gallery is almost ready for populating with hipsters and their enormous beards.

But wait. One thing is missing. No, not a rack for fixed-gear bicycles – that’s on order. As are the distressed wooden benches rescued from a church.

Of course – filament lamps!

Now every pizzeria and patisserie in the land has its row of squirrel-cage filament lamps, all hung jauntily by hooked braided cable.

What is it about this lamp that has powered it ahead of all others as the nation’s fastest-growing lamp category? 


Certainly, people love the reassuringly glow of incandescent. It sates our primal attraction to fire, the result of thousands of years gathered with our families around flickering flames. And in our northern European climate, the attraction is surely double.

But the filament, I would contend, is more than mere comfort lighting. With its curvaceous pipped glass and zig-zag red lines of hot tungsten, this is nothing short of lamp porn. An abandon to primal urges. A surrender to forbidden fruit. A  Brexit to the eurocrats and their joy-killing bulb ban.

And I believe that the reason people are turning for excitement and comfort to the squirrel-cage and its myriad incarnations is that they have fallen out of love with the offerings of the mainstream lighting industry. We have become boring, dowdy and cold. The passion has gone.

“The squirrel-cage is two fingers to the po-faced eurocrats and their joy-killing bulb ban”

First we gave them the compact fluorescent. Slow to warm up, cold and with a poor output, the relationship with the public soon soured.

But with LEDs, it was our unreasonable behaviour (expensive demands, and a tendency to fade or flicker when dimmed) that led to irretrievable breakdown.

How can you have feelings for a 5000K LED lamp?

There have been, of course, laudable efforts to mimic the characteristics of the incandescent. I remember in a judging session for the Lux Awards when the great lighting engineer Lou Bedocs described a particularly successful LED candle lamp from Toshiba as ‘having the soul of an incandescent’.

He got to the heart of the problem: we ain’t got no soul anymore. We are not engaging people on an emotional level. With our talk of efficacy, life and paybacks, we speak to their wallets, not their hearts.

On a comparison of energy in to light out, the squirrel-cage lamp must be the most inefficient electrical item on the planet. It’s a mini bar heater, like the one your Nan used while watching Morecambe and Wise. And it’s nothing short of a miracle that it’s legit under Part L of the Building Regs.

Which is why there have been so many recent attempts to make more efficient versions (as easy as clubbing seals, surely). Most manufacturers have replaced the filament with strips of LEDs on a glass substrate, and even the former Philips boys at NDF in Holland have jumped on the bandwagon with a beautiful 2.5mm fluorescent version (available through Urban Cottage Industries). No doubt we’ll see even more exotic creations at LuxLive in London later this year.

They’re all worthy attempts to cut energy use, but I feel that they miss the point. It’s precisely the devil-may-care, Freudian authenticity and danger of these mega-incandescents that is the essence of their appeal.

Vive la différence.


  • First published  in Lux magazine January 2013.
  • See energy-efficient LED filament lamps at the LuxLive 2016 exhibition in London. Taking place on Wednesday 23 November and Thursday 24 November 2016, the event includes three arenas and two theatres with talks, presentations and debates on all matters lighting. And it’s all free if you pre-register at