The lighting buyer at the grand old London homestore Heal’s, aptly named Lucio Longoni, is a happy man. In the past 12 months his sales of pendant lamps, the danglier, more decorative, alternative to the workaday downlight, have doubled. And over the past 18 months sales of the attendant accessories—bulbs and fixtures—have trebled. This is surprising. Pendant lamps are not like their floor and table sisters—you can’t just walk into the shop, grab a couple, take them back home and plug them in. They require thought. They often hang low over furniture, so you need to plan where everything will be, and you need a competent electrician (or to be one yourself) to run the necessary cables to the right spots.
Pendant lamps are not new: their closest relative is the chandelier, a total show-off of a way to house dripping stacks of candles before the invention of electricity. So why exactly are they now studding themselves into ceilings everywhere? The first and most obvious reason is the continued dominance of industrial-style interior design, to which a pendant lamp—often without a shade—is a natural partner. Secondly, more people have worked out that if you group a few of them in asymmetric clumps or closely sown rows, they make a room look instantly modern. Third—and this is what makes it easy for interiors stores to cleave notes from wallets—well-known designers keep creating more and more variations on the theme. The result is a plethora of shapes, styles, colours and materials, not all of which deserve their place at eye level.
Pendants are not for the design-shy, which is partly why designers enjoy creating them: they can be bold. Benjamin Hubert—whose eponymous studio in London produces furniture, consumer products and cutting-edge lighting—explains that they’re “a sculptural product”: we don’t interact with them as much as, say, a sofa, so “there are fewer usability and ergonomic constraints”. Also, they occupy what is usually empty space: the dead zone between the table and the ceiling. Hang a pendant, and when you walk into the room it’ll be the first thing your eye is drawn to. That can have its drawbacks. A busy design will make the room feel cluttered, so it’s best to choose either simple, graphic shapes, or shades that use translucent materials. (If you do go for clear shades, keep the wattage low to avoid being continually blinded.) And jokey, whimsical designs—I mean, bowler hats—are fine in a hotel lobby, but can be a little wearing to live with every day.
A pendant is like a necklace for a room, so the best designs enhance their surroundings, rather than swamping them. Benjamin Hubert originally made pendants out of concrete, then in 2011 hit upon the idea for his Quarry lamps (from £1,254, benjaminhubert.co.uk), wide, U-shaped cylinders of Carrera marble. The light glows through the stone, illuminating its tracery of dark veins. This approach—a clean shape made from an unusual material—is just right for a modern, minimal aesthetic.
Loïc Bard, a French-Canadian designer based in Montreal, uses polished blonde wood in his sleek Bouteille range (C$190; loic-bard.liki.com). The only trouble is they’re so thin they need to hang out in packs, which quickly puts the cost up. Heal’s elegantly upturned goblet—less elegantly called Glass White Pendant (£85, heals.co.uk)—doesn’t have that problem. For something with a bit more visual heft, try the Beat range by Tom Dixon (above; from £275, tomdixon.net). The bright brass interior warmly reflects the light while the simple matt black or white exterior lets you group several of the playful, drum-like shapes—without falling into the hotel-lobby trap.