Poul Henningsen and the Three-Shade System The Understated Art Deco Classic

Poul Henningsen and the Three-Shade System The Understated Art Deco Classic

Explore the enduring legacy of Poul Henningsen's iconic Three-Shade System lamp, a cornerstone of Scandinavian design since 1924. Henningsen's innovative approach to lighting, driven by a quest for softer illumination, revolutionized interiors and paved the way for Danish modernism.

10 April 2024



It is difficult to imagine another design so impactful that it continues to permeate interior trends, almost a century on from its conception. Possibly the Barcelona chair? If it had a Scandinavian counterpart, it would certainly be the Three-Shade System lamp, designed by Poul Henningsen in 1924, colloquially known today as the PH lamp.

The initial concept for the lamp came from Henningsen’s own frustration with the harsh lighting emitting from the homes of 1920s Copenhagen. Whilst electrification of homes had become an increasing norm in Danish cities, the bulbs were, in Henningsen’s mind, a blight from a design perspective, and emitted a light very harsh on the eyes.


A Danish 'PH 4½-4' pendant light (£500-700)

A Danish 'PH 4½-4' pendant light (£500-700)

Henningsen became obsessed with creating a shade which first and foremost concealed the bulb, and secondly, softened the light emitted. He resolved this by concealing the bulb under a series of graduated metal shades, which through reflection would not only soften the light, but also allow it to be directed. The result would come to earn him the gold medal at the Paris International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts.

Following on from the Paris Lamp, Henningsen shrunk down the large pendant into a three shade arrangement which was designed over the consecutive years. The formula could be scaled as needed, which saw it being implemented as pendant lights, table and wall lights, as well as chandeliers, with materials ranging from painted metal to opaque glass, allowing softened illumination through the shade as well as through reflection.


A Danish 'PH 3/2' table lamp, modern, originally designed in 1928 by Poul Henningsen, manufactured by Louis Poulsen, the brass- plated stem mounted with three opaline glass shades, etched with manufacturer's marks to the foot, 28.5cm diameter, 47cm high, £400-600

Henningsen would continue to experiment with and refine the formula throughout the rest of his life, with the most recognised iteration, the PH5, emerging in 1958, along with the more experimental Artichoke and Snowball lights launching alongside it.

The Three-Shade system continues to see global recognition to this day, with Louis Poulsen, its manufacturer, bringing out new colourways and iterations, allowing it to be infinitely integrated into modern interiors. Growing up in Sweden, it is something that I remember seeing everywhere, from restaurants and public institutions to the two red PH5 lamps that hung over my grandmother’s dining table.


A pair of Danish 'PH 3/2' table lamps (£800-1,200)

A pair of Danish 'PH 3/2' table lamps (£800-1,200)

Poul Henningsen’s contribution to what we today know as ‘Scandinavian Modern’ cannot be overstated enough. Whilst he conceived an immortalised design icon – arguably, the first design icon of Danish modernism - he was also a respected cultural critic and important voice in the development of the movement. Following the success in Paris, he published the ‘Kritisk Revy’, or ‘Critical Review’, in which he criticised the Danish cultural establishment, calling for rejuvenation and modernisation of the Danish domestic interior.

His contributions would lay the foundation for the next generation of designers and architects, which included Arne Jacobsen, Hans Wegner, and Verner Panton. His contribution to the development earned him a place in the ‘Culture Canon’, or ‘Kulturkanonen’, which encompasses 108 works that distil the Danish national identity. These range from Viking ships and Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ to the Panton Chair - and Poul Henningsen’s humble and visionary three-shade lamp system.

Otto Billström
20th Century Design | Head of Department



Tuesday 30 April | 10am

design@sworder.co.uk | 01279 817778









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