Moss Lamps Add That Special Twist
By Donald-Brian Johnson, Contributing Writer
Photos by Leslie Pina

Here’s the situation: It’s your turn to play host. You want the gang to be impressed, and you’ve done your best with the decor. It’s OK. But you want more than OK. You want a focal point. You want that one, wonderful object that will leave them gasping. You want a Moss lamp.

This Moss floor lamp with a revolving
This Moss floor lamp with a revolving
Once seen, a Moss lamp is never forgotten. These plexiglas marvels of the 1940s and ’50s not only invite attention, they demand it. Produced by San Francisco’s Moss Manufacturing Company, the lamps were born of necessity. Originally, Moss made traditional metal lamps, but with the dawn of World War II and metal rationing, a new raw material was needed. Company owner Gerry Moss turned to staff designer Duke Smith. Smith’s answer: plexiglas. Developed in 1934, plexi had a number of points in its favor: it was inexpensive, it was novel, it was easy to work with, and, most importantly, it wasn’t rationed.

A new material demanded new designs, and Smith’s early lamps took full advantage of plexi’s adaptability: angled pieces not only formed the lamp bodies, but also jutted out in every direction imaginable. More variety was soon on the way, thanks to the non-stop imagination of company co-owner Thelma Moss. An entrepreneur extraordinaire, Thelma made it her mission in life to inspire her designers. What Thelma Moss imagined, Moss designers brought to life, and Thelma imagined plenty.

This Moss table lamp features the
This Moss table lamp features the
Revolving platforms, for instance. Thelma was adamant that Moss lamps do something, and soon they did: they revolved, giving rise to the Moss reputation as makers of “the lamps that spin”. Ceramic figurines by some of the top firms of the day, (among them, Hedi Schoop, Ceramic Arts Studio, Lefton, Yona, Dorothy Kindell, and deLee Art), were attached to plexiglas disks powered by hidden motors. A flip of the switch, and each figure began its stately revolve.

“But wait,” as the ads say, “there’s more!” Buoyed by the success of the spinners, Thelma lobbied for further embellishments. Under the direction of Duke Smith, and later designer John Disney, the basic plexiglas shapes served as launching pads for an endless variety of Thelma-inspired innovations. Soon, the revolving platforms became mini-stages, lit by separate bulbs both above and below. Plexiglas planters were added, as were figurines that actually seemed to interact with their plexi environments: young girls perched on motorized swings, Oriental figures peering around oversize gongs, dancers extending their arms to the strains of tinkling music boxes. Clocks, radios, and even walkie-talkies were also eventually incorporated into the lamp designs. Topping things off were those signature Moss shades: gargantuan (at times up to two feet square), and often fashioned of the Moss secret formula for “spun glass”–an angel hair/adhesive mixture cured in a metal mold to form a hard shell.

Pushing the Envelope of Design

This Moss clock lamp has a revolving
This Moss clock lamp has a revolving
Sometimes, real-life events inspired Thelma’s lamp inspirations. Moss designers came up with a plexiglas “champagne fountain” for her daughter’s wedding. Taking note of the guests’ response, Thelma’s next request was for an operating Moss fountain lamp. It soon shared inventory space with Moss aquarium lamps, Moss waterwheel lamps, and even a full-size “Moss Fish Tank Bar” that combined the functions of a lamp, an aquarium, and a bar, all in one unit. Originally retailing at $199.95, the “Fish Tank” can, if hooked today, net more than $2,400.

Before Moss arrived on the scene, lamps were regarded by furniture dealers as “deal-sweeteners.” Buy a sofa, and a lamp pair was thrown in as a bonus. But, Moss lamps were different. Expensive for the time, (ranging from $29-$79 for a single lamp, while designer pairs were retailing at $40), the lamps became stars in their own right. As one dealer remarked, “With Moss lamps, we usually end up throwing in the sofa!”

For a time, Thelma’s dreams seemed in sync with the dreams of every young householder seeking to embrace the thoroughly modern. But with the onset of unified decor schemes in the 1960s, consumer interest shifted to lamps that were lamps, rather than conversation pieces. Lamp production at Moss Manufacturing ceased in 1968.

Thelma Moss (right), creative spark of Moss Manufacturing, models a
Thelma Moss (right), creative spark of Moss Manufacturing, models a
Today, however, Moss lamps once more shine brightly, invigorating retro environments with their bold design choices and whimsical charm. For your own decor, you may decide on just a single towering floor model guaranteed to draw all eyes (perhaps the almost six-foot “Leaning Lena,” with a fluorescent tube within its angled stem), or a matched pair of smaller, but no less stupendous, table lamps, sporting exquisite revolving ceramic figures by Hedi Schoop or Yona. You may even, like some devotees, opt for an all-Moss house, with unique Moss creations of all shapes and styles replacing more humdrum lamps, thus providing visual treats at every turn.

But, one thing’s for certain: whether you select a single lamp or a multitude, you (and your guests) will definitely find Moss “the light fantastic.”

Three Coins in the Fountain
Price-wise, a good rule of thumb in estimating the cost of a Moss lamp is: the more bells and whistles, the higher the price tag. Early non-figural lamps can range from $100-$125 for table models, $175-$200 for floor versions (fluorescent panels will add about $50-$75 to the cost). Lamps with figurines by “name” designers fall into the category of dual collectibles, and their prices will reflect this. A table lamp with a Hedi Schoop figurine can run $250-$275, while one with a figure by the less-in-demand Decoramic Kilns may sell for only $150-$175. Revolving-platform lamps will start at about $200 for table models, $400 for floor versions. From there, prices escalate. The relatively affordable, such as music box lamps, average $275-300; seldom-seen, and therefore pricier rarities, include fountain lamps ($1200-1300) and bars ($2200-2400).

Where to find the lamps, or more info about them? Online auction sites, such as eBay, often prove a good source for Moss lamps, as do shops and shows specializing in mid-century memorabilia. Interested collectors share comments and photos on the msn.com group site MossLampsofCalifornia, and Moss in all its glory is captured in our book Moss Lamps: Lighting the 50s (Schiffer Publishing, 2000, $49.95). For “the lamps that spin”, popular taste has spun full circle.

The Landing Pad is a new recurring column on retro decor by Donald-Brian Johnson, who writes and lectures frequently on mid-20th Century decorative arts. In addition to his book on Moss lamps, Johnson is also the co-author of such titles as Higgins: Adventures in Glass; Higgins: Poetry in Glass; Ceramic Arts Studio: The Legacy of Betty Harrington, and Specs Appeal: Extravagant 1950s & 1960s Eyewear. All are published by Schiffer Publishing, Ltd.

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