Louis Kalff (Picture by: Philips)
The partnership between Louis Kalff and Philips Lighting
Philips was founded in 1891 by Gerard Philips and his father Frederik Philips in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. The company originally produced light bulbs but, soon, expanded into other areas such as radio and television. In the 1920s and 1930s, Philips became a major player in the emerging field of radio and television technology, and it was also during this time that the company began to expand internationally.
In the post-World War II period, Philips diversified its product line to include a wide range of consumer electronics and appliances, as well as healthcare equipment. The company also began to focus on research and development and was involved in many groundbreaking innovations in areas such as ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Philips continued to expand its product line and global presence, and it also began to focus more on sustainability and social responsibility. In recent years, the company has continued to innovate in areas such as energy-efficient lighting and healthcare technology. Today, Philips is a leading technology company that operates in multiple sectors.
(Picture by: Storm Vintage)
Louis Kalff at Philips
Louis Kalff (nicknamed “Lou”) was born in 1897 and grew up in a wealthy environment in Amsterdam. He attended secondary school in Amsterdam and started studying architecture in Delft in 1916. During his studies, Kalff already designed various banners, posters, and costumes. Around the age of 26, Kalff became familiar with Philips. He felt that the way Philips advertised their products was not modern and outdated. Kalff decided to write a letter to Philips to share his opinion. Gerard Philips was interested in his vision and had invited him to his office for an interview. Two years later, Kalff was put in charge of the Commercial and Artistic Propaganda Department. He created many posters and designed stands for trade shows. Around 1928, his activities at Philips were further expanded. He became involved in designing wooden radio casings, speaker cones and other electric appliances.
Poster by Louis Kalff (Source: Philips Museum)
Poster by Louis Kalff (Source: Philips Museum)
Lighting Advisory Bureau “LIBU”
During the late 1920s, Louis Kalff believed that providing information and advice on the use of light at Philips should be expanded due to the strong rise of lighting developments and possibilities in architecture. This should include an artistic application of light as part of the architectural whole. As a logical continuation of these developments, the Lighting Advisory Bureau (LIBU) was established in August 1929 under the supervision of Kalff. Companies and architects could ask the LIBU for advice. This advice didn’t only relate to Philips products but, also to those of competitors. Kalff acted in the role of an independent lighting architect. This way, information was obtained from new market segments, which led to the development of new products. These included participation in world exhibitions related to lighting architecture. Kalff was responsible for the lighting sections of the World Exhibitions in Barcelona, Antwerp, and Paris. His most well-known work with the LIBU was a light exhibition within the Philips Pavilion in collaboration with the office of Le Corbusier and Edgar Varèse at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958.
Philips Pavilion, Brussels 1958 (Picture by: Philips)
Drawing room of the LIBU, 1949 (Source: Philips Museum)
Artistic Design Group “ARTO”
After World War II, the Artistic Propaganda Department, in which Louis Kalff still worked, had to shift its focus from advertising art to product design. In 1946, Kalff pleaded for a department that would have as its main goal: to train the most talented designers to become specialists. These specialists could be consulted by the various product groups such as radio, television, household music devices, lighting fixtures, X-ray equipment and industrial equipment. With ARTO, they attempted to form a service department that would closely cooperate with the technical and commercial departments. They also investigated the possibilities of further styling in design, in addition to experimental applications of material use. This department was later established and the old name “Artistic Propaganda” was then changed to ARTO, which stands for Artistic Design Group.
Designing lighting (1946 – 1960)
The former Artistic Propaganda Department (now ARTO) and LIBU were once a central staff organization but, after World War II, they became part of a new product division called “Light”. Since Kalff was already closely involved in lighting architecture and design, he was appointed as co-director (Art Director) of this new division. His responsibility remained the design of the LIBU and ARTO. During this time, the LIBU designed lighting fixtures, most likely in the form of large projects such as large buildings and spaces that required custom lighting. The ARTO was also formally part of the Light Product Division but, in reality, mainly designed for other “Major industrial groups” (HIG’s) such as “Appliances”. Next to their self-made designs, Philips also bought complete designs from other lighting suppliers such as Hiemstra Evolux.
Aside from the ARTO, a group of industrial designers was directly linked to the “Appliances” factory (radios, phonographs, TVs) in the early 1950s, led by Rein Veersema. This group was not independent and was still subordinate to Kalff and his ARTO. Over time, this group also received other design responsibilities from other product divisions such as Electro-acoustics, where recorders were made. As the demand for new designs within this division continued to grow, this department became independent and was no longer subordinate to Kalff and his ARTO. After much discussion, the board made it clear that Appliances needed their own ARTO. Veersema proposed that this would be split off from the current ARTO, which went against Kalffs’ wishes as he had formed the ARTO. He felt it was a “bad tactic” and did everything in his power to prevent it. Later in 1954, the new design group Appliances Design (AVO) became a fact.
From 1954 on, a large part of the design responsibilities and personnel of the ARTO were transferred to the AVO. The design of lighting fixtures and professional equipment remained with the ARTO, under the supervision of Kalff. This remained that way until January 1st 1960, when Kalff retired. When he left, the design departments were significantly revised. Dr. Spaa was now responsible for the activities of the LIBU. He also became responsible for lighting architecture, lighting design, and other projects. The “lighting design” department (formerly ARTO) was now led by C.J.F.P. van Den Bosch, who reported back to Dr. Spaa.
Lamps designed by the ARTO in the 1950s (Picture by: Ztijl)
Lamps designed by Louis Kalff…
My idea for writing this article about Louis Kalff was to focus on the lamps he designed. They are quite famous and really popular nowadays. I already knew a lot of his lamps but, I wanted to make a complete list. I quickly found that there is little factual information available regarding these lamps, so I started an investigation. I visited the Philips museum and asked for more information about his lamps. The questions were passed on to the Philips company archives, employees of which indicated that there is no documentation linking any lamps to Louis Kalff or any other designers, “Many assume that they were designed by Kalff but, just as there is no documentation of Kalff’s designs, there is none from other designers either.”. In various biographies and commemoration albums that provide an overview of Kalff’s work and responsibilities during his career, no information can be found regarding lamps that he would have designed. What we do know for sure is that Kalff designed posters, wooden radio casings, the Philips logo, and various small appliances such as the first Philips shavers. An extensive biography about Louis Kalff was written by Peter van Dam (Ir. Louis C. Kalff, Het artistieke geweten van Philips, 2006).
"Het Kapelletje" by Louis Kalff, 1931 (Picture by: Museum.nl)
During the 1950s, Kalff was involved in the process of approving or rejecting products based on aesthetic quality. It is quite certain that Kalff reviewed many product designs during his time as Art Director. The ARTO was a busy department where a lot of work was done. Therefore, he mainly limited himself in his work to giving “artistic” advice. An important discipline that he taught employees was to make a “clean” design. This involved making a design with as few visible bolts and nuts as possible. Kalff hated seeing those and called them “fleas” on a design. After his retirement, Kalff was still involved with Philips as a consultant and held an advisory role. He did not completely stop working for Philips, as he started working on the development of a futuristic exhibition building for Philips, the Evoluon in Eindhoven, shortly after. This was one of his several projects as an architect.
Sketch of the Evoluon by Louis Kalff, 1961 (Picture by: Philips)
The Evoluon in Eindhoven (Picture by: Pinterest)
Whether designed by Louis Kalff or not, many vintage lamps made by Philips are still very well-designed and became classics over time. As we know, Philips first started making light bulbs at the end of the 19th century. Later, they also started to produce fixtures, with the goal of selling them together. The fixtures from the 30s and 40s were simple and characteristic of that time. The fixtures featured a metal tube pendant in various finishes such as chrome, enameled or powder-coated. A white “Neopan” glass shade (balloon) is attached to this metal fixture. These lamps were simply designed, of heavy quality, and emitted a calm diffuse light. They also sold wall and ceiling fixtures for shop window lighting at that time.
Small Philips fixtures for shop windows, +/- 1940s (Picture by: Dirk de Wit design)
Glass 'Phillite" pendants, +/- 1940 (Picture by: Dirk de Wit design)
In the 1950s, industrial design and modernism introduced itself in the Netherlands. Philips also had to adapt to this trend to compete with other Dutch lighting manufacturers such as Hiemstra Evolux, Hagoort, and Gispen. Philips began to focus more on making “decorative” lighting with a focus on aesthetics and functionality. The collection of lamps that Philips sold now had its own character, and many designs had similar shapes and features. Some were considered futuristic and UFO-shaped. Identical parts were also used in the production of many lamps. Unfortunately, this didn’t help with the high production costs because Philips also made different versions of one model.
Floor lamps from the Philips catalogue, 1958 (Picture by: Ztijl)
NX28 floor lamp, 1958 (Picture by: Galerie Gaudium)
NX29 floor lamp, 1958 (Picture by: Goldwood)
In the second half of the 1950s, the supply and demand for lamps grew larger and larger, and the number of lamps in one household doubled in 2–3 years. Lamps in general became aesthetic and brought more atmosphere and coziness to a space. Philips started a campaign to show how the appropriate lighting can change a space and its atmosphere, showing people that their lamps can change their well-being.
Lighting advertisement from "Goede Ontvangst" (Picture by: Storm Vintage)
Picture from Philips catalogue (Picture by: Ztijl)
Philips began to focus more on its corporate image. Lamps were being sold under the motto, “who spreads light, spreads coziness.” With this, Philips also aimed to target families with children. Advertisements featured text such as: “Nice to play here…now that dad has put up that new light ornament. Everything changes with a Philips light-ornament: the atmosphere becomes more pleasant, happier, and the eyes don’t tire.”
Lighting advertisement from "Goede Ontvangst" (Picture by: Storm Vintage)
Junior desk lamp by Philips, 1950s (Picture by: Pamono)
The phrase “the eyes don’t tire” refers to the desk lamps that were designed to generate indirect light. These lamps were very functional, gave atmosphere and sold well. Some models were even produced until the late 70s. All these models could be considered “design” and were fairly priced around ƒ 40. A lamp of timeless beauty and unparalleled durability at a great price, one that will light up a desk for several generations.
Desk lamps that give indirect light. Philips catalogue, 1965 (Picture by: Vintageinfo.be)
Desk lamps from the 1950s (Picture by: Ztijl)
The successful models remained in the collection, some were redesigned, and new designs were constantly made. During the 1960s, the range of products was enormous. As a result, the quality of the lamps slowly decreased. A combination of wood and milk glass was often seen, and plastic was also increasingly used in the production of new lamps. Scandinavian design became extremely popular. This influence was also noticeable in the Philips lamps from the 1960s.
Different combination of materials used for new Philips lighting, advertisement from "Goede Ontvangst" (Picture by: Storm Vintage)
Danish influence, advertisement from "Goede Ontvangst" (Picture by: Storm Vintage)
The sale of Philips lamps had always been linked to that of bulbs. After all, with many lamps a specific bulb was recommended. Some of them included a bulb that was suitable for that model. So when the bulb broke, the owner would buy a new one from Philips.
Near the end of the 1970s, halogen lamps were developed and Philips started making much more modern lamps. The industrial and Danish influences slowly disappeared. The demand for lighting was now largely supplied by other successful lighting companies in the Netherlands. Later famous lamps by Philips are the “Foldable Z” lamp and “Halo Click” by Ettore Sotsass.
Foldable Z desk lamp, 1980s (Picture by: Cosmic Design)
My favorite Philips lamp:
The NX 110 desk lamp appeals to me the most. Designed around 1955, this lamp is made entirely of metal with an industrial character due to the rough anthracite lacquer and the matte white and red colors. It’s supported by a cylindrical rod and two red-painted legs. This lamp is beautifully designed and has similar shapes to other Philips lamps from that era, it’s a good example of mid-century modernism.
The original price was ƒ 36,50.
NX 110 desk lamp, 1957 +/- (Picture by: Kader Design)
Louis Kalff (1897 – 1976)
“Lighting isn’t only a technical matter, it’s also a physical one. We develop lighting solutions for people and thus contribute to their well-being, because people feel better in a well-lit environment.”
ƒ Dutch Guilder €1 = ƒ 2.2
Artistieke ontwerp groep, ARTO
Hoofd Industriegroep, HIG
Apparaten vormgeving, AVO
All content is sourced and generated internally.
Special thanks to P. van Dam, H. van Son, K. de Bruyn, B. Verbrugge and the Philips company archives for helping me with this article.
Text: Storm Wilschut
Goed in vorm: honderd jaar ontwerpen in Nederland. Mienke Simon Thomas, 2008.
Ir. Louis C. Kalff, Het artistieke geweten van Philips. P. van Dam, 2006.
Design bij Philips anno 1977. Frans Oosterwijk, re-published 2013.
Het Elektrische Huis. Timo de Rijk, 1998.