Ralph Gardner Jr: A Visit To The Lampshade lady

Jul 20, 2019

Judy Lake at Lake’s Lampshades in Pawlet, VT
Credit Ralph Gardner, Jr.

My wife Debbie and I have been feuding over lampshades recently. We’ve done so occasionally throughout our marriage but the arguments have grown more heated of late.

The approximate cause is a bunch of antique Chinese jade lamps that I moved upstate after cleaning out my parents’ apartment.

They came paired with fringed Chinese silk lampshades. I believe my wife considers the lampshades and the lamps simultaneously frilly and frumpy and not in keeping with our house’s aesthetic, though I’d be hard pressed to describe the aesthetic. Call it Mid century modern, the century being the 19th.

Whatever it is, it’s not the stuff of fawning photo spreads in Architectural Digest or World of Interiors.

Indeed, many of our home’s finer specimens are antique lamps manufactured by my grandparents.

You heard that right. During their retirement years they made lamps employing marble bases, porcelain figurines, chandelier crystals – whatever appealed to their decidedly idiosyncratic and not always artistically infallible fancy.

Then they sold them at country auctions, posing as priceless antiques or at least readymade family heirlooms.

Many of them still reside at our home, though it’s hard to tell if that’s because they’re the ones that failed to sell at auction or because they represent the pinnacle of my grandparents’ craft that they couldn’t stand to part with.

There’s even one made from an avalanche canon shell that I acquired as a teenager while hiking in the Grand Tetons in the late 1960’s, and that I persuaded my grandfather to turn into a lamp.

All I’m saying is that these aren’t museum quality objects. So I’m not sure why my wife has suddenly developed an aversion to jade lamps that are genuine antiques, several of which even have a switch you can turn that makes the interior glow with a low wattage light bulb. Extremely cool.

In any case, we decided to seek counseling. Not from a marriage specialist. But, since we were heading in that direction, from Judy Lake, also known as the Lampshade Lady.

Judy owns Lake’s Lampshades in Pawlet, Vermont, just a few miles over the New York State border.

The store, along the Mettawee River in beautiful downtown Pawlet, population 1,397, is the stuff of children’s books, a fantasia of lampshades in everything from fancy French embroidery to vintage postcards of destinations such as nearby Dorset, Burlington and Lake George. She also does special orders, some of the fabrics supplied by customers.

And Judy’s the author of The Lampshade Lady’s Guide to Lighting Up Your Life.

She embroidered as a child in Maine, started weaving and sewing in high school, studied textiles and decorative arts in college, and became a fiber artist.

In short, who better to adjudicate a matrimonial dispute about lampshades than Judy Lake?

The Lampshade Lady appears a perennial sunny person – it wouldn’t be going too far to say she sheds light – though she obviously had no interest in entering a family squabble.

However, she did gently question my wife’s default answer to many lampshade-related decorating challenges – a black lampshade.

“They’re beautiful,” Judy acknowledged. “You’re city people, too.”

I don’t know what that has to do with anything. Are city people somehow more accepting of gloom?

“You can’t read by them,” Judy observed gingerly. “Can you?”

“Yes you can,” Debbie testified. “Underneath them.”

“Usually my customers do need to read by my lampshades,” Judy observed.

You can see what I’m up against.

The lampshade lady said the secret to a successful lampshade, setting aside its decorative purposes, is proportionality. A lampshade can be too short for its base or too wide. “You want the balance,” she explained.

Obviously, the hardware – the socket, switch and light bulb – shouldn’t show. “You want to cover up all that stuff,” she added. “Generally. In lampshades rules can be broken.”

Debbie was smitten by a green lampshade featuring winter scenes. I liked too, though it was a bit too seasonal, a bit too Christmassy.

But back to our jade lamps. Did Judy have any lampshade suggestions short of exiling them to the basement, my wife’s proposed destination?

Judy didn’t disagree with my wife’s suggestion of a drum-shaped shade. Then again, maybe she was just being diplomatic. “It’ll bring it up to date,” she acknowledged.

A Sotheby’s decorative arts expert visited when I we were dissembling my parents apartment. And while he pronounced most everything worthless – at least in terms of high-end auction interest – he did note the lampshades and their expensive replacement value.

Perhaps an eBay auction’s the solution.

In the end we purchased a small lovely French white linen lampshade from Judy. It came trimmed in lace and embroidered with colorful songbirds and budding vines.

The only problem is that we have nowhere logical to put it. Or rather, that it will have to take the place of an existing perfectly acceptable lamp and lampshade. Undoubtedly one of the lovely, highly desirable antique jade ones.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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