How the Arco lamp became an on-screen symbol of super-affluence

A shortcut to sleek, futuristic, hyper-masculine wealth on screen in recent years, from Mad Men to Iron Man.

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Once I started seeing it, I couldn’t stop. It gleamed in the kitchens of London’s metropolitan elite in BBC dramas. It lurked in the corners of playboy bachelor pads in stylish rom-coms. It stood silently in the background of cool spy thrillers. No, I’m not talking about James Norton’s sculpted bum. I’m talking about a lamp.

One specific lamp has been appearing so often in TV and film it’s become a cliché. The Arco floor lamp: a long, thin arc of chrome, sprouting from a heavy marble base and ending in a shiny domed shade; somewhere between standing and pendant light. Designed by the innovative Italian brothers Achille and Pier Giacomo Castiglioni, the lamp was inspired by urban street lights, and quickly became a mid-century classic. It currently retails at around £1,600.

As a Sixties staple, it appears in a number of films: one hangs over Paul McCartney’s futuristic keyboard in the Beatles’ Help!. It presides over the criminal boardroom in The Italian Job with more authority than Michael Caine. Not one, but two identical Arco lamps swoop over the desk of duplicating villain Blofeld in the James Bond film Diamonds are Forever. Period shows recall such moments: an Arco lamp stands before abstract geometric art in the office of Roger Sterling (John Slattery) in Mad Men.

Perhaps it’s these touchstones that have enabled the Arco lamp to become a shortcut to sleek, futuristic, hyper-masculine affluence on screen in recent years. It takes centre stage in Iron Man, in the home of billionaire tech CEO-cum-superhero Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), an ultramodern minimalist mansion full of clean glass and curved white walls.

In the Twilight saga, the home of 109-year-old heartthrob vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) was consciously modern: film-makers borrowed Nike design chief John Hoke’s home, custom designed by Skylab Architects in 2006, for the airy, angular, open-plan Cullen house, which has Arco lamps in several rooms. In Crazy Stupid Love, Ryan Gosling’s stylish playboy home has one: it casts a bright light on his abs as Emma Stone caresses them in disbelief, acting as a spotlight on their re-enactment of the Dirty Dancing lift. It watches over the ridiculously ostentatious, crystal chess matches of the Boss (Morgan Freeman) in Lucky Number Slevin.

Writing in the New York Times in 2012, Alice Rawsthorn argued that the lamp had entered the deathly realm of cliché, “co-opted as a symbol by being so closely associated with a recognisable mood or specific qualities that sometimes its only purpose is to communicate them”.

The lamp is a shorthand for metropolitan affluence in all these films and more: serving the same purpose in Men in Black, Transformers 3, Tron: Legacy, Jessica Jones, Ballers and a swathe of mid-range crime thrillers (White Collar, Takers, The Counselor). An animated version even appears in the cartoon spy series Archer.

On the rare occasions that a woman owns the lamp, it signifies something else. In Netflix’s Love, it’s a visible presence in what Mickey (Gillian Jacobs) calls a “full-on grown-up’s house”, bobbing in the background in the new home of her old friend Shawn (Chantal Claret), who is now married with a baby. The lamp was used in establishing shots of the BBC’s The Split recently to introduce us to the fiercely independent career woman Nina.

You might remember a woman with an Arco lamp from headlines past. In 2011, Samantha Cameron showed off No 10’s interiors in the Evening Standard, including a £250 knock-off of the product. Elle Decoration editor-in-chief Michelle Ogundehin responded to her admission with a furious blog post, saying she was “appalled” by Cameron’s choice to buy a cheaper version, insisting she had been “revealed to be cheap, hypocritical and fake”.

Elle Decoration claim that this blog post was the catalyst for legal changes, introduced last year, that crack down on replications of classic designs. So now, more than ever, owning an Arco lamp is a status symbol: it says, if nothing else, I can afford to spend a grand-and-a-half on a lamp.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.

This article first appeared in the 08 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Nuclear Family