Designed in 1930, this classic desk lamp counts Winston Churchill among its famous users. His stood on his desk in his air-raid shelter beneath Whitehall and was presumably witness to many conversations about strategy while the sirens wailed outside.
The Bestlite was created by Robert Dudley Best, heir to the largest lighting factory in the world, and was first produced at the end of that revolutionary period in design Bauhaus. This movement sought to bring function and simplicity to the fore of all its designs and broke the barriers between industrialisation and works of art. Although it began in Germany, it was largely influenced by the leader of the Arts & Craft movement in Britain, William Morris, who famously declared that one should have nothing in one’s house that one did not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. The Bauhaus school was closed by the Nazis in 1933 and many of its designers moved to the US where they dominated art and architecture for years.
Dudley Best, whose factory was in Birmingham, had worked as an industrial designer in both Paris and Düsseldorf. While there, he made close friends with Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus movement, and it was during this time that he made the first sketches of what would become this iconic light. “He returned in Birmingham in 1930 determined to put the Bestlite into production,” said Matthew Giles, of nest.co.uk, where the lamp retails at £319.
“But it was so different from the factory’s traditional designs that it took a while before he could persuade his father into a trial production. Then, when he eventually did start making them, they didn’t end up in homes as he had expected, but were sold to car repair shops and to the Royal Air Force, where they were appreciated for their functionality.”
However, a few of the lamps ended up on the desks of architects and a feature duly followed in the Architects Journal, where it was proclaimed the first British Bauhaus production. Suddenly everyone wanted one and when Winston Churchill put one on his desk, icon status followed. It is unclear, however, if Winston a) bought it himself, or b) was aware of its German connection when he put in on his wartime desk. Giles said: “I have been told that Winston Churchill chose it himself and that it didn’t just stay on his desk but that he took it around the world with him when he travelled.”
In 2004, the company was taken over by Gubi, a Danish firm, but the lamps are still designed and manufactured in Birmingham. Eighty years on, the Bestlite has retained its industrial feel and, unlike many other designs, has resisted the temptation to market itself in hot pink or mellow yellow. You can buy a floor, desk or pendant version but it comes only in black, white or ivory.
first published in The Independent