You’ll recognise the PH5. You’ve seen it in countless magazines, suspended over dining tables like a stylish spaceship. But this perspective makes it misunderstood. Designed in 1958 by Poul Henningsen, it’s not the distinctive form that makes PH5 my favourite and coveted piece of design, but what happens at night when it transforms from inert UFO to atmospheric hearth. The shape is actually the least interesting thing about it.
The PH5 has a series of overlapping visors, designed to always shield the eyes from the bulb. From the sides the light is bounced off and controlled by the convex shades, giving it a soft and emotive glow. At the same time, the surface below is directly lit. It’s an incredible hybrid of being both functional for task lighting, but simultaneously intimate and emotive. For this reason, it is so often used above dining tables for the atmosphere it creates. It’s exactly what you want when dining. You see your food, but as the light only bleeds so far it also creates a sense of intimacy. Like a campfire, it draws you in.
Both the campfire and up-lit theatre lighting were inspirations for how the light should feel. Henningsen was uninterested in designing lights that aimed to replicate bright daylight – he believed in the need for the rhythm of night and day. And this clarity of spatial intent, of a feel of the light, is one of the things I most admire.
Henningsen refined this idea over 30 years and you can see his evolution of thought. The PH5 is one in a series of pendants – the ‘PH4/3’, ‘PH 6½-6’, the ‘PH 3½-3’, the ‘Artichoke’ – that iterated and developed the same concept in different scales and arrangements. But to my eye, the PH5 is perfection.