The story behind Claus Bolby's spectacular 1960s acrylic art lamps

Claus Bolby was born in 1944 and began his career as a technician in the Royal Danish Airforce. In his free time, meanwhile, he pursued a broad range of creative arts, including painting and working with wood and other materials. These mixed media activities and his technical skills brought Bolby into lighting design, and he won a commission to produce pendant lighting for a newly built and strikingly modern church in Strandby, northern Jutland.

The lights were designed to symbolise a Danish priest's collar (praestekrave), with acrylic staves (lamellaes) radiating from a metal tube. The light-spreading faculty of the clear acrylic meant that light beamed outwards along the staves, as can be seen in the large picture at the foot of this page, which shows a yellow version of the Strandby Praestekrave. These church lights were very large, measuring 80cm in diameter and weighing 15kg (33lbs).

Using acrylic of various colours, Bolby subsequently created a smaller version of the same light for use in private homes (see the blue example above right). He started producing the lights in the basement of his home in Silkeborg, and recruited shops to sell them under the title Symfoni. This was in 1967 when he was 23 years old, and he continued to produce variations on the Symfoni for the next ten years (the red example, left, being one of the last).

Meanwhile in the late 1960s, having converted his cellar into an alchemist's workshop, Bolby performed all kinds of chemical experiments with the acrylic staves left over from Symfoni production. He started to use them for reliefs and collages in a style that emerged partly from the fact that the acrylic plates were sawn along straight lines into rectangular shapes, but was also reminiscent of forms found in his paintings of that period. He used chemical processes and heating to make the staves rounded and smooth, and melted them together.

Another technique Bolby created was to introduce bubbles into the acrylic, which had the effect of giving it an inner life, and his preference for using acrylic in yellows, oranges and reddish colours gave it an amber-like look. When the finished artwork elements were applied to wall lamps and ceiling lights, and light shone through from behind these acrylic faces, a warm fire-like glow emerged which subsequently proved to have widespread appeal, especially to a Danish audience with a tradition of creating an atmosphere of cosy dimmed light in the home – the concept of hygge.

Now Bolby was ready to start production on his first completely original lamp design, a bubbly amber-coloured cubistic relief named Veega (see right). It was 1968, and the start of a busy time for Bolby and his wife Jytte, who worked together in the business, often more or less around the clock. More production space was rented and the first employees were hired. The small lighting factory was called Cebo Industri, and Bolby's next lamp models were given numbers rather than names, perhaps reflecting how fast the project was moving.

In 1969 the prominent Danish lighting company Lyskjaer Belysning took over the distribution of the increasingly popular hygge lamps, mainly within Denmark, selling them under their own branding. In the early 1970s Lyskjaer would order a thousand pieces a month of the most popular models. In 1974 Cebo Industri moved into a larger factory in Silkeborg, with showroom and the whole production process under one roof. Most of the machines used in the Cebo Industri production line were invented and built by Bolby himself.

By this time Bolby was also producing lights for other leading Danish lighting companies, including Lyfa and Nordisk Solar Compagni – the latter distributing the Symfoni among other lights. The Cebo Industri production line held rolls of brand-specific labels from the various lighting companies and would put the appropriate labels on the back of the lamps before sending them off to those companies for distribution. Similar arrangements were also in place for Norway (under the brand Fløjstadt), Sweden and other countries to which Cebo Industri exported lamps under its own and other branding during this period, including the UK, France, Switzerland, the Lebanon, Iran, Hong Kong and Singapore.

In the late 70s the ten-year cycle of demand for the colourful acrylic lights ended abruptly as fashions in interior design moved into the monochrome-dominated 80s. By this time Claus Bolby had already started to design technical lights and spotlights, so the factory and its people (who came to number as many as 30) were kept in work for many years to follow. Production was sold in 1995 and eventually phased out a few years later.

Until recently the old acrylic lights had been forgotten, but in the few years before Claus's death in 2011 they received new attention both in Denmark and internationally. It is some small consolation to his many friends that Claus will therefore also be remembered by the wider community for the artistic form and originality of his lights – and the hygge glow in the dark.

Sune Riishede

A unique yellow version of Claus Bolby's first creation, Praestekrave, the originals for Strandby Kirke being in clear acrylic. The lamp measures 80cm in diameter and weighs 15kg (33lbs)

Sune Riishede and classic modern are grateful to Claus Bolby for his assistance in the preparation of this profile.

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