A great shade can add life to a lamp and wake up a space for little money. "You can spend thousands on a room, and the first thing people...

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A great shade can add life to a lamp and wake up a space for little money.

“You can spend thousands on a room, and the first thing people see is what’s lit,” says Margie Willis, co-owner of Ruth’s Lamps & Shades in Erdenheim, Pa.

Beautifully colored or patterned shades can give a room a warm, finished look, designers say, and the way a shade diffuses or focuses light can create drama. A striking shape can turn even a pedestrian lamp into a sculptural object. Adding trim such as beads, fringe, ribbon or silk cord (known as soutache) is an easy way to raise the luxury factor.

“So many people tend to go off-white and bland with their shades,” Philadelphia interior designer Barbara Eberlein says. “They don’t understand how much of an impact lampshades make.”

The challenge: how to choose.

Standard shapes include drum, empire (a tapered drum), coolie (like the flattened hats associated with Asia) and bell.

On the more elaborate (and more expensive) end are squared bells; Maltese bells (with a scalloped, flower-like bottom edge); octagons; and pagodas, which mimic the roof shape seen in Asian architecture.

A popular look again, thanks to the interest in midcentury-modern furnishings, is the retro drum — a sleek, shortened version of the drum, which became massively oversized in the 1970s.

While there are some common pairings (ginger-jar lamps with coolie shades, candlestick lamps with an empire shape), the truth is that matching shade to lamp is more art than science, Eberlein says.

“If you open the design rule book, it will say use an oval shade on an oval base, and a round shade on a round base. But you can break those rules.”

Size matters in shades

Whatever shade you choose, pay attention to proportion.

“A lot of people make the mistake of having a lampshade that is too big or too small for the base,” Willis says.

One rule of thumb is that a shade should be no smaller than one-third the height of the base. If your lamp looks in danger of toppling, you probably need a smaller shade.

Where a shade hits on a lamp is also important, she says. Shades should cover the hardware on the lamp, and just skim the top of the lamp base.

Key to getting the height correct is using the right harp, Willis says.

These U-shaped pieces of metal, which fit into the sides of the bulb socket and hold up the shade on most lamps, come in increments from 6 ½ inches to 12 inches. There are also “risers” that can raise a shade without changing the harp.

People often think a shade is not suited to a lamp, when actually all they need is a new harp or riser, Willis says.

It’s a magic lamp!

At her shop’s workroom, Willis offered a lesson in the power of a lampshade to transform a run-of-the-mill lamp into something exceptional.

First, she put a pleated white coolie shade on an inexpensive black ceramic ginger-jar lamp. Safe. Boring and hardly worth a second glance.

But with a scarlet retro drum shade, that same lamp looked intriguingly modern.

A stovepipe square shade in a narrow stripe gave the lamp another modern look. Add a silk tassel, and it gained a 1930s aura.

Garbed in a handmade celadon-green silk shade, set on a carved wooden base, draped with a silk tassel and topped by a carved jade finial, the $50 lamp looked like an heirloom.

Give the lining a look, too

The right material for a shade depends on how the lamp will be used, Eberlein says: “Is it for reading? That’s a different need than a general glow in a room.”

For a general glow, you’ll need something like silk, which diffuses light.

A paper shade, or a fabric shade with a hard back, usually made of polystyrene, will focus light on a task.

With custom-made shades, even the lining color is a detail to be considered. Willis often uses gold fabric to line shades that are black or red.

“A white lining can wash out the color when you put the light on,” she says.

The gold casts a warm, candlelike glow. A lining in a pink tone can also cast a flattering glow.

Finials — those decorative pieces that screw to the top of the harp and keep the shade in place — complete the look. They can range from $6 for a simple colored-glass ball, to up to $100 for jade, crystal, painted ceramic or brass.

Finials can match the lamp, or the shade, or can pick up another color in the room, Willis says. “They’re like earrings — they finish off an outfit.”