Mesmerising Molten Wax

29th March 2008

The Lava Lamp oozes – literally – with 1960s psychedelic style.

Jill Glenn looks at the curious history and enduring attraction of the lava lamp.

‘Grab yourself a bargain today!!!’ urges one enthusiastic eBay seller, offering a ‘faulty but genuine Mathmos red lava lamp’. There have been, bizarrely, five bids for this. The current price, £2.21, smacks of desperation – but don’t be deceived by this slightly tawdry offering. The cult of the Lava Lamp is very much alive and well, both on eBay and elsewhere.

Among the 283 Lava Lamps (‘Eye-catching design’… ‘Instant conversation piece’… ‘Soothing to watch’…) and accessories listed on the online auction site as I write, for example, is a ‘Mathmos Flock Ltd Edition Lava Lamp Astro – No 1 of 1000… the ultimate collector’s piece’. It’s currently bubbling at £160 with 2 days, 5 hours and 13 minutes to go. Then there’s the ‘truly original Crestworth 1970 lava lamp with copper base and top… in constant use and as good today as it was in 1970… original white wiring with in-line button switch’. Tagged with the plaintive comment ‘Only for sale as I have too many lava lamps!’, it’s attracted the attention of three bidders keen to give it a home. With its citric white and lemon/lime colouring it’s surprisingly attractive, and considerably more subtle than many.

The concept (if you’ve lived in a glass bubble of your own for the last 45 years, and never seen a Lava Lamp in action) is simple. A bulb hidden underneath a glass bottle heats a coloured ‘liquid’ containing pieces of wax, which rise, in organic fluid shapes, only to cool at the top and then sink to the bottom to repeat the process. It’s appealing, hypnotic – like staring into an open fire, perhaps – but curious, nevertheless.

The Lava Lamp may scream 1970s kitsch to you – but retro is hip, and the cult item that became the epitome of bad taste in the 1980s is definitely back in business. More Lava Lamps were sold in the 1990s, apparently, than in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s combined. They’re even featuring in a ‘Design Icons‘ promotion at Harrods. The Preferred Store has selected 20 iconic products (as diverse as the Apple iPod and the Chanel two-piece suit) to examine the personal relationship, the interface, between a designer and the object he or she creates.

Each product will be displayed with a quotation from each designer or creative director: their unique insight into why they have created it or what it means to them. The idea is to reveal something about the designer’s motivation. Cressida Granger, the Managing Director of Mathmos, has the lowdown on the lava lamp: ‘The creator of the pop-classic Astro ‘lava’ lamp – Edward Craven-Walker – was inspired to create the pop classic Astro lamp after seeing an egg-timer in a pub in the early 1960s, and named it to honour the recent moon landings. After months in a home-made laboratory in his garden shed, he discovered the ideal shape for the lamp – a lucozade bottle, the shape that still defines Astro lamps.’

Granger has more right than most to expound on the history and philosophy of the Lava Lamp. A former antiques dealer, she was selling Lava Lamps on a stall at Camden Market in the late 1980s, alongside vintage lighting and furniture. Recognising that, despite its fall from favour, the Lava Lamp had an enduring popularity, she investigated the possibilities of selling new rather than second hand. Edward Craven-Walker invited Granger and her business partner David Mulley to the factory in Poole. It was still operational, although not unprofitable, and making only about 1,200 lamps. A deal was struck – on a single sheet of A4, allegedly – and over the course of the next few years control and ultimately ownership passed to Granger and Mulley. Within five years production had increased to a phenomenal 10,000 lamps a month. Granger and Mulley renamed the company Mathmos, taking the name from the evil bubbling force in the Jane Fonda movie Barbarella – a cult classic in its own right.

Craven-Walker remained a consultant to Mathmos until his death, in the year 2000, at the age of 82, and is regarded as one of the 20th century’s great British inventors. Ex-RAF, he was a natural problem solver, with a sharp, enquiring mind and a highly individual take on life (he was a keen naturist, and film director, occasionally combining both interests…).

The history of the ‘invention’ of the Lava Lamp hinted at in Granger’s comments is as quirky as they come. In the late 1940s or early 1950s (details are sketchy, as in all the best stories), Edward Craven-Walker was drinking in a country pub in Hampshire. On the bar was an odd contraption – a novelty egg-timer dating from the Second World War. Filled with wax and oil, the principle was that when the wax melted and rose to the top of the glass, your egg was ready. Lit from below, it cast wonderful shadows and was mesmerising to watch. Craven-Walker was captivated.

He patented the idea, calling it the Astro Lamp, and spent several years perfecting a prototype. By 1963 he had established a company – Crestworth – to market the lamps and started production (in his back garden) in Poole. Selfridges stocked some of the early models, and soon came back to order more – the futuristic-shape and odd shadows and lights captured the spirit of the 1960s perfectly. "If you buy my lamp, you won't need drugs," its inventor is reported to have said.

The Astro Lamp changed its name when it made its way to the United States in the late 1960s. Lava Brand Motion Lamps, produced in Chicago, fitted perfectly into the craze for psychedelia, and were advertised as 'head trips that offered a motion for every emotion'.

At their peak, more than seven million Lava Lamps were sold around the world each year… but fashions change, and by the early 1970s sales were falling. By the late 1980s, though (enter Cressida Granger), original 1960s Lava Lamps, especially those with paisley or pop art motifs, were becoming collectible. As the wax falls, so does it rise.

Only Mathmos and their associates know the Lava Lamp’s secret chemical ingredients, although there are, strangely, both books and websites that suggest how to make one at home. That’s one form of chemical experimentaton that’s definitely not recommended, even for an enthusiast. Far too flammable and toxic. And there are, in any case, some very stylish versions available on the market, in a range of clever colourways, that add a distinct, even distinguished touch to the contemporary home.

Interior design owes a lot to Edward Craven-Walker. Granger again: ‘Edward believed the lamp represented the cycle of life – it grows, breaks up, falls down and then starts all over again. It is accessible, throw away, populist, shows no respect for the past but a great optimism about the future. And whether you love it or hate it, its design is integral to the ethos of the 1960s and 1970s culture.’

From cult to classic. As the saying goes: Every home should have one.

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