Contemporary lanterns

When East and West meet

Lanterns are probably one of the most common motifs in Japanese and Asian interiors. They continue to stir imagination of designers looking for new ways to interpret tradition in the most exquisite way. The best proof of this is the multitude of such contemporary lanterns available on the market. To tell the truth, it's hard for me to imagine an interior they would not fit in. It's true, however, that they look best in modernist interiors, full of - after all, Japanese-inspired - furniture and accessories from the 1950s.

As the brand manager of &Tradition brand, known for its Formakami paper lamps by the Spaniard Jamie Hayon, once said, "When East and West meet, the past becomes the present in a poetic expression of both". I subscribe to this statement with both hands, especially as it is true not only for Hayon's lamps. Every successful attempt of a contemporary interpretation of traditional Japanese design elements or architecture gives rise to timeless applied art that is, and is not contemporary at the same time. Although in this article essentially the same object is taken to task, the result of each contemporary designer's work is nevertheless different.

Some basics

The history of Japanese lanterns is inextricably linked with China. It was the Chinese who brought them to Japan during the Muromachi period (1336-1573). Originally, they were bamboo baskets covered with paper, which accompanied Buddhist rituals, e.g. funerals. With time, their construction was improved so that they could be folded. They also began to enter more and more into the daily lives of the Japanese, serving them during events such as festivals. Although nowadays they are not so often used in everyday life, they still appear at festivals or in Japanese restaurants as decorations. During the Obon festival (a Japanese Buddhist custom worshipping ancestral spirits), hanging Obon Chōchin are often seen. They are supposed to help the ancestors find their way home. That is why they are decorated with a special seal or brand. There are also many other types of chōchins whose appearance changes depending on their use, as well as other traditional Japanese lanterns and lamps such as andons (lanterns made of paper and wood on legs or fixed to the wall), bonbori lamps (hanging lamps made of paper and cedar wood) or Tōrō (stone lanterns which stand on both sides of paths leading to shrines and temples). When choosing a lantern for your interior it is worth to reach for a model made by hand from traditional materials.


I'll start with the top shelf. &Tradition brand, the creator of the iconic Formakami lamps, relies on traditional materials such as rice paper and black stained oak, but redefines the shape of traditional lanterns. In turn, a well-known Japanese Time & Style studio based in the Netherlands - the creator of many varieties of lamps based on traditional Japanese lanterns - has also retained the delicate, round shape of traditional bonbori lighting, but at the same time has given it a more modern form without strong Japanese accents. Vitra and its famous Akari series is closest to the original, but it also plays with convention by introducing colours and design elements appropriate to 1950s home furnishings. You could say that this is the trinity of the most famous brands producing lighting from paper. Of course, there are many other designs available on the market, offered by niche brands as well as chain stores. When choosing a model for your home, it is worth checking if it's handmade, if it was produced in a responsible manner, and if its frame has been made of wood. There are many cheap paper lamps available on the market, which may refer to the Japanese tradition in form, but their quality - paper, painted metal frame - leaves much to be desired. Just like their durability.


An equally beautiful alternative to paper lamps are those made of fabric - cotton or silk. They have an unusual softness and elegance, and they remind me of my childhood (in the 80's textile lampshades were quite fashionable in Poland). They are also very durable. My favorites include Arche lamps by Gong, Stand By lamps from Aqua Creations or beautiful Knit-Wit lamps from Iskos-Berlin for Made by Hand.

Glass & polymers

I am, however, a great enthusiast of lamps made of thin glass, which are - of course - more durable than paper, easy to clean and at the same time disperse the light just as beautifully as paper and fabric, such as the striped Milford lanterns by Nordlux, which I chose for my bathroom, or the Chōchin lamps by Foscarini. I also like a series of Nelson lamps by Danish brand Hay. They're made of a polimer though.

The variety of lamps is staggering, but once you decide on a model, the wow effect is guaranteed. Especially if you opt for large sizes or juxtapose several lamps of different sizes and shapes. Above all, I encourage you to look for lamps from the 1950s, among which you might find real gems.

Botan no Hana pendant lamp by Time & Style from Amsterdam.