The Afterglow of Vintage Lighting

After all the labor and expense of restoring a home, nothing completes the pictures as nicely as an antique light fixture. Even in newly constructed homes, antique lighting can offer a special depth and uniqueness.

Reproduction lighting fixtures abound, with quality and price ranging widely. True vintage lighting will likely be found in antique malls or at auction houses. There is no shortage of vintage fixtures in as-is condition; but a limited number of dealers specialize in their restoration.

When the search for the ideal fixture begins, identifying the differences between reproductions and the real thing can be difficult. Design is the first clue: just a small number of the old designs are being reproduced, and all too often the scale or ratio has been altered, creating a clumsy appearance. Most of the metalwork on reproductions does not have the same smooth crispness as on antique examples. Cost, surprisingly, is a minor concern: the price of a restored vintage fixture closely corresponds to that of a quality reproduction.

The short supply of antique glass shades sometimes makes reproduction a necessary consideration; however, none of the new shades are as delicate as the originals. Age has a positive effect in many shades, bringing out a purple hue in some and a fire in others. In the case of Holophane, the marvelous reflectivity (which was the aim of these shades) is not found in reproductions. Early electric wattage was not very bright, and Holophane shades, smooth on the inside and patterned in zig zags on the outside, created light prisms to reflect and enhance light. First used commercially, Holophane shades later became popular with the general public. You can find modern examples of this type of shade in many restaurants today.

As the search continues, choosing the style becomes the most difficult task. "Pole fixtures" are particularly suited to homes built before 1910 and new homes trying to develop that atmosphere. Originally developed for the Victorian gas light era, these fixtures have a central long pole descending from the ceiling with the arms carrying the lighting branching out from the base of the pole. "Drop pans," which have a small ceiling cap and a long suspended pan, are ideal for rooms with beamed ceilings. A large pan attached directly to the ceiling with shades hung from long lengths of pipe or chain, will enhance a room that does not have ceiling coves or picture moulding.

Both of the above types of fixtures originated with the spread of electricity after 1910; most of the early examples exuberantly celebrated the new lighting source. The variations between these three groups of vintage fixtures appears endless. Whichever type you eventually choose, you will find that in the gray and misty Northwest a beautiful old fixture will both illuminate a room and lift your spirits. - John and Marian Jarosz

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