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History of Arts & Crafts Lighting

Light fixtures came in a wide variety of sizes, shapes, and styles during the Arts & Crafts movement. Our primer on the myriad forms available can help you choose the right fixtures for your home.

By Jane Powell

An antique Arts & Crafts table lamp, purchased on eBay by the homeowner, echoes the rich woodwork of built-in bookcases. Christopher Reiss photo
An antique Arts & Crafts table lamp, purchased on eBay by the homeowner, echoes the rich woodwork of built-in bookcases. Christopher Reiss photo
The Arts & Crafts ideals of beauty, harmony, and utility were meant to be applied to all aspects of a house, from the architecture to the furnishings. Everything from the draperies to the living-room sofa was intended to contribute to a harmonious whole. Light fixtures, which had been quite elaborate during the preceding gaslight era, became simplified, and infused with the same idea of handicraft that was applied to other furnishings.

Arts & Crafts design influence on light fixtures was wide-ranging—in some cases, it led to simple, boxy fixtures with square tubing and simple shades; in other cases, it resulted in rustic fixtures of hand-hammered copper, Art Nouveau fixtures with sinuous curves, or severe geometric fixtures inspired by the Prairie School. At the same time, and often on the same light fixture, were motifs borrowed from classical design or the Colonial Revival. As there was no such thing as architectural purity in the makeup of Arts & Crafts houses, it follows that there was no such thing as design purity in light fixtures, either. In some cases, all the fixtures in the house were of the same style and featured the same design elements, but in different forms (chandeliers, pendants, sconces). In other cases, fixtures in different rooms might be completely different in style.

Fixture Fix
Most fixtures produced during the Arts & Crafts movement were attached to the ceiling. Early electric fixtures tended to hang from pipes, a holdover from the days when they were supplied with gas, although after cloth-covered electric wire was perfected, chain-hung fixtures appeared. Ceiling fixtures ranged from the basic bare lightbulb on a cord to elaborate chandeliers with multiple arms (sometimes on multiple levels) or a tight group of pendants hanging from chains (known as a shower). Ceiling-hugging flush-mount fixtures were most often found in casual spaces like kitchens, bathrooms, and hallways, although they sometimes appeared in formal rooms as beam lights, mounted on real or fake ceiling beams. (Beam lights also could be pendants.) The introduction of brighter tungsten filament bulbs in 1910 allowed for indirect lighting from bowl fixtures that hung from pipes and, later, chains. (Note: Arts & Crafts products made before 1910 were meant to be viewed under the warmer light of carbon filament bulbs and may look garish under modern lighting, but reproduction carbon filament bulbs are readily available.)

Sconces generally matched ceiling lights, and could have one or more arms. A house with an upper floor might also have a newel post light at the bottom of the stairs. This could be anything from a post lamp to an upside-down pendant to an elaborate figural light, generally involving a young maiden in diaphanous draperies with a couple of lights worked in for effect.

Because Arts & Crafts interiors were often dark (all that paneling soaks up a lot of light), folks often made up the difference with floor and table lamps. The idea was to have pools of light amid the darkness, which is much more interesting than all-over illumination. Many period lamps were analogous to attached fixtures, with bases of metal (most often copper or bronze) or wood, and similar design elements. Bases for table lamps could also be ceramic—many were made by well-known art potteries of the time. Lampshades might be made of willow, wicker, fabric, paper, or parchment, in addition to the materials used for shades on attached fixtures. Of course, the most iconic Arts & Crafts lamps were the leaded glass lamps of Louis Comfort Tiffany, and hammered metal lamps by Dirk Van Erp and Roycroft, but there were many other shops and manufacturers. Some lamps were individually crafted; others were mass-produced, and that is still true today. An antique table lamp might cost a few hundred dollars or many thousands, depending on who made it; likewise, a newly crafted or reproduction lamp can still cost four figures if made by a contemporary craftsperson, or less than a hundred dollars if you buy a knock-off.

Reverse-painted shades featuring natural scenes were a specialty on Handel's Arts & Crafts lamps (shown here in the company of a Rookwood carved Green Vellum vase and a pair of Roycroft trillium bookends). Ken Lay/Oak House photo
Reverse-painted shades featuring natural scenes were a specialty on Handel's Arts & Crafts lamps (shown here in the company of a Rookwood carved Green Vellum vase and a pair of Roycroft trillium bookends). Ken Lay/Oak House photo
Made in the Shade
Although carbon and tungsten filament bulbs didn't give off as much light as we're now used to (around the equivalent of a modern 25-watt incandescent), to people coming out of an era of gaslight and kerosene, they seemed pretty darn bright. Shades provided an ideal solution for diffusing the resultant glare. The most common material for shades was glass, which could be etched, cut, hand-painted, bent, leaded, molded, or even all of these things at once. Glass also could be combined with metal or wood in various ways. Another popular material used in shades was mica, a material from a group of minerals known as phyllosilicates, which form thin, translucent flakes that are combined with shellac to form sheets. Other shade materials included paper, alabaster, and leather.

All-glass shades came in a huge variety of shapes and sizes, but some shapes were more common than others, many of which are still used even in modern fixtures. Shades could be open or closed; popular shapes for closed shades include globes or balls, schoolhouse (a broad-sided sphere that often tapers to an acorn-like point), mushroom (for bowl fixtures or flush-mounts), and teardrop or "stalactite" (applied to any elongated shade).

Closed shades are useful for disguising the lightbulb, which comes in handy these days if you're using compact fluorescent bulbs. There was even more variety in open shades, which could be round, square, flared, ruffled, crimped, fluted, or ribbed. On top of the basic shape, the glass could be molded, faceted, etched, cut, pressed, hand-painted, colored, or overlaid with decorative cut-outs of metal or wood. And there were plenty of odd shapes, too—my personal favorite being a closed shade made of ruby glass in the shape of a pointing index finger (no doubt meant to denote an exit).

The glass itself could be colored—ivory, amber, and green were popular (the latter, with white inside, was particularly common for desk lamps and "billiard fixtures"—two- or three-light pendants that hung over the pool table), but other colors like pink, red, orange, citron, straw, and blue also were offered. Colored glass also could be layered and then cut or etched for a two-tone (or more) effect. Or the glass might be tinted only on part of the shade, called ombré. Some shades were hand-painted, often with bucolic scenes. The most well-known are the reverse-painted shades made by Handel and Pairpoint.

One specialized type of shade was made from prismatic glass, which could direct and magnify a light source. Prismatic glass was invented in 1893 by French scientist André Blondel and Greek engineer Spiridion Psaroudaki. They named their product "holophane," from the Greek holos (entire) and phane (a torch). Depending on the design of the shade and the prisms, the light could be concentrated downward, or dispersed outward or sideways for maximum illumination. The Holophane Company is still in business, and "holophane" is now the generic word for a prismatic glass shade. The shades were a success, and are still used in all kinds of fixtures, from residential chandeliers to the metal halide lights at your local discount warehouse.

Various kinds of art glass were also prevalent, either blown into various shapes; in a marble-like pattern (often called slag glass) combined with metal frames to form rectangular, pyramid, cylindrical, faceted, or other shade shapes; or as leaded glass. These three types also could be combined on one shade. Blown art glass shades came in the same shapes as plain glass shades, but with decoration in and on the glass, such as swirls, millefiore, and iridescence. Leaded glass typically used lead or zinc cames to hold the glass, or utilized the copper-foil method, in which the edges of each piece of glass were wrapped with copper tape and then soldered together. Art glass also could be combined with decorative metal overlays or filigree, often in some sort of scenic design.

A 1918 Oak Park bungalow boasts original beam lights, sconces, and a row of tulip-shaped pendants.
A 1918 Oak Park bungalow boasts original beam lights, sconces, and a row of tulip-shaped pendants. Gail Prauss Interior Design photo
Special Effects
Then there are the things you don't expect to find on an Arts & Crafts light fixture—things like prisms and fringe. Prisms (holophane shades excepted) are what one expects to find on crystal chandeliers. Yet many bungalow light fixtures had shades that consisted of several prisms suspended from the shade holder to surround the bulb and diffuse the light. Slightly more common than prisms was multi-colored glass bead fringe, used either by itself to shield the bulb, or attached to the bottom of some other sort of shade as a decorative element.

The look of any given fixture will completely change depending on the shade. For example, a pendant with a square canopy and a square pipe will look totally different with an etched glass globe than it will sporting a slag-glass open pyramid with multi-colored fringe. A hand-blown glass shade with swirls of color will give a completely different impression than a shade delicately etched with twining vines.

The ability to combine different canopies, pipes, chains, shade holders, and shades led to a good deal of variety in Arts & Crafts fixtures. The styles offered as reproductions today barely scratch the surface of what was available back then, although, then as now, fixtures ranged from beautiful and well-designed to amusingly awful.

In some ways, Arts & Crafts houses are better at night, when the light from the lamps, whether filtered through mica or art glass, sets the wood paneling aglow and brings the feeling of warmth and home. We tend to discount that coziness, filling our rooms instead with the flickering blue glare of the television. Yet a warm and friendly light beckoning from the window as you approach from the dark outside is the very essence of home.

Longtime contributor Jane Powell is a restoration consultant and the author of several bungalow books. When she's not writing, she's busy restoring her own "bunga-mansion" in Oakland, California.

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