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100 Years of Lighting Designs

A look at how lighting fixtures changed over the course of a century. By Bo Sullivan

    The Space Age had a profound impact on mid-20th-century lighting.

    The Space Age had a profound impact on mid-20th-century lighting. (Photo: Gridley + Graves)

    The century between 1865 and 1965, from the Gilded Age to the Space Age, saw more changes in lighting than in all of human history leading up to it. While some of these changes may seem quaint or insignificant to modern sensibilities, each was fueled by the same irrepressible hunger for stylistic and technological advances that motivates us today. If that Neo-Grec chandelier or Art Deco sconce seems hopelessly old-fashioned and irrelevant in the new millennium, remember that every generation saw themselves on the cutting edge of all that was fresh and exciting—and many of these lighting-trend milestones were as thrilling in their time as LEDs, smartphones, and Apple-style minimalism are today.

    The unique and comprehensive style timeline we’ve assembled here can be an invaluable tool, whether you’re trying to restore original lighting or just find complementary fixtures from a similar timeframe or design provenance. Because as we all know, the right light will make your house feel like a home at the flip of a switch.

    Victorian
    (ca. 1870-1910)

    Multi-armed chandeliers were the norm in Victorian interiors.

    Multi-armed chandeliers were the norm in Victorian interiors. (Photo: Edward Addeo)

    Lighting during the Victorian era tended toward elaborate, graceful, multi-arm fixtures with finely detailed decorative glass shades; they often featured rich gilt, silver-plated, or antique metal finishes. The entire history of civilization served as design inspiration, and period-revival trends appeared and disappeared. As the primary light sources were low-output gas burners and carbon filament bulbs, fixtures typically had as many sockets/jets as possible. Most included gas, and were turned on or off directly at the fixture.

    Sub-styles: Neo-Grec, Eastlake, Aesthetic, Bent Brass, Empire, Late Victorian, Exotic, Art Nouveau

    Classical Revival
    (ca. 1890-1935)

    Semi-indirect Classical Revival fixtures represented the newest technology.

    Semi-indirect Classical Revival fixtures represented the newest technology. (Photo: Blackstone Edge Studios)

    In the late 19th century, architects trained at Paris’ Ecole de Beaux Arts provided the great Western nations with buildings rooted in classical Greek and Roman architecture that would project an aura of power and permanence. Gone were the artful, picturesque, asymmetrical designs of Queen Victoria’s reign—they were replaced by columns, capitals, coffers, and pediments. As electricity became more commonplace in the early 20th century, Classical Revival lighting evolved from Victorian-style fixtures with classical motifs (egg-and-dart, ribbon-and-bay, acanthus leaf, Greek key) to new light forms such as large, semi-indirect bowl fixtures and elaborate cast exterior wall brackets.

    Sub-styles: Classical Revival, Beaux Arts, Baroque/Rococo & the “Louis” styles, French & Italian Renaissance Revivals, Storybook

    Colonial Revival
    (ca. 1895-1950)

    Candle fixtures in brass or forged iron were popular during the Colonial Revival.

    Candle fixtures in brass or forged iron were popular during the Colonial Revival. (Photo: William Wright)

    From the 1880s Shingle Style through Colonial Williamsburg and the postwar ranch-house suburbs, continuous reinterpretations of the country’s colonial-era past have been a unifying source of identity and design inspiration. Colonial Revival lighting has two aesthetics. The first is defined by elegant brass fixtures with crystals and multiple arms; the second by a more rustic, hand-forged appearance. Both typically feature chains, candle-type sockets, and wheel-engraved globes or hurricane-type blown-glass shades.

    Sub-styles: Modern Colonial, Colonial Revival, Sheffield, Georgian/Adam, Rustic Colonial, Mid-century American Heritage

    Arts & Crafts
    (ca. 1900-1925)

    Boxy designs were omnipresent during the Arts & Crafts era.

    Boxy designs were omnipresent during the Arts & Crafts era. (Photo: Scott Van Dyke)

    In a reaction to Victorian excess, Arts & Crafts movement architects and reformers took pre-Industrial Revolution traditions of handwork, married them to the labor-saving inventions of the new century, and mixed in a uniquely American emphasis on returning to nature. The results were powerful new expressions that placed a high value on simplicity of design and integrity of materials. Perhaps the best known examples of the movement are the bungalow house and the distinctive lighting style known as Mission, with its square lines and complete lack of ornament. Both exhibited a clean aesthetic that was completely fresh.

    Sub-styles: English Arts & Crafts, Medieval, Dutch, Mission, Craftsman

    Watch the Video: More About Arts & Crafts Lighting

    Romantic Revival
    (ca. 1920-1940)

    Exaggerated forms took center stage in Romantic Revival houses.

    Exaggerated forms took center stage in Romantic Revival houses. (Photo: Jaimee Itagaki)

    Spurred on in the 1920s by the memories of troops returning from the Great War, the historical fictions of Hollywood, and a new ease of world travel, middle-class Americans embraced the romance and novelty of Europe’s storied past in a rush of revivals inspired by Mediterranean villas, Scottish castles, Norman farmhouses, and thatched English cottages. Lighting designers dove into a thousand years of European history to produce rustic and colorful interpretations that often came closer to Disney fantasy than real history. When the boom times went bust in 1929, much of America held onto these cultural flights of fancy even more strongly to keep the harsh realities of the Great Depression at bay.

    Sub-styles: Elizabethan/Jacobean, Old English/Tudor, Spanish/Mediterranean, European Revivals, Storybook

    Modernistic
    (ca. 1925-1970)

    From 1925 on, streamlined, aerodynamic forms were the latest fashion.

    From 1925 on, streamlined, aerodynamic forms were the latest fashion. (Photo: Jaimee Itagaki)

    In 1925, the groundbreaking Paris Exposition des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes introduced “Modernistic” style—a shocking and liberating break from historical design precedent that was later termed Art Deco. Modernistic design wouldn’t become popular in American lighting until about 1930, when glass, porcelain, aluminum, and Bakelite were molded into boldly angular or organic new forms such as “slipper” or “shaded light” fixtures. By 1935, the Streamline style emphasized a clean, aerodynamic aesthetic based on speed. Swedish and Italian designs inspired the clean Mid-century Modern look of the 1950s and ’60s.

    See resources for this story here.

    Published in: Old-House Journal October 2014

    { 1 comment }

    Earthwise Architectural Salvage September 30, 2014 at 1:51 pm

    I was very impressed with the Bright Ideas article that was in your October issue. Not only was it written for the average lay person in a way that could be understood, but the images and reference points were spectacular. Our store will be using this informative article as a teaching point for all of our employees and customers from here on out. Well done again, Old House!



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