By Mary Ellen Polson
Vintage prismatic, reflector, and “explosion proof” fixtures are so desirable as architectural antiques that they’ve spawned a mini trend in utilitarian light fixtures for the home. Not only do these new fixtures have the charm of yesteryear, but they’re also affordable enough to buy in multiples.
You are probably already familiar with prismatic lights: large pendants with mold-cast shades of clear ribbed glass (yes, the ribs are actually prisms). Made in great numbers by the Holophane Glass Company (which is why the terms “prismatic” and “Holophane” are sometimes used interchangeably), these fixtures were scientifically designed to direct light where the client wanted it.
The perfect task light for factory floors and offices of the 1920s and ’30s, they also diffuse light upward, creating a pleasant, brightly lit atmosphere—something many owners of historic homes want when they cook and entertain.
“They’re good for kitchens because you get excellent down light,” says Adam Watson of PW Vintage Lighting, who finds and sells vintage Holophane lighting. “But you also get great ambient light out of them.” Architectural and lighting antiques dealers have been offering prismatics for years, combining the valuable old glass with new fittings as necessary. Reproductions in the prismatic style include ribbed glass shades with “ruffled” edges or designs of different shapes tinted amber, like the ones from Wilmette Lighting.In a new high-tech twist, these lights are intended to be hung as a series from a cutting-edge suspension system. Another style that’s suddenly widely available uses pendants with solid-color reflector shades. The originals were coated with green or, more rarely, cobalt-blue enamel paint, with a shiny white finish on the shade’s interior.
Reproductions come in various shapes from a small inverted cone to a large inverted dishpan, and are usually available in half a dozen colors, including a shiny silver that recalls mercury glass. Options can include braided or plain cloth-covered cords, as on Rejuvenation’s McCoy pendant. Reflector shades lend themselves to use with reproduction Edison bulbs, which enhance the nostalgic feel.
Perhaps the quirkiest industrial lighting to hit the reproduction market are “explosion proof” fixtures. Rugged 20th-century versions, developed for use in hazardous industries like coal mining, shipping, or petrochemicals, typically feature housings of caged wire. (Perhaps because lighting itself can be hazardous, caged lights date back to colonial times; one of the prettiest is the onion lamp.)The Wiley, a Rejuvenation fixture that celebrates the explosion-proof look, is actually based on a drop cord “trouble finder” light produced by Sears ca. 1910, complete with an oak handle. (Drop cord lights, still in use today, are portable lights that allow a plumber or carpenter to work in tight spaces.) In the 1940s and ’50s, cageless explosion-proof designs were often made out of aluminum or steel with spun aluminum shades, with a caged fitting just around the light source.
Explosion proof fixtures are prized because they are among the few vintage industrial lights that can be wall-mounted. With the new fixtures, that’s no longer a problem: pendant and ceiling mount designs can easily be adapted with a flush mount or bracket to become utilitarian accents on the wall, at a scale that’s friendly to households everywhere.
For industrial lighting sources, see the Products & Services Directory.Published in: Old-House Interiors November/December 2009