It may come as a surprise to many, but a period style lighting fixture is not defined by the color or shape of its shade. Rather, a fixture is an assemblage of metal components that holds the shade and light bulb in place. Not only are shades interchangeable (thanks to standard sizes of “fitters”), but so are many of the component parts. That’s before you’ve even chosen a finish, of which there can be a dozen or more.
Old California Lantern Co., for example, offers dozens of lighting “families” that not only include different types of fixtures (pendant, sconce, bracket lamp, etc.), but also many choices of glass and mica, up to a dozen period-look finishes, and overlays that create a picturesque silhouette effect. No wonder it’s hard to recognize that a mini lantern with iridescent green art glass in the “old penny” finish is a kissing cousin of a polished nickel pendant with a tulip-shaped art glass shade in tints of blue and purple.
While some people are content to choose lighting from a single family (in the same finish and with matching shades), other folks are more particular. “People have become more educated in the last few years,” especially from a design sense, says Stephen Kaniewski, president and chief designer for Brass Light Gallery in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “They want fixtures that look as though they are original to the house.”
Matching something that was made decades ago isn’t easy, even with all the quality reproductions on the market. A customization often starts when a client sees a detail on a pendant or sconce that matches a decorative element in their home, Kaniewski says—an acorn finial or a running Greek key, for example. The decoration could be on a sconce rather than the pendant the client needs, however. The fixture could be the wrong size for the intended space, or the detail could be the only thing the buyer likes about the fixture.
When that happens, lighting makers are quick to suggest alterations. “At Brass Light, everything is customizable,” says Margaret Howland, the company’s director of marketing. Among hundreds of fixtures, a dozen different metal finishes, and uncounted shades, she says, there are seven million possible looks.
The company can accommodate changes like altering the scale of a backplate or making a standard size of floor grate larger, even for small runs. They’ve even gone to the extent of “banging the fixture up” to make it look old, Howland says. “We can do a project where there are 200 fixtures, or we can do one hand-blown, bell-jar-shaped lantern by an artisan in Milwaukee.”
Sometimes a small, subtle change can result in a stellar personalization. Say a customer prefers a chandelier with a plain canopy (the part that covers the connection to the wall or ceiling) but has fallen in love with a beaded detail on the canopy of another fixture, which matches a decorative element at home. Since many parts are interchangeable at companies that make their own lighting, it may be any easy swap. “I’m always surprised at people who are willing to go to the extra expense to change out canopies or shade holders,” says Anne Maloney, who handles custom lighting for Rejuvenation in Portland, Oregon. Most small adjustments cost between $50 and $100, in addition to the cost of the fixture, even when some modification is required. “If we have the parts, we can manufacture more or less exactly what the customer needs.”
Maloney also finds that many people prefer fixtures not only from different lighting families, but also different eras or styles. A minor adjustment, like changing out the shade holder on a Colonial Revival sconce to match the one on an Art Deco chandelier, “can be a bridge between the two styles,” she says.
Another means of transforming a light is by changing the metal finish. Brass Light Gallery’s Morris line, for example, includes alabaster bowl pendants. “If you do the alabaster bowl in architectural bronze, it goes into a ’20s house like it’s been there since 1928,” Kaniewski says. The same fixture with a vintage nickel finish “looks great in a 1930s or ’40s Cape Cod style home.”
Changing the glass or shades will also “completely change the look of the fixture along with the environment around it,” Kaniewski says. The most basic shade is white opal, in either gloss or satin. Swapping a plain white shade for something with color, perhaps with a moiré effect, will transform the look so much that it’s easy to think it’s a completely different light. Old, vintage shades are another excellent way to give a new light a period look. The glass is often finer and available in colors and patterns that are hard to reproduce today, Kaniewski says.
If you want something completely different or unique only to your home, a custom-made fixture may be the way to go. Steve Smithers of Smithers Silversmiths can create a reproduction 18th-century brass chandelier with as many arms as you like, at any size or scale. His fixtures are truly one-of-a-kind. “We can make a chandelier any size people want, because we hand-hammer them.”Published in: Old-House Interiors November/December 2010