As any interior designer can tell you, lighting is the key to creating an atmosphere in any space. And while the choices are nearly limitless, by selecting antique or vintage lamps to supplement your lighting, you can reflect your unique personality and taste in your furnishings. In this article, we look at a selection of vintage and antique lamps from a variety of eras that can be found at auction, and explore how lighting can be a piece of art in its own right.
Where to Start
Although you might want to start by searching for the perfect antique chandelier or modernist oversized pendant, it’s important to look at how natural light travels inside your space. In particular, you should consider how different times of the day and seasonal changes impact the light in a room.
With light comes shadows, which are just as important to consider and can be used to determine the room’s atmosphere and mood. Whether it’s ambient, task or accent lighting, taking shadows into account will help you determine the type of lamp that can enhance your home while adding character and personality.
While loosely categorized, antique lamps generally date back as far as the mid Victorian period, which saw more technical advancements in lighting than ever before. Candles, oil lamps and coal were slowly replaced with gas lamps, affording makers the opportunity to feature exquisite glass work paired with highly polished metallics and scrolled embellishments. Particular designers and makers to look out for are Pairpoint, Tiffany, Duffner, or Fulper. Markings for Bigelow and Kinnard, Bradley and Hubbard, Stickley, Gorham, Wilkinson and Jefferson lamps also have high value.
The Renaissance Revival
In terms of lighting design, from 1865 onwards, the Renaissance Revival took hold, which was an eclectic and liberal interpretation of Italian 16th Century motifs using a combination of brass, bronze and spelter (zinc) castings with gilt and painted finishes.
Eclectic Revivals and Schools of Design
The turn of the 20th Century saw the rise of the Eclectic Revivals and Schools of Design era in lighting, which was a nod to a broad range of authentic period styles. In the advent of the modern era, the typical lighting aesthetic was more bold, transitional and experimental, a distinct departure from the “Victorian” stem & pipe. Materials used commonly included brass, wrought iron, art glass and bent glass.
The Rise of Tiffany Lamps
In parallel, this era saw the steep rise in popularity of Tiffany glass lamps. Founded by Louis Comfort Tiffany just before the turn of the 20th Century, he had initially designed only stained glass windows before he transferred these skills to creating decorative, handmade lamps that became extremely fashionable in subsequent years. These styles are still extremely sought after at auction and encapsulate the Art Nouveau movement in the US.
The Arts & Crafts Movement
A few years later, between 1905 – 1910, the English Arts & Crafts movement took hold, popularizing the aesthetic established by designer William Morris amongst other artists and architects earlier in the 19th century and expanding its reach to Europe and beyond. The emphasis was on new “modern” forms, celebrating the craft and hand of the maker and often using materials such as hammered or hand-formed brass and copper. The following are examples from American proponents of the Arts & Crafts Movement, including Pairpoint and Gustav Stickley.
Dating back to 1880, Parpoint started as a manufacturer for silver plates before gradually moving onto lighting at the turn of the century. Most collectable items you will find at auction, including the above example, will be from around this period. These lamps are recognizable for their ornate designs inspired by nature.
As was one of the principal figures in the American Arts and Crafts movement, Gustav Stickley was the creator of the Craftsman style. Following a trip to England in 1898 and making an acquaintance with William Morris, he adopted many of the ideals of the British Arts & Crafts movement before adapting it to the United States vernacular.
Vintage lighting is generally defined as being made within the last 100 years but not within the last two decades (such recent pieces would be considered Modern Lighting). Starting approximately in 1920, the Art Deco style continued the intricate designs found within Art Nouveau but with a more modern shape and structure reflecting the golden era. Peaking between the two World Wars, the Art Deco movement is still instantly recognizable in its’ bold and symmetrical aesthetic with a focus on quality. Typical materials used for lamps from this period included Gilt polychrome cast iron/aluminum, Bakelite, chrome and tinted glass shades.
Key Vintage Lighting Designers
French interior designer Jean-Michel Frank was one of the key figures of this era in lighting and furniture. Revered as the undisputed genius of Modernist French design, his pieces are now hugely collectible. Other key designers from this period include Eckart Muthesius and Donald Deskey as shown in the examples below.
German architect and interior designer Eckhart Muthesius’s most famous commission was the Manik Bagh palace for Maharaja Yashwant Rao Holkar II (1908–1961), including this bespoke floor lamp from 1930.
American designer Donald Deskey established industrial design as a formidable profession. The above piece perfectly embodies the sleek, machined aesthetics of industrial design’s rise during the fast-paced, style-driven interwar period.
Towards the end of the Art Deco period, before World War II, design aesthetics became even more streamlined as ornamentation was rejected. Known as Streamline Moderne, this short era was inspired by the growing cult of travel and speed through the use of materials such as aluminum and steel to create lighting with concentric rings, louvers, bead-chain shades and saucer shades.
During WWII, the limited quantities of lighting produced remained largely unchanged from the forms of the late 1930s. The rationing of metals such as brass, copper, aluminum and steel resulted in all-glass elements such as canopies, center bodies and the earliest examples of fluorescent light fixtures.
Mid Century Modern Lighting
Perhaps the most popular aesthetic today are Mid-Century designs, with no signs of slowing down. During the 1950’s, light fittings became a style statement distinguished by visual simplicity – highlighting clear lines, sculptured forms and smooth curves. With the onset of the swinging 1960s came more experimental designs and visions of the future, perhaps inspired by the space race and launch of the Sputnik. There was also enthusiasm for new materials such as plastic and fiberglass, in addition to the streamlining of more traditional materials such as wood, ceramic and glass.
The timeless appeal of the mid-century aesthetic potentially owes itself to their functional but stylized design, with the flexibility to fit into any style of home. Whether you want to add some character to a modern home, add some authenticity to a mid-century home or add a modern twist to a period home, mid century modern lighting strikes a unique balance between contemporary and traditional. The following are examples from some of the key designers of this period.
Founded in 1946, Stilnovo is considered one of the leaders of Italian postwar design and recognized for their use of modern materials and functional designs considered incredibly innovative for the time. Signature styles include the space age-inspired Sputnik light fixture and satin glass globes on their sconces and chandeliers .
The lighting designs of Poul Henningsen continue to be highly sought today, particularly his famed 1958 Artichoke lamp—a multi-layered shade that was manufactured by Louis Poulsen in lustrous copper and painted metal. This instantly recognizable design can be found in many guises at auction, from tall floor lamps, to statement ceiling chandeliers and smaller table lamps.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Castiglioni brothers were the leaders in Italian lighting design. Their famed Arco floor lamp, designed for lighting manufacturer Flos, was inspired by a street lamp, and consists of only stainless steel and a Carrara marble pedestal.
How to Identify Vintage and Antique Lamps
In order to identify the era of a certain lamp, it is crucial to clarify the definition of antique, vintage and modern lighting. An antique is by definition, an object that is at least 100 years old. The term vintage is attributed to objects made within the last 100 years but not in the last 20. Although vintage lighting is often refurbished it is still bound by the era in which it was originally manufactured. Modern lighting is generally thought to have been produced within the last two decades. That said, the age of the lamp does not necessarily equate to its value. Modern lamps can often be highly valued collectibles, depending on the manufacturer or circumstances of their production.
Once you have identified the era of the lamp, consider the following factors:
- An important first step is to look at the overall condition of the lamp. Damage can potentially reduce an item’s value, however, wear and tear won’t necessarily discount the worth of a rare item.
- Antique lamps are generally seen as more valuable if in the original condition with most or all of the original parts. One method is to pinch a part of the lamp between your thumb and index finger. If the shade feels greasy or brittle, there’s a good chance it may be the original shade for your lamp.
- If the lamp is electric, see if it turns on when plugged in. The wiring is also a good clue for the age and lamp’s maker. Cotton-wrapped wires mean an older lamp, but owners typically repair or replace wiring. You can also examine the interior of the bulb socket and the plug for any marking clues.
- Also check the authenticity of the materials to see if they are indeed metal or just covered in metallic paint.
Lamps manufactured by renowned designers will usually have their brand stamped. However, not all lamps list a maker, but small markings such as a model number or a handwritten pencil number can aid your research. You can also check lamp guides or available reference books to determine the manufacturer, lamp model, and production year based on any markings you may have found.
- Check that the lamp and shade has come as an original pair as many lampshades are replaced over time. In fact, you may have a valuable shade on a worthless base, or vice versa. Inspect each part of the lamp carefully before making any decisions about value.
- Occasionally, the lamp’s fittings and decorations can be more valuable than the lamp itself. Look out for precious materials such as bone, cinnabar, jade, pink tourmaline, rose quartz, or other rare materials.
- Old bulbs, such as Edison or early Weston bulbs can also be worth more than a lamp, potentially fetching up to $1,000 at auction.
- As for the lampshade itself, some iconic designs to look for are iridescent Favrile glass and intricate glass mosaics, as well as fabric and parchment.
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