It used to be that an “antique lighting fixture” was just an old fashioned chandelier or wall sconce that swapped out real candles for flame-shaped light bulbs. But while these big, ornate fixtures have certainly stuck around, lately there’s been an increased interest in more recent designs. Early electric lights – particularly turn of the century factory lights – have sparked designers’ imaginations with their slightly oddball, whimsical styles. In addition to replicating these early lights faithfully, it’s also becoming more common to embellish, accentuate, and enhance some of their more unusual features to make striking modern table lamps.
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Factory lights in particular are getting a lot of attention, primarily because the designs of the original lights had so many unusual features that simply aren’t found on modern lights. Wire bulb cages, pulley arms, and other odd moving parts and once-practical features now appear nothing if not whimsical, and many designers have started tweaking and combining these oddball elements to create gorgeous new table lamps that have a distinctively old fashioned look and feel.
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The result can be more or less showy, but almost always invites a second look – to see how various parts work or move, or to imagine what purpose they might serve. Traditional lamp stands and lamp shades won’t be found anywhere in this style, replaced instead by bending arms, twisting pipes, adjustable tripods, and so on. And more often than not the light bulbs themselves are an essential part of the design.
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Old fashioned incandescent bulbs, with their bright, distinctive orange filament, have gone from being outdated technology to becoming statement pieces in their own right. Modern designers have replicated the glass of antique bulbs – thick and slightly tinted, in many more shapes than the now-conventional bulb – and embellished the old fashioned filament, so instead of a basic coil, there are gorgeous, twisted, shapely curls of light inside. The effect is so striking that many of these restored and re-imagined lighting fixtures leave the bulbs completely bare, making them the showpiece of the fixture.
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The purpose of most antique lights is to recreate a very formal, very traditional look and feel. But our approach to life and design are both becoming much more casual, and these unique turn of the century lighting fixtures reflect that shift. They’re complex and visually interesting without being ornate, and carry something of a sense of history while managing not to feel old fashioned. Plus, even when the cogs, pulleys, valves, and cages are purely decorative, they feel practical and functional, or at the very least, tactile, as opposed to more conventional antiques, which can feel very hands-off.
At the very least, these table lamps use more rugged, practical looking materials, like replacing a traditional fabric lampshade with one made from a wire cage or riveted, weather-worn metal. But from there, the designs only get more ornate and whimsical, less recreating an actual turn of the century factory light, and more like reinventing or riffing off the original design. Something like this Pastelite lamp is anything but authentic, but it uses the worn metal, moving parts, and unconventional bottle-shaped, tinted glass bulbs as currency to give what is really a very modern lamp a nice historical edge. The more outlandish and intricate of these table lamps border on Steampunk rather than factory style, putting an even stronger emphasis on oddity and whimsy.
These reinvented factory lights are all about evoking a practical, hardworking past rather than an opulent, aristocratic one. Because the “functional” parts of these table lamps don’t necessarily have to actually do anything, features that once served a particular purpose on their original factory lights can be used to evoke that sense of practical functionality in a different way. For a Steampunk design, that usually means sticking on superfluous cogs and gears, but it can also mean using parts to make a lamp look like something else – an old electric fan, a candle snuffer, or even “mad scientist” style lab equipment.
Re-imagined factory lights are based in history but born in fun, designed to act as a playful nod to the old world and maybe bring a little magic into the modern day. Let me know what you think of these designs in the comments below!