Most of the time when we’re restoring antique lights, we try pretty hard to make sure we get things to be period authentic. When we have to replace parts, we first try to use antique parts that match existing ones. If the original part is just plain missing, the first thing we do is go to our archive of old lighting catalogs and look at similar fixtures from the same time period to find out what the ‘right’ part might be. We’ll sometimes go to great lengths for an accurate restoration - we might track down a hard-to-find set of matching oxidized-copper-finish antique GE light socket shells from 1905, or have missing brass parts re-cast and refinished to match the originals, or search through boxes and boxes of old brass tubing to find just the right reeded pattern. When all other options are exhausted, we’ll reluctantly use new parts, but we always make sure to let customers know what we’ve had to replace.
There are times, however, when I let myself be more creative. Like Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, I take old parts, reassemble them, and then add the magic of electricity in order to bring them to life. I’m the first to admit that this practice is nothing new, and that there are in fact a lot of folks doing it these days (search for ‘steampunk’ or industrial lamps on eBay if you don’t believe me). However, I like to think that my approach is a little better informed and more subtle than some. I don’t just weld hose bib handles onto a galvanized pipe, add a new socket, and call it an industrial lamp. The pieces I build are often inspired by finding an unusual part from a light fixture; a part that has a compelling aesthetic, but isn’t usable in a normal fixture restoration. For example, this fixture was all about the enormous cluster of 18 sockets from a mid-1930′s movie theater fixture.
- A stunning piece of industrial design that was never intended to be appreciated – it would originally have been entirely hidden inside a shade.
Other times, it’s as simple as finding an appropriate base for a lamp. Everyone’s seen the ubiquitous “spotlight-on-a-tripod” light fixture, but have you ever seen a teeny tiny one like this? It’s only about 14 inches tall – so cute!
- The details are important. Note the vintage cord-switch on the twisted cotton-covered wire.
Other times, the process is much more involved. In the example below, I came up with an elegant way to mount a C.1910 mirrored reflector from a photo enlarger onto the articulated extension arm from a dentist’s tool tray, using a ball joint from a damaged 1930′s shop lamp. With significant pieces, I try to preserve the integrity of the original antique elements as much as possible. Other than the wiring, only one small component on this lamp is a new fabrication, I didn’t physically alter any pieces, and it could all be disassembled at will. You never know: perhaps 100 years from now, a photo historian will want that reflector hood. If they found this lamp, they could just unbolt it – no harm done!
- Fully adjustable – it can extend, pivot, or swivel anywhere you want it.
If a particular component can’t be used for a true restoration, it might be sitting around in the workshop – er, mad scientist’s laboratory – for some time. It might eventually find a friend in another part – hey, these look cool together! – but they still don’t quite add up to a whole fixture. Then finally another oddball piece will come in that happens to be exactly the right thing to make it all work. I had the extending pulley arm for this fixture for a while before I found this wonderfully crusty black enamel shade to complement it. I added the weatherhead from an old streetlight and a Benjamin 3-bulb socket splitter to complete the effect.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little glimpse of my world. Of course, no tour would be complete without a peek behind the curtain at the gory details of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory itself, would it?