lighting and electrical

Tomorrow's Arts & Crafts Lighting

Illuminating the next phase of a brilliant product.

By Gordon Bock

Mica Lamp Company manufactures this library lamp in a variety of historically accurate finishes. Photo: courtesy of Mica Lamp Company

No design force gave more innovative form and beauty to the birth of electric lighting than the Arts & Crafts movement of the early-20th century and, it could be argued, no lighting trend has been as influential and widespread as the revival of Arts & Crafts lighting over the last 25 years. Though elfin lanterns and lemon-orangey shades still cast warm, glowing pools of light over living rooms and lawns old and new, as the housing market inches back from the worst crash in a generation, it is interesting to hear what some seminal producers think the future might hold for this most iconic and successful of historical furnishings.

Given that Arts & Crafts was a design reform movement that pulsed with the future of housing from about 1900 to 1915, then swiftly bled into the background after World War I as the winds of taste and economics shifted, some wonder if, a century later, its renaissance might follow the same trajectory. As the axiom goes, however, though history sometimes repeats itself, it is never in exactly the same way. "The original movement was short in terms of a period," says Ralph Ribicic of Mica Lamp Company in Glendale, CA, "but now Arts & Crafts design and lighting has earned its rightful place as a perennial. Like Tiffany lamps, while it may ebb and flow in popularity in the future, it has become a niche style that has moved into the mainstream."

The Carmel three-light in-line chandelier is one of many Arts & Crafts-inspired fixtures by Arroyo Craftsman. Photo: courtesy of Arroyo Craftsman

Beyond Original Arts & Crafts
Nonetheless, all the companies note a continuing evolution in the look and appeal of Arts & Crafts lighting, especially when compared with what kicked off the renaissance some two decades ago. As Tom Richards of Old California Lantern Company in Orange, CA, says, "At the same time that we are seeing a diminishing response to the classic, straightforward lighting — those lanterns and fixtures so rectilinear they are almost clunky — there is a clientele with a real desire for limited edition, better quality items."

To that end his company has introduced a line with a variety of designs that move beyond the originals. "The upper end of our Wentworth Avenue series is in response not to collectors or purists but, say, folks who have read every book out there on architects Greene & Greene and want to continue that architecture." Richards adds, "What still sells very well for us are our designs that capture the clean lines of Craftsman-built, American-made products, but add beautiful artwork — we call them filigrees — such as the peacock we introduced a number of years ago."

Ribicic sees similar shifts. "What has happened is that the Arts & Crafts motif has really expanded to include the styles of the 1920s and '30s where you get less simplistic lines," he says. "It is not as serious as the original Craftsman designs." Again, the morphing is most evident in the materials. "We see growing interest in natural and hand-made materials," he adds, "especially forged iron — and have had good success with Cotswold Cottage-style fixtures in our Storybook series." Ribicic also notes that consumers are changing on lens material. "We offer two shades of mica, and 10 to 15 years ago, it was all about the very evocative dark, amber look. Now I find there's a direction to the lighter, stone-color mica and a Prairie-style appearance."

This group of three chandeliers is available from Mica Lamp Company's Coppersmith Collection. Photo: courtesy of Mica Lamp Company

"We've always made the whole gamut of fixtures, from indoor to outdoor," says David Rose at Arroyo Craftsman in Baldwin Park, CA, and that includes two colors of mica, "with the darker type, the more traditional color, being much more popular." He adds that they also offer a lot of different art-glass colors, "but the favorites are gold white, which is an iridescent color and white opalescent." In terms of finishes, "the green verdigris patina was probably the most common choice 10 to 15 years ago, but now our bronze, which is a dark brown similar to what is called 'oil-rubbed bronze', has become a lot more popular color."

Tim Wetzel at Rejuvenation Lighting & House Parts in Portland, OR, chimes in with another observation. "One thing we have observed in terms of trends, internally anyway, is a notion that a fluid, organic version of Arts & Crafts seems fresher and more appealing. This sensibility had been doing well for us for a while, but you can draw only so many conclusions from sales."

Targeting a Mercurial Market
Indeed, trying to read the tea leaves of any market remains dicey even in the Internet age, but in the rarified world of Arts & Crafts lighting it is compounded by customers who not only add interest in history and architecture, but with an intensity that runs from casual to compulsive. Says Rose, "I do trade shows where you have got your really hardcore Arts & Crafts folks who think it is blasphemy to manipulate the style at all or do it in finishes that are not true to the original period. Then there are those who love Arts & Crafts things for the beauty of the look. It depends upon the group of folks you are talking to at the time." He adds that the styles his company started with 20 to 25 years ago that are truest to the original period remain some of their strongest products, but that he also feels compelled to watch trends to a certain degree in order to maintain their level of business. "It's really a tough call."

Ribicic adds, "Purists tend to want the same designs made in the same way as a century or so ago — or what the L. & J.G. Stickley furniture company calls their re-issues." That is still a big part of Ribicic's market, with 70 percent of his designs having a connection to history. "We stick to our roots, but we also do more custom work responding to calls like 'Can you make this for me, but change the finish and have fewer panels in it?'"

Old California Lantern Company manufactures handmade interior and exterior Arts & Crafts-, Craftsman- and Mission-style lighting. Photo: courtesy of Old California Lantern Company

Richards has a telling anecdote about another segment of his clientele. "Many people say to me, 'We don't have a bungalow, but we are trying to teach our house to be a bungalow!' This is a very clever way of explaining that, maybe they are trying to give some Arts & Crafts influence to one or two rooms, or perhaps the exterior is a skinned-over ranch house. They like the Arts &Crafts motif, but their intent is not for their house to be a full-fledged bungalow."

Wetzel has a similar observation from a different perspective. "In my former 1991-era neighborhood, everything — from the general style to details like lighting — was drawn from a highly modified, but vaguely recognizable, version of Arts & Crafts. About the time developers building houses slowed way down due to the recession, we saw a change in the lighting market." That begs the question, what will come when the construction market returns? "Maybe Arts & Crafts lighting will pick up where it left off," Wetzel adds, "or maybe popular lighting will be some vaguely industrial style, nautical even. Nobody knows for sure, but as marketers, we ask ourselves that question all the time."

Richards speaks for many in the historic design industry when he says, "It is difficult to sort out what is really going on. Is it a shift in the look and its desirability, or is it simply an economy that is still sputtering along, the aftershocks of the past five years of downturn?" Clearly, a more sophisticated and broader market has had other influences. Says Ribicic, "When we started, Arts & Crafts lighting was so much about table lamps; they were art pieces, mood lighting." Now he says there is a larger market for wall fixtures and chandeliers, which is consistent with the general lighting business. People now are also much more specific about what they want. "They know about patina finishes, for example," he says.

Richards agrees and notes that the sweet spot in his market is often between the purist and the casual-interest buyer. "We gear our product line to folks who have a beginning, if not developed, appetite for all things Arts & Crafts and bungalow. They have real knowledge, and the economic strength to support it because, when they are building a house they are pretty much teaching the contractor how to build in the Arts & Crafts style, directing him or her to books and details."

How do you hit such a moving market with a new product? These companies tell of a never-ending search for new historic lighting ideas in archives, museums and the Internet, but Wetzel describes an approach that, in one case, was particularly illuminating. "We started with classic trend-spotting by watching TV, reading blogs and magazines — whatever — to determine characteristics that were popular at that moment. When we saw indications of interest in big round light fixtures, industrial/commercial lighting from the early electric period, and wire as a design detail, we went to our library and looked for historic fixtures where all those characteristics seemed to intersect." The result, he says, is a fixture called The Hood. "Lo and behold, it became a top seller, but it is never easy to make the right pick."

Left: Rejuvenation's Arts & Crafts-style Amity fixture measures 12-in. tall x 5-in. wide. Photo: courtesy of Rejuvenation Lighting & House Parts

Right: The Poplar Glen series is available from Old California Lantern Company in four sizes and numerous artwork and overlay options. Photo: courtesy of Old California Lantern Company

Born in the USA
Yet another market force that has come to bear — but with surprising effects — is the influx of Arts & Crafts fixtures from offshore. As Rose puts it, "People are starting to get real strong with Made in USA products, so that falls right into our lap because everything we offer is made here."

Moreover, Arts & Crafts consumers are motivated not just by patriotism but also by their discerning eye. "I hear it all the time," says Rose, "the difference in quality compared to knockoffs is like day and night." He acknowledges that his company's product line is not a budget purchase, "but it is an investment because we have got product out there that was made 20 or 25 years ago that still functions like the day it came out of the box — and probably looks better with age."

Ribicic has a similar take. "When a lot of the Van Erp-style or Mission-style lamps started to be made offshore, they flooded the market and the designs became more of a commodity. They would try to go after the mushroom shape, for example, not quite hitting the mark. It all boils down to feeling and finding the unique Arts & Crafts lines, curves and proportions. Thank goodness people see the difference in the lamps we make — it is all in the details."

Sums up Richards, "In the entire Arts & Crafts lighting world as a group, there is a much higher percentage of customers that want to buy American-made. They seek it out partly because it is in keeping with a historic period when products were made in America, and partly because the whole mindset of restoring houses involves trying to find original pieces that fit. It has been a blessing for everyone."


Gordon Bock, co-author of The Vintage House, lists his 2014 keynote speeches, seminars and workshops at www.gordonbock.com.