State of the Art

The art behind Arts & Crafts lighting and wallpaper.

By Gordon H. Bock

Whether you call it a revival, reincarnation or simply rebounding recognition, furnishings of the Arts & Crafts era are back in vogue even more than when this proto-modern ethos first caught fire just over a century ago. Though the movement's architects and artisans set out to reform the Victorian products they found derivative in design and poorly made, they were also bent on creating a new, holistic aesthetic that integrated houses and their contents. To them, well-designed furniture and finishes offered relief from the faster, more technological lifestyles of the early-20th century. Lighting and wallcoverings were among their most enduring creations, and since it's not always obvious how these share the same design DNA as bungalows, mossy-green ceramics and oak chairs, here are a few clues on what makes a piece Arts & Crafts.

This fixture from Mica Lamp's Coppersmith Collection, measuring 24 in. tall with a diameter of 20 in., comes with a dark copper finish. Photo: courtesy of Mica Lamp

This ceiling-mount fixture was created by Old California Lantern. Photo: courtesy of Old California Lantern

Light Fixtures
Lighting was perhaps where Arts & Crafts designers made their most original and longest-lasting impact. In the way of William Morris, the English Arts & Crafts visionary who found design integrity in medieval handicrafts, lighting makers took their inspiration from pre-industrial materials, techniques and forms, but recast them for a world being transformed with electricity, streetcars and suburbia.

"Part of the beauty of Arts & Crafts lights lies in their simplicity," says Tom Richards of Old California Lantern in Orange, CA. "They have a 'straight line' style that, like the furniture, has an almost masculine honesty. They're made out of metals – particularly brass and copper – that are inherently beautiful, and become even more so when they have a patina."

The incandescent lamp perfected by Edison in 1879 not only released lighting fixtures from the constraints necessary for open flames – chimneys and flues, safe distances from walls and ceilings – but it also made irrelevant any reference to the mechanics of historic lighting, such as oil and gas fonts and arms, at least in theory. Even though electricity was available during the Art Nouveau and Aesthetic Movement fads, it was the designers of the Arts & Crafts movement who really grasped electricity's potential and turned its early limitations into advantages in the following ways:

Shower lights. With the open flames of candles, oil or gas, it would be almost impossible to dangle a collection of lights from chains, but that's just what the Arts & Crafts did in a novel fixture called the shower light. Showers were commonly four or more lamps in art-glass shades, but groupings of individual metal lanterns were equally popular. Chain lengths were typically staggered to enhance the shower notion, and the individual lights could be clustered or set in-line – a versatility that gave them a reputation for being able to manage light.

Lanterns. Perhaps the movement's one concession to historical lighting is its infatuation with lanterns. Loosely medieval in form and construction, lanterns are round or rectangular fixtures made of hammered copper, brass or iron topped with conspicuous wide-brimmed caps. Open at the bottom, they had amber or green art glass to diffuse light at the sides and decorative vents and cut-outs in the metal. Furniture magnate Gustav Stickley offered many in his catalogs alongside table lamps and metalware.

Sconces and Newels. The idea of mounting a light fixture on a wall began with candles, and became a natural for gaslights. Arts & Crafts lanterns made an easy leap to sconces too, but it was really the Prairie School designers, such as Frank Lloyd Wright and George Elmslie, who took the electric sconce to its modern limits. Their geometrical art-glass boxes and globes hugged walls with only modest vents top and bottom to evacuate heat – so much so they blended with the building itself.

Electricity also made practical the newel light, which perched on the post that ended a staircase. Though attempted in the gaslight era, and all but passé by the 1930s, newel lights were the peak of lighting élan for Arts & Crafts houses because they were such an unmistakable melding of fixture and building.

Van Erp Lamps. In a class by themselves are the bulbous, hand-hammered, copper and brass table-lamp bases most associated with the artisan/designer Dirk Van Erp. Originally created from war-surplus cannon shell casings, these sensual, sculpted lamps are in the ancient metalworking traditions of urns and vases, but in Erp's hands have their own, elfin, organic identity – indeed, they are often called mushroom lamps.

Shades. While the glass globes and chimneys of gas and oil lighting had to protect and augment an open flame, the shades of Arts & Crafts fixtures were designed for a nearly opposite function. In the 1880s and '90s, the marvel of electric light was so astounding, as well as limited (about the output of a bathroom night light), that electric lamps were typically left naked. This was fine outdoors and for railroad stations and theater lobbies, but in the intimate rooms of houses, early unfrosted lamps cast a harsh glare and shadows – a problem that worsened after 1900 with better filaments. On top of this, designers of Arts & Crafts décor loved the deep shadows and pools of light created by candles – not that they wanted actual candles, just the rich ambiance and warm, painterly effect they created.

The Wildwood wall bracket from Rejuvenation is made in solid brass from a wooden mold.

The company's line of art-glass shades includes hand-blown and hand-feathered opal varieties. Photos: courtesy of Rejuvenation

Shades of art glass and mica provided both answers. Art glass was already widely used for decorative residential windows and readily adapted to light fixtures by most major Arts & Crafts designers. Mica, the other widely used shade medium, is a natural rock that when processed with shellac could be cut into thin translucent sheets. Mica was light and incombustible, and when lit from behind it gave off a warm, amber glow with an organic pattern that ideally suited Arts & Crafts interiors.

"To understand lighting fixtures built in the early 1900s," says Ralph Ribicic of Glendale, CA-based Mica Lamp, "one must realize that the needs electrical illumination supplied then were not the same as required by today's homes. The magic of the Arts & Crafts interior is the warm, hearth-homey glow that vibrates off the rich, wood interiors, earth tones of tiles and ceramics and the natural leather of furniture – dark interiors to our taste, pure heaven in the 1910s and '20s."

Materials. Brass and copper – the sovereign metals of the Arts & Crafts movement – are almost universally used to make light fixtures. Iron, the other metal on their par, was heavier but better for outdoor use, frames and supports, and inevitably blackened and hammered to suggest it came straight from the smithy's forge. Electricity also made wood safe for the construction of light fixtures, and early on it was popular for one-off and custom-made fixtures, whether produced by advanced craftsmen and architects or by do-it-yourself homeowners.

According to Bo Sullivan of Portland, OR-based Rejuvenation, "Arts & Crafts lighting sought to convey a sense of being natural and unrefined. It did not use sophisticated historical styles or get fussy with details. However, it did emphasize the beauty of its materials and celebrate "honest" construction methods – the rivets, hammering, bending and patinas of hand crafting."

This living room features Bradbury & Bradbury's Oakleaf Frieze. Photo: courtesy of Bradbury & Bradbury Art Wallpapers

When it came to wallpaper, the Arts & Crafts movement put yet another spin on a material that had already been morphing for a century in North America. Machine printing developed after 1840 enabled wallpaper to reach much wider audiences in rural areas, as well as cities, than was formerly possible. Earlier wallpapers had been either hand-block prints imported from France and England, or hand-painted silks from China.

"Most often, these were simple repeating patterns or borders simulating the fabric hangings that had previously been used on walls," says Stuart Stark of Charles Rupert Designs in Victoria, BC, Canada. In contrast, the new accessibility of machine-printed wallpaper fed a taste for revival-style patterns, such as Gothic Revival (which might imitate carved stone or wood grain) or Rococo (bold combinations of flowers and scrolls). By 1870, in most houses wallpaper had become the central decorating element, covering whole walls and ceilings in all-over patterns in almost every room.

Wallpaper patterns from Mason & Wolf include Sutton Dado and Sweet William. Photos: courtesy of Mason & Wolf

During the same period, the Aesthetic Movement popularized a decorating scheme that divided the wall into three horizontal zones called dado, fill and frieze. Tastemakers also began to question the illusionistic and hyper-natural trompe l'oeil effects that had come into vogue during the Industrial Revolution. They wanted to move away from patterns that looked like everything from three-dimensional flowers, folds in tapestries, carved stonework and landscape views to more two-dimensional designs suitable for a flat wall. It was William Morris who took the medium to new heights with sophisticated patterns of foliage, flowers and birds.

"In terms of design, William Morris brought us back to nature, and we rested with Arts & Crafts before Art Deco's modern energy flung us back into strong stylization," says Burt Kallander of Bradbury & Bradbury Art Wallpapers in Benicia, CA. Morris' use of wood blocks and hand-printing made his papers not only a luxury for most American homes, but also highly influential in the decorating world and continuously in production to this day.

By 1900, the fashion for all-over wallpaper was ebbing, but new patterns and papering trends were still mixed in with other, often older, ideas. While the dado may now be a wainscot of wood panels or a simulacrum, such as burlap in a skeleton frame, or eliminated altogether, in its absence the frieze took on new significance.

"With the changes in architecture as well as decorating taste after 1900, we still see wall-fills, friezes and ceiling papers, for example, but there's more wall space taken up with woodwork, and the ceilings are less elaborate," says Kallander. "The friezes are more often grand landscapes, giving us a sense of place in a natural world."

According to Wayne Mason of Mason and Wolf Wallpaper in Freehold, NJ, wallpaper also made fewer attempts to look like fabric. "In contrast to papers with a silky finish created by applying talc, Arts & Crafts wallpaper often was completely flat with no sheen at all," he says. "Makers might also print on cardboard-y 'oatmeal' papers that had quite a bit of texture. Such a look went hand-in-hand with the grass cloths and burlaps also used in rooms."

The coordination between building and paper dimensions was changing too, with the scale of matching borders often dictating that certain papers should be used in the largest reception rooms in a home. "Wallpaper borders in the 1890s were usually around 8 in. wide," says Stark "By 1910, wallpaper borders had greatly increased, often reaching 18 or 20 in. widths. Proportionally, these massive borders and matching sidewall patterns were reserved for parlors, libraries, halls or possibly large bedrooms – so much so that owners of older homes often had to make room for wider borders by lowering their picture moldings."

The Ins and Outs of Art Glass

Rediscovered for decorative church windows in the latter 19th century, the varieties of translucent and semi-opaque colored glass collectively called art glass became the ideal medium for Arts & Crafts light shades from the very beginning. John LaFarge, Louis Comfort Tiffany and other masters of the "stained-glass" window pioneered the use of distorted glass pieces that were once discarded as waste, such as drapery glass (riddled with varying thicknesses) or opalescent glass (with variegated colors). All types subsequently appeared in Arts & Crafts shades – even as complete pictorial shades when set window-like in lead cames. Frank Lloyd Wright in particular adapted his geometric art-glass window designs to light fixtures by using zinc cames, which were slimmer yet stronger.

Gordon H. Bock is a writer, architectural historian, technical consultant, lecturer and co-author of the book The Vintage House (www.vintagehousebook.com).