Give new glow to old light fixtures

(Fixated on Fixtures)
#531 in a series of true experiences in real estate
April 2007, Hills Newspapers

We’ve been working on a house again, trying to figure out which light fixtures to use. Some in this house are original but spattered with paint, others were changed to a more modern style and one, a wall-hung sconce is missing.

Light fixtures are often a problem for us. Especially in a newly painted room, all spiffy and spare, a light fixture that looks bad is noticed.

This is a cottage sort of house built in the late 1930s so the fixtures that the builder put into it are not fancy but nice. The glass for one bedroom ceiling light is round, perhaps a 15 inch circle that has angels or cherubs floating or flying there. They’re pretty subtle; we didn’t notice them until we had the fixture down and were washing the glass in the sink.

The glass hangs from a two-part holder, brass-plated and paint-swiped in the various colors the ceiling has been over the years. We could have thrown the whole thing out and started over but that would involve finding something we liked as well, and we have spent so much time looking for light fixtures for houses, we knew our chances were not good.

Or maybe I should say that finding a fixture we find acceptable at a reasonable price is difficult. There are of course all those fixtures at Home Depot. I’m sure we know every single one, we’ve looked at them so often. There are a couple that we have used in houses, the plainest, most non-committal ones, and then only once in one room of a house.

Lately, whenever possible, we’ve been cleaning the existing light fixtures, or when cleaning didn’t do the trick, we have sprayed the metal parts with bronze-colored spray paint, a finish which looks surprisingly decent.

One thing we’ve been happy to find is that older light fixtures are almost always made of heavier metal – not plastic — and the plating is thicker than on inexpensive new fixtures. This means that it is often possible to clean paint and discoloration off with fine steel wool. It takes a little time but the quality and look are far better with many of these older fixtures than would be true with newer Home Depot sort.

We especially dislike that too-shiny brass fixture base that seems always to be stocked in hardware stores. We have been forced to use these when we needed a small, wall-hung light that can be turned on with a switch at the base. But we sprayed out the base with bronze-colored metallic paint and found them much improved.

We do like the look of the chrome-base fixtures from the hardware store, the ones with thick glass shades patterned in white and clear glass. These are still commonly found in houses; why, they are classics by now, a mainstay over kitchen and bathroom sinks for at least 60 years, maybe longer.

The house we are working on now has them, the old version which cleans up well. All those funny little brown spots on the metal that come from exposure to moisture (rust?) can be removed with a little gentle rubbing with grade 0000 steel wool. You can do the same with other chrome finishes in the bathroom such as the recessed toilet paper and soap holders, sink faucets and towel bars, and you won’t believe the difference!

We think that the light fixtures for more prominent rooms such as living and dining rooms are even more important. They either have to disappear from the eye or they have to look good. This means the style should be suitable to the house and the size appropriate for the room. Too large looks wrong and too small doesn’t look good either. The quality of the goods is important and a fixture that supports at least 200 watts of light is needed although we often add a dimmer switch for light level variation.

No doubt, originally, our cottage house once had a dining room fixture that we would have loved. It’s gone now, replaced with a fixture that has 4 hanging arms, at the end of which are 4 white-glass globes. Probably the owner was in a modernization mood when she chose this fixture and maybe it looked ok with the furnishings she had at the time. But it is all wrong for this house.

We found a new fixture with an old look on-line from The Bright Spot, as well as a pair of wall bronze finish sconces for the adjoining living room. The one for the dining room is quirky, good I think. It features twigs and pine cones in glass and dark metal matching the Arts and Crafts style of the fireplace tiles nearby.

Not long ago we bought a terrific looking stained-glass fixture from The Bright Spot for a large entry room in a house built around the turn of the century. That light fixture echoed tall stained glass windows over the stairwell and looked like it had always been there.

We have also purchased very good looking fixtures for moderate amounts of money from Rejuvenation in Oregon, which specializes in reproductions, and others, locally, from Berkeley Lighting. And of course, for the pricey but real thing (and some reproductions), Omega Too in Berkeley is a storehouse. There are some gorgeous pieces but it’s easy to spend over $300 on a single piece of glass for a larger fixture.

Please do not throw away old light fixtures. Keep them or trade them or give them to someone who loves them. Just this week I saw at Omega Too cowboy motif glass, the type that is thin glass cut in a square and hung in kids’ bedrooms, probably from the mid-1950s, for $65. That’s for the glass only; the fixture is extra.

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