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“Monterey Pine” from Old California Lantern Co.

Lighting the Way

by Patricia Poore on April 13, 2010

in Garden

Today there is a large and diverse selection of exterior lamps and lanterns appropriate for porch, patio, and walkway. If you choose well, they will “illuminate” the style of your house.

You can spend large sums renovating an old house, and still something might be missing. The lighting! Mark and Vanessa Bell, who own Omega Too, Berkeley’s favorite lighting restoration shop, say that lighting can make or break a meticulous restoration—that it’s as important as trim. Agreed, but should one choose something salvaged, or reproductions?

It’s hard to beat the look of a true period fixture. The Bells note that their customers are looking for something utterly unique, which for them means a restored antique. (A favorite type is a lantern with a large cap over a small body in a dark-bronze patina with iridescent or caramel art-glass panels.) And installing a salvaged fixture is usually straightforward, as long as the wiring is polarized and up to code.

An antique is not always practical, though, says Steven Handelman, who produces exquisite, handmade lighting in his Santa Barbara studio—using the same methods employed in the early-20th century. He warns that unrefurbished old fixtures may not conform and may even be dangerous. Availability is limited: many people pass on an attractive old fixture because they need more than one. New design need not be a compromise. Steve’s finishes range from nutmeg-colored rust to verdigris on bronze, and he used seeded glass; it’s hard to tell Steve’s lamps from vintage ones. He suggests mixing and matching, even when you buy reproductions. Make fixtures compatible but not exactly the same, to suggest the passage of time and to lend character.

With the revival of Arts and Crafts, we have a wide choice of products. No longer is there just one “A&C style” porch light. Steel Partners, in the state of Washington, makes rustic sconces with pinecone and ginkgo motifs (for your lake cabin) as well as their classic San Carlos line of hand-hammered pendant lights and ceiling mounts for bungalow porches. As with other reproduction companies’ offerings, their fixtures are damp- and even wet-tolerant.

Outdoor, damp-resistant fixtures are the focus of Coe Studios in Berkeley, California, who cast beautiful, solid bronze lamps perfect for damp and wet settings. Bronze doesn’t rust, and their silicone-rubber gaskets create a weather-tight seal. They have unique, hand-blown, square glass shades, which provide a soft, diffuse light anywhere an outdoor accent light is needed, whether on a post along a garden path or the front porch.

Exterior lights are not only ornamental, but also illuminate access at night, and provide safety and security. “Beauty by day, function by night” is the motto at the Old California Lantern Co., who produce handcrafted fixtures in California Arts and Crafts, Mission, and East Coast Craftsman styles. As dependable as they are beautiful, these lights last for a lifetime with just a little maintenance. (Cleaning every six months with a soft cloth and mild soap preserves not only the glass but also the metal finish.)

You can’t go wrong with Rejuvenation’s affordable products. The Portland, Oregon, company started with salvage in 1977 and went on to produce a wide and diverse line that includes many exterior fixtures in various styles. They provide so many options: in finish, socket type, color of the glass, wall switching, even vaulted ceiling (angled) connections.

Many enjoy the warm glow from mica lamps. Ralph Ribicic at The Mica Lamp Co. in southern California says that romance begins at the front door; he suggests his seductive lamps to make a good first impression. These handsome, solid copper, hand-riveted lamps with mica shade panels recall the work of Dirk Van Erp a century ago. Orange, amber, or almond-color mineral flakes, combined with orange shellac, create patterns of mineral deposits that make each shade unique.

Do keep in mind the placement, proportion, and scale of exterior lights. Standard-height doors (i.e., 6 ft. 8 in) generally look best with lamps 5 inches to 9 inches wide. Taller (8-foot) doorways should have lights 10 to 12 inches wide. Outdoor lanterns should be placed so the top of the fixture is the same height as the door itself, or comes to the spring line of an arch.

Of course, you can combine old lighting with new. Lantern sconces at the front door . . . what a warm welcome!

— Brian D. Coleman

Gallery of Exterior Lights

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