Light sconces, sadly, are not on most folks' interiors radar, unless it's in the context of a bathroom. But illuminating a vanity is not the only task for a pair of wall-mounted fixtures.
Like anything that embellishes a wall, light sconces these days offer plenty of decorative options. With a little flourish, swagger, bling and sophistication, they are far more versatile than in the past and offer far more than task, accent or mood lighting. Styling has ramped up to a new level, with an ample range of bright ideas in traditional to contemporary designs as well as surprising materials, shapes, colors, textures and sizes.
"In the old days, (residential) lighting was limited to crystal and some sort of brass," says Nigel Maynard, editor of Residential Building Products and Technology, a digital trade publication. Particularly in contemporary lighting, he says, "European designers have raised the bar. And Americans are stepping up their game."
High-end interior designers and architects long have looked to Italian companies such as Artemide, Fontana Arte, Foscarini and Leucos for edgier, off-the-chain styling in metals and glass, including clear, frosted and even glorious color. And those seeking authentic mid-century modern, Art Deco or '60s and '70s pieces might start with the impressive global online retail site 1stdibs (www.1stdibs.com) for excellent examples. And for a good representation of au currant styles, check out Horchow (www.horchow.com), where sconces range from $195 to $895.
"Sconces definitely are having a moment," says architect Andreea Avram Rusu, who also designs lighting. "It has been building for a while. It is winning public consciousness. For so long, lighting was uninteresting." To compound the blandness, there was repetition. "Everyone was using the same thing," she says.
But Avram Rusu sees different levels of beauty in lighting. "It's the most important thing in the room in general, for how people look, how people feel. Light transforms space."
Sconces really can add ambiance and an artistic note -- without taking up precious real estate. Tel Aviv-based designer Ayala Serfaty, is known for the sensual shapes of her light sculptures for Aqua Creations, some of which evoke couture fashion touches such as pleated and shirred silk. In addition to such textural pieces, other sconces add movement, like those that mimic the form of cascading chandeliers.
And there are hybrids -- fixtures that can attach to the wall or ceiling, to float. They're plug-ins, so they go anywhere. There are candlestick designs that are elongated, exaggerated more like torchieres. There are sconces that look more like table lamps with giant shades, some of which are on articulating arms. And there's new respect for the backplate, often merely there to cover the junction box, now designed as an integral part of the piece.
Some backplates are more fanciful, shaped like stars (especially eye-catching when they're composed of beveled mirrors) or a series of clear circles to create their own artistic universe. A fan of faux coral creates a background nest for lights.
A light sconce called Nelson from Hudson Valley Lighting has traditional references, including the suggestion of candlestick lights and textured crystal bobeches (flat "collars" designed originally to catch candle wax drippings). The brushed gold finished piece has an arched arm that extends between the pair of lamps, and it's fastened to a matching backplate that rests on a beveled mirror keystone for striking effect.
Even the meticulous teaming of disparate materials adds more depth and interest to sconces. West Coast designer Marjorie Skouras, who has been inspired by the sea for many of her furnishings, married natural orange-patterned shells with eglomise (reverse-painted) glass medallions in a striking double-tiered wall sconce.
Some finishes dial down the shiny, favoring matte looks (although gleaming polished nickel remains a favorite in modern interiors because of the tasteful sparkle and elegance it imparts). Burnished gold is hot, in keeping with home design trends where metals are warming up. Patinated or bronzey finishes lend a vintage or industrial vibe, especially impactful with see-through shades to bare bulbs. Complex finishes include painting, distressing and glazing.
Materials also include wood veneers and embellishments such as capiz shells and beads as well as the more familiar crystals. It's an imaginative mix that sets apart some designs.
"We mix modern with rustic, elegant with casual, romantic with relaxed," says Carla Regina Zajac, partner in Regina Andrews. "It's an eclectic vision that resonates with natural style -- a new look at how we live today."
As in other areas of home design, fashion references also are shedding new light on design. Global Lighting, a New York-based company, produced a catalog that merges design, fashion and magazine look-book, including eye-catching shots of models in layouts where the lighting relates to the outfits -- and holds equal weight.
As a producer in the decorative lighting business, Global Lighting's CEO and founder, Larry Lazin, calls his products "fashion for light bulbs," and says that in the lighting arena, designers should hold themselves to the same standards as fashion designers producing "couture level" fixtures.
With a new crop of fashion forward and artistic light sconces, perhaps more thought will be given to where they might dress a room. A single sconce or a pair adding sparkle to the front door. In the foyer, above a table. At the bottom and top of a staircase. In the living room, flanking a mantel. In the dining room, at the sides of a sideboard. In the library, framing a sofa and a wall of art. In the kitchen, on cabinets at either side of a window. And let's not forget theater lights, which might even channel the Art Deco styling that graced 1930s movie houses.
But these are, after all, conventional applications. Edgier sconces, such as those designed by Canadian architect and industrial designer Omer Arbel, demand unorthodox treatments.
Arbel, who creates evocative pieces for the Vancouver-based lighting company Bocci, fashions pieces into blown-glass globes that are artistic, playful and functional all at the same time. One particular model, the 14 Series, is in itself quite subtle. Its cast-glass half-sphere with a frosted cylindrical void houses a 10-watt xenon or 1.5-watt LED lamp. The light glows from within, kind of like a candle encased in ice.
What's particularly cool about the design is that bubbles and imperfections within the glass interact with the light source to create a halo. By nature of the medium, each piece is unique. So a mass installation -- dozens of these 4 1/2-inch pieces, seemingly randomly placed on a wall -- is as magical and hypnotic as a night summer sky filled with fireflies. Some of Arbel's pieces also feature colored glass, introducing another exciting layer.
Historically, the idea of a light source on a wall existed in early abodes, where torches lit up dark caves. Less primitive perhaps, were the "sconces" that illuminated medieval castles and the gothic and rugged iron looks for lighting expanded to large-scale chandeliers. As lighting design became more polished, the epitome of lush, grand styles were on display at places like the palace at Versailles, where chandeliers and sconces dripped with dazzling crystals.
Sconce choices today pretty much channel all of those looks and then some -- with designers pushing the envelope, exploring new media and combinations, and providing more options for a personal touch.
-- Aqua Creations, 212-219-9922, www.aquagallery.com; or contact Atelier Gary Lee, 312-644-4400. www.ateliergarylee.com
-- Astele, 203-557-3332, www.astele.com
-- Avram Rusu, 718-389-0350, www.avramrusu.com
-- Bocci, 604-639-5184, www.bocci.ca
-- Boyd, 415-778-4300, www.boydlighting.com
-- Corbett Lighting, 626-336-4511, www.corbettlighting.com
-- Currey & Co., 877-768-6428, www.curreyandcompany.com
-- Global Lighting, 914-591-4095, www.globallighting.com
-- Regina Andrew, 734-250-8042, www.reginaandrew.com
-- Visual Comfort & Co., 866-344-3875, www.visualcomfort.com
Lighting and art certainly have been mentioned in the same breath before -- to wit, Tiffany stained glass and the more contemporary glass artist Dale Chihuly are hugely collectible. But in the last five years there's been an evolution to what some describe as art lighting.
One thing is clear. There's a strong desire for the one of a kind -- or at the very least, designs that stand out.
"It's bespoke, it's fashion," says architect, interior and lighting designer Andreea Avram Rusu. "Clients are very specific: they say they don't want what everybody else has. They enjoy experimenting, pushing boundaries."
That sometimes translates to higher price tags (an Avram Rusu Confetti sconce ranges from around $2,800 to $3,500).
The fun, of course, is in the search. As for art -- well, just like beauty, perhaps, it's in the eye of the beholder.
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