Think “chandelier,” and you might imagine a delicate, expensive, crystal thing that’s too fussy for your modern needs. The truth is, though, that what we call a chandelier has always been evolving.
The proto-chandelier was a metal, circular holder for oil cups in mosques during the Middle Ages. Crusaders saw these and designed them with candles for their cathedrals. Belgian brass artisans in the 11th century gave them the shape we recognize, and Italian gem cutters added faceted smoky-gray crystals. Finally, a new, clear lead glass made in London gave us the objects we find in the Palace of Versailles.
“Making a chandelier took all of Europe to create,” says Amy Azzarito, author of “Domestic Bliss: The History of Luxury at Home in 100 Objects,” forthcoming in 2017. But the whole point has always been the same: “to maximize light,” Azzarito says. (Okay, and maybe to signal luxury, wealth and abundance.)
Today, lighting designers and interior designers are also reinventing chandeliers — adding LED lights; using unexpected materials, such as wooden beads or powder-coated metal; and putting them in new places. Baltimore designer Brad Weesner likes to put small chandeliers in closets and turn the closets into cocktail bars. Maryland designer April Force Pardoe is working with a client who wants a chandelier in her daughter’s bedroom.
Overall, Pardoe says that although they are more available than ever, chandeliers are “underutilized.” It’s time to see this fixture anew, take a style risk and add brilliant light and personality to your home. When is a chandelier appropriate in a home? Weesner says, “Always.”
Pardoe says to put every chandelier on a dimmer and get as much wattage as the fixture can hold. In a dining room, especially, you want the ability to control ambiance. Modern Forms’ Marimba Pendant Chandelier, in gold leaf and bronze (left) or silver leaf and white (right), can dim to 10 percent with a dimmer switch ($659, 2modern.com).
What’s the difference between a chandelier and a pendant? Azzarito says that a chandelier has multiple branches and lights, while a pendant is a single fixture and bulb. That said, there are category-crossing fixtures such as the Rittenhouse Chandelier, which has six lights but also a scalloped shade such as what you might find on a single-light pendant ($1,050, arteriors.com). Weesner says, “I love to blur the lines between chandelier and pendant and not call it anything but beautiful.”
The Stanton Chandelier by Birch Lane recalls an armillary sphere, an object designed to illustrate the movement of the sky, probably invented in the 3rd century by Greek astronomer Eratosthenes, Azzarito says ($553, wayfair.com). The weathered oak would add a touch of rustic craft and history to any space.
Weesner and Pardoe find that the most common mistake with chandeliers is going too small. If you’re putting one over a dining table, Pardoe suggests choosing one that’s one-half to two-thirds the width of the table. No dining table? Pardoe says to add the length of your room (in feet) to its width and use that number to find an ideal chandelier diameter (in inches). For example, 14 feet plus 20 feet equals 34, so you want a 34-inch-diameter fixture. The Isaac Chandelier is an ideal size for a breakfast nook, but if you want the look over a long dining table, consider putting two together ($429, schoolhouseelectric.com).
Even “a bachelor pad should be able to accommodate a chandelier,” says Weesner, owner of Brad Weesner Design. Just look for a more masculine design in the frame, as the Katherine 6-Light Geometric Chandelier has ($399, ballarddesigns.com). The material (square stock iron) is more rugged, too.
Unconventional materials make old designs new again. The beads on the three-socket Wooden Sidi Chandelier remind Azzarito, who has a master’s in the history of decorative arts and design, of the early rock-crystal chandeliers from 16th-century Italy ($598, anthropologie.com). It’s small enough that it won’t overwhelm a bedroom.
What might be considered the first chandelier, the “corona de luz,” Azzarito says, was an “iron ring that held candles aloft,” inspired by the medieval oil-cup holders that Crusaders saw in modern-day Turkey. The Euro-Modern Candelabra Chandelier in nickel (left) or bronze (right) is a nod to those early fixtures, replacing the candles with bulbs ($799, shadesoflight.com). “It’s amazing to me that we are so fortunate that we live in an age where we literally live like kings,” Azzarito says.
“Many people have this idea of a chandelier as a French concoction of crystal,” Weesner says. “But there’s so many other versions.” One of his favorite definition-defying lights is the Elan Fornello Pendant Light ($438, lampsplus.com). It’s in the shape of the original chandeliers that held oil, but the light is from a circular LED tape. “I love to pair up or do a trio of these over a pool table or a kitchen island,” Weesner says.
West Elm’s antique-bronze, adjustable-height Industrial Chandelier is an ideal venue for paying homage to Thomas Edison’s bulb, which Azzarito notes was first marketed as “bottled sunlight” because it was so much brighter than candlelight. The chandelier would showcase any fun bulbs, though, whether Edison’s or white opaque globes ($269, westelm.com).
Rejuvenation’s adjustable-height Grandview pulls together three pendants and channels an industrial vibe ($520-$640, rejuvenation.com). Choose from nine finishes and 33 shades to create your own look.
One way to turn the idea of chandeliers on its head is to put them in unexpected places. Weesner hangs them in powder rooms, foyers, hallways and even closets. Barbara Barry’s Simple Scallop Chandelier from Circa Lighting — one of Weesner’s favorite places to find lighting — could work in almost any room of a house if the scale is right ($1,260, circalighting.com).