Mad About . . .

How To Buy Vintage Lighting

7th April 2016

Back by popular demand (well my demand at least) the How To Get The Lighting Right series has proved extremely popular so I thought I would extend it with a post on how buy vintage lighting.

It’s a question that clients often ask me, either because they want one, or they have already bought one perhaps online or from a holiday market, and then it doesn’t work or they’re just too scared to plug it in and it’s true that it can be expensive to make these old lights safe and reliable.

Concrete apartment in Najoya, Japan designed by Airhouse Design with lighting by Skinflint

Concrete apartment in Najoya, Japan designed by Airhouse Design with lighting by Skinflint

So I thought it would be a good idea to ask an expert for some tips on what to look out for, what would be best for you and, crucially, whether, having seen something you like, you should actually hand over the moolah.

Sophie and Chris Miller set up Skinflint Design in 2006 when they decided to merge their passion for antique shopping with Chris’s expertise as a lighting designer. Their business has taken them from an abandoned glassworks outside Budapest via shipbreakers’ yards in Gujarat to the old Dunlop aerospace factory in Coventry.

But what if you simply stumble into that shipyard on your travels? Or are wandering through the antiques market in Provence? I once met someone who had brought a chandelier back from Prague in pieces in her rucksack. Well, The Mad House, with the help of Sophie, has all the answers.

What should you look for when buying a vintage light?

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vintage floor light from skinflint

If you are buying from a reputable dealer it’s no different from buying any other light. You should study the various brands (we have information on that on our site) as well as the different types (bulkhead, machinist, ceiling or wall). Then you need to think about where you intend to put the light and what purpose it will serve. Is it for show, for work or the main room light? Once you are clear about that you can look for something you like.

Can you assume it will have been rewired?

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rewired bulkhead lights supplied by Skinflint for The Old Fish Cellar in Cornwall. Designed by Camilla Banks Interiors. Photography by Chris Yacoubian

This will depend on where you buy it from. Everything we sell is rewired, refurbished for modern use and fitted with appropriate lamp holders for the country we send them to. We remove any outdated components and replace them. Most reputable dealers will do the same but you should always check as not everyone has the same regulations as we do.

Can’t I just change the plug for one that fits my socket?

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Gorm’s Pizza in Copenhagen with Skinflint lights specified by Duncalf Ltd

In short, no. You cannot simply change the plug on a vintage desk light and plug it in. Desk lights are actually some of the most complicated products we sell as far as wiring goes and each one we refurbish is very much a labour of love. We’ve all heard stories of people purchasing vintage desk lights at car boot sales, going home and plugging them in only to blow the circuits in their home. Or worse. When you buy a light that’s ready to plug in from a dealer it should come PAT tested and labelled to say it has been tested – all ours do.

Should I ever walk away from a vintage light?

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converted American traffic lights

Not if it’s a light you love and you are buying from a reputable company, but if you are thinking of trawling car-boot sales or looking in your grandparents shed for a vintage light and you aren’t on exceptionally good terms with a very friendly electrician then yes, absolutely. Walk away. It will either prove to be a costly project or (if you don’t do a professional job) a potentially dangerous one. You will always need an electrician.

What about bulbs? Can I just stick one in that fits? Do vintage lights have fuses?

SkinFlint supplied the lighting for the whole interior of this East London converted warehouse apartment which won the Residential property of the Year.

SkinFlint supplied the lighting for the whole interior of this East London converted warehouse apartment which won the Residential property of the Year.

All our lights are rewired to take modern bulbs but you should never put a bulb into a vintage fitting until it has been tested and checked by a qualified electrician. Modern bulbs are far better than the old ones; they last longer, have great colour temperature (tone of light they give off) and are better for the environment.

Anything collectable we should be looking out for at the moment?

Glasswear is very collectible and a stylish addition to a home. With regard to desk lights we particularly love machinist lights -they are incredibly elegant, well designed and engineered to perfection… These lights illuminated lathes and workbenches almost a century ago and now, refurbished, they’ll last for decades used as task lighting or bedside lights.

Chandeliers are tricky as they are very complex pieces of kit. Each one is a group of lights running off the same circuit with the wires hidden inside, which makes it a complicated rewiring project (note from the editor – ie me – expensive in other words so be aware if you fall in love with one on holiday).

What are your favourite vintage lights?

American portable runway light from Skinflint

American portable runway light from Skinflint

Our salvaged ex-military runway light which is available as part of our Heals collection and is a really rare piece of history from the 1940s.

We also have some gorgeous ribbed glass orbs from the Czech Republic circa 1960. I love the detailing and simple elegance of these.

Unusual ribbed glass pendant lights with original Bakelite galleries salvaged from school buildings within the former Czechoslovakia. Circa 1960. These make fantastic feature lights within circulation, living or kitchen areas.

Unusual ribbed glass pendant lights with original Bakelite galleries salvaged from school buildings within the former Czechoslovakia. Circa 1960. These make fantastic feature lights within circulation, living or kitchen areas.

In general  I’m a big fan of machinist lights as they’re easy to position with their integral articulation, and are a great all-rounder in every space.

Are vintage lights better than modern?

Pendant lighting from the former Eastern Bloc, 1950s British industrial lighting from a pottery in Stoke on Trent and vintage enamel lighting from the Dunlop factory in Coventry

Pendant lighting from the former Eastern Bloc, 1950s British industrial lighting from a pottery in Stoke on Trent and vintage enamel lighting from the Dunlop factory in Coventry

We would say yes! They were built to last in the days before planned obsolescence or the idea of throwing something away because it’s no longer on trend had entered our consciousness. The styles are classic, enduring and perfectly suited to the modern interior.

 

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    […] two together perfectly. Big points for the huge pendant lights too. If you want to know more about how to buy vintage lighting then click the […]

  • Camilla 8th April 2016 at 4:48 pm

    Lovely to see ‘The Old Fish Cellar Mousehole’ pictured in this article, we just love reclaimed lighting, it brings a real authenticity to a project which new replicas don’t.

  • Caroline Warren Bank House Interiors 7th April 2016 at 10:52 am

    Great article. If you do have a friendly electrician or know what you are doing it is getting much easier to find new components to re-wire and mend old lights. There are some great people out there. Using established people like Skinflint is great though because they take all the work and hassle out of an electrical renovation and you know you are buying a high quality, beautiful product.

  • Taste of France 7th April 2016 at 10:25 am

    Great examples! I am looking for vintage/antique lights for my renovation; this is very helpful.

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