Glowing Strong: Retro Light Bulbs

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Replicating the work of early electricity icons, exposed filaments and low wattage make vintage light bulbs a popular pick for ambient light – emulating the romantic look of candlelight – in restaurants and antique fixtures.

Also known as Edison-style bulbs, vintage bulbs have lit up the design world in recent years, debuting in trendy New York restaurants and making their way to the West Coast and now into homes. Other popular shapes include globe, tubular, radio, Victorian, and decorative chandelier.

“It’s hot right now and will be hot for the next few years,” says Gabi Libman, vice president of NostalgicBulbs.com, which launched in 2012 and joins several online distributors of antique, Edison-style light bulbs.

“The vintage bulb gives you a lot less light. It’s more of a warm, yellow light. That is the main reason a lot of bars and pubs and restaurants use them, or people who want to restore an old lamp and want it to look the way it did originally.”

The small, clear bulbs feature the glowing filament and contact wires and compliment any lighting project in the most traditional to the most contemporary of spaces. 

Architects, lighting and interior designers for hotels and restaurants, along with event and wedding planners have created a large demand for the vintage bulbs in America, Libman says.

Another growing market is with homeowners and creative types who repurpose materials to make their own lamps and light fixtures, says Meggan Fadden Wynja, co-founder and design director of Color Cord Company. Wynja, an interior designer who used to work with hotel chains such as Westin and Marriott, says the bulbs work well over dining room tables and bar tops, in wall sconces or to illuminate classic light fixtures.

Color Cord Company named its newest vintage light bulb offerings after the fathers of electricity: Thomas Edison, Ben Franklin, James Prescott Joule, Nikola Tesla, and Michael Faraday.

“We do offer the cord, socket and bulbs so you can make your own light fixture,” Wynja says. “Or you can buy the cord sets already done. The modern covers give it a contemporary look. It’s a fun contrast, a fun pop of color with this exposed bulb.”

The Denver-based company sells to a lot of do-it-yourselfers as well as commercial customers.

“People are trying to find old, unique looking found items and make a light out of them and repurpose and reuse,” Wynja says. “In doing that, the Edison bulb and all those fun old bulbs came back with a modern approach. We see some amazing light fixtures to pair with bulbs and fun cords.”

There are a few downfalls to using the bulbs. They produce more heat and have a higher price tag, plus a shorter lifespan. And they are not as energy efficient as LED and CFL bulbs.

While regular incandescent bulbs are being phased out, these exposed-filament bulbs fall under a different category of specialty bulb, Libman says.

As lighting manufacturers continue to add new styles of these old-fashioned bulbs, nostalgicbulbs.com continues to expand its inventory and lower prices. The website offers a large selection of shapes, styles and wattages for half the price of national retailers, Libman says. Most chain stores carry one or two styles at a $10 to $20 price point. As a direct manufacturer, Nostalgicbulbs.com has been able to drop the price to $4 and $5 per bulb, Libman says.

Edison-style bulbs also work well in an aged, rustic, or antique lamp. It accents the lamp’s features and character while capturing the way the lamp’s original look.

The bulbs are meant for a light with a clear shade or exposed socket for full visibility of shape and detail. They are not intended to light an entire room because they are low wattage and emit heat.

“You use it as a secondary light,” Libman says. “But you want to see the filament and the way the bulb looks.”

Tags: vintage, trends, ambiance