Remoderning Part 3: Lighting


The Modern Minute Exclusive: Remoderning Part 3: Lighting

A George Nelson Bubble Lamp in a home designed by Don Erickson in Park Ridge, Illinois

I hope you read my piece from a few months ago about modern home values in the area, and if you have any questions about it, please contact me, and I’ll be happy to help.

Last time, I wrote about flooring choices for modern homes, which you can find here. This month, I’ll be talking about lighting.

I’m feeling a little bit overwhelmed on this one. There were a lot – and I mean a LOT – of wonderful, beautifully-designed lighting choices, especially in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.

What’s interesting is that today, there are many times more lighting fixtures available, but…most of them are not very good. Even some tremendously (and, in my opinion, ridiculously) expensive light fixtures available now absolutely pale in comparison to the fixtures that were available in the middle of the 20th century.

Lighting is tremendously important in a home. Especially in a modern home where you may want to use lighting not just to illuminate various spaces, but also to showcase natural materials like wood, brick, stone and concrete. If your modern home is nicely landscaped, lighting can also take it from darkness to incredible at nighttime.

And lighting shouldn’t necessarily be expensive. Some of the best, most elegant fixtures are, geometrically, very simple. Unfortunately, the old saying “they don’t make ’em like they used to” truly applies to lighting.

Remodeling or Restoring?

As I mentioned in the piece about flooring, one of the first – and biggest – decisions you have to make is whether you’re remodeling your home or restoring it. Restoration typically means that you’re going to try to get the house back to its original state. This can be incredibly challenging and very expensive, because many of the products and materials used in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s aren’t available anymore. This often means trying to find salvage from other homes that are being gutted or torn down, which also means doing lots of research all over the country and even beyond. Or trying to find new old stock (NOS) or vintage pieces from specialty dealers.

Again, you may want to do a search online to see if you can find references to your home (especially if it was designed by a prominent architect) in old newspapers and magazines. You might find photos of what your house looked like when it was first built that will show you what the lighting looked like when the house was first built.

Many of you are probably thinking about remodeling rather than restoring. You want to bring the home “up to date” in terms of some of the finishes and fixtures, but you want it to be consistent with your home’s architecture.

The technology of lighting has changed drastically in the last 10 years. When we first moved into this house in 2011, LED light bulbs were scarce and extremely expensive. The first version of Philips’ “dim to warm” flood lights were very heavy and sold for around $40 each. The current version of that same bulb is now around $3 and you can buy them in many places. (I should point out that the first version was actually much better than the current version…it was almost impossible to distinguish it from an incandescent bulb, even when dimmed).

One of the ways that LED tech has greatly impacted the landscape of lighting products is that you’ll notice that many lighting products, from recessed lights to chandeliers, have built-in LED “modules”. I have to say that I’m not too keen on this fact. The reason is this: An LED light has to main components. First is the LED itself, the light emitting diode (or diodes, as many LED lights have more than one). The second is the “driver” which is a bit of tech that controls the light output of the LED(s). While most LEDs themselves are rated to last for 20 years or so, the drivers tend to fail after seemingly random and sometimes rather short amounts of time. For instance, we’ve had a number of LED bulbs die after less than a year. When you’re talking about a $3 LED light bulb, that’s not the end of the world. But when you’re talking about a $750 chandelier with built-in LED modules, that’s a huge deal. What if the manufacturer stopped making it? Now you have to replace an expensive fixture and probably pay for an electrician to swap in the new one.

Some fixtures that have built-in LEDs do have replaceable driver modules, but as far as I know, there’s no standardization so it would still require that you get the part from the manufacturer.

Keep all of this in mind when shopping for fixtures. You may want to consider getting a “traditional” fixture (meaning one that you replace the bulb rather than one that has an integrated LED) and then putting an LED bulb into it.

The last thing I want to mention is that when I’m talking about lighting here, I’m talking about permanent / built-in lighting, rather than lamps and other “portable” fixtures.

Doing It for Yourself or Doing It to Sell?

As I mentioned last time, but reiterating here, the other big question you need to consider is whether you’re remodeling for yourself or to sell one day (or one day soon). If you’re doing it for yourself and don’t care about “resale value” or how the home might be viewed by others, you have a lot more freedom than if you’re remodeling to sell in the near future. While nobody can predict what home values will be a few months or a few years out, good lighting is always going to increase the value of a home compared to one that doesn’t have it.

Replace That Switch!

Before I talk about light fixtures themselves, I should take a minute to talk about how you’re going to turn those lights on and off. I’m a big proponent of dimmers for most lighting situations (closets being an obvious exception). Using dimmers allows you to set a mood in your spaces (even if those spaces are outdoors) by getting just the right amount of light for the occasion. Decora switches and Decora-style dimmers also give a home a more modern look, with a larger paddle-type switch vs the traditional toggle light switch that makes homes look older (but definitely not modern). Screwless faceplates are also available for Decora switches and dimmers for a very clean look. And, if you want your modern home to be smart, too, there are plenty of options available from major names such as Leviton, Lutron and others.

Currently Available Classics – A110 by Alvar Aalto

A trio of A110 “Hand Grenade” pendants by Alvar Aalto

One of my personal favorite classic mid-century modern light fixtures is the A110 or “Hand Grenade” designed by Alvar Aalto. It was, for a while a few years ago, available in a bunch of different finishes, but now it’s more limited. Recently, I’ve only seen them in white or black, either with matching or brass diffusers. The fixtures are geometrically simple and elegant, and cast both up and down light, making them great for many different scenarios. Plus, I always appreciate fixtures where you see the light’s effect, but not the source (bulb) itself.  Also check out Aalto’s matching, but chunkier, fixture, the A201.

George Nelson Bubble Lamps by Herman Miller

George Nelson Bubble Lamps by Herman Miller

Another classic fixture that most of us are familiar with is the George Nelson Bubble Lamp. Available in numerous shapes, styles and sizes, the Bubble Lamp line is instantly recognizable and is perfect for spaces where you want a nice, warm glow to fill the area. Mix and match shapes and sizes in a grouping at different heights in a room with volume ceilings for a fantastic effect.

PH 5 by Poul Henningsen for Louis Poulsen

Poul Henningsen’s PH 5 light fixture for Louis Poulsen, seen in a dinette area

Manufactured by Louis Poulsen and designed in 1958 by Poul Henningsen, the PH 5 lamp is another iconic mid-century modern light fixture from one of the most celebrated Danish design teams. Creating soft, pleasing light with its layered shades and diffusers, the PH 5 is perfect alone or in groups. The PH 5 is available in a number of different colors and a mini version. Louis Poulsen also makes other fixtures that you may already be familiar with, such as the Doo-Wop pendant, the VL45 Radiohus series, the PH Snowball, the (very expensive) PH Artichoke and many others.

VP 7 Flowerpot by Verner Panton

VP 7 Flowerpot pendant light by Verner Panton

Another classic fixture, and one that could look good in spaces in homes from the ’50s to the late ’70s, is the VP 7 Flowerpot, designed by Verner Panton. Available in many different finishes and colors, the two half-spheres are elegant and cast a soft, diffuse light where placed.

Other Lighting for Modern Homes – Simple Globe Pendant

A simple globe pendant in a modern home

Whether in an high entry porch, hanging from the soffits of a generous overhang, or inside a home, a simple white globe fixture can look amazing. There are certainly “designer” versions, but this look is so simple and classic that you should feel comfortable with any globe pendant that fits your space. Try to find one with a minimal “cap” on the top, to give off as much of a “perfect sphere” vibe as possible.

Flush-Mounted Cylinder Lights

Squat cylinders light an interior walkway between two courtyards. Janss/Pacific Case Study House by Buff & Hensman

If you want some more light in a space, but you want to keep it really simple, consider a flush mounted cylinder light. Cylinder lights hide the light source unless you’re right under them looking up, and give a more modern feel than if you just put in a recessed light. There are many available and most are well under $100 / each.  If your home happens to have some curves to it, maybe offset those with square fixtures instead. Also available from many of the same manufacturers. Many of these fixtures (whether cylindrical or square) are also rated for outdoor use, allowing you to have a consistent array of lighting from outside to inside.

Track Lighting

Track lights in a house designed by architect James Leigh Alcorn, Berkeley, California


While track lighting isn’t as popular today as it once was, it’s still a good option for many spaces. The main benefit is that you only have one electrical connection point per track, so you can often tap into an existing junction box where a fixture already exists, replacing the existing light with the track. This is true whether the track is straight or goes around corners. As I write this, I’m sitting in my home office which has a squared “U” shaped track with 9 heads illuminating the room. While there are several large companies that make track lighting, JUNO is probably the most well-known, and they still make heads for their product lines similar to what was around in the ’60s and ’70s, such as flat back cylinders, round back cylinders, gimbal ring heads, step cylinders, theatrical heads with barn doors and more. Many products are available with integrated LEDs or in the more traditional style where you use a light bulb.

Architectural Lighting Installations

Geometric, top-down lighting installation in a modern setting

If you have particularly high ceilings and you don’t mind covering them up, you could also design & build a “lighting installation” like what you see in the picture above. This example was probably lit either by skylights or fluorescent lights, but you could achieve a similar effect with LED panels, which are typically dimmable as well. This concept can give your space something that’s both functional and truly unique.

New Old Stock / Used Vintage Lighting

A selection of beautiful modern light fixtures available from Deerstedt (Instagram & Etsy)

In addition to all the types of lighting above, you could also go a different route, which is to shop for vintage light fixtures at resale shops and online. The benefit here is that you’ll be outfitting your modern home with genuine vintage fixtures, but the downside is that if you want to get a bunch of lights of the same type, you may have to spend a small fortune or wait years to compile the necessary collection. That aside, many vintage fixtures from a slew of designers and manufacturers can be found online, and often these fixtures, unlike some of the ones I mentioned above, have no current version or analogue. In such cases, authentic vintage fixtures are the only option.

New & Inspired by Mid-Century Modern

A new “sputnik” style fixture from

The last type of lighting you might want to consider is MCM-inspired lighting. While not specifically vintage designs, they’re often very similar but are made new. This doesn’t always mean they’re much cheaper than the “real thing”, but they might be available in different sizes, configurations or colors that might suit a space more than the original. One of the most common examples are all the many flavors of “sputnik” lights on the market today. They range from those nearly indistinguishable from vintage originals to more contemporary modern designs to industrial modern and beyond. There are many to choose from, by various manufacturers. There are also online vendors, such as Rejuvenation, who offer many designs inspired by (copied from?) vintage fixtures, too. 

I hope you found this article helpful and that you’ve been inspired to take the lighting in your modern home to the next level.

Next month I’ll get into more specifics about another aspect of remodeling a modern home, and will continue for the next few months after that.


Copyright Disclaimer Under Section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976, allowance is made for “fair use” for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship and research. Fair use is a use permitted by copyright statute that might otherwise be infringing. Non-profit, educational or personal use tips the balance in favor of fair use. 

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