From Darkness, Light

It’s spring. Buds are breaking on twig tips, fine sprays of grass fringe walkways, and a shifting palette of salt, slate and blue in the foggy mornings lifts to reveal gently sunny afternoons.

With spring comes an itch to move: I’ve been dying to get out of town.

So it was perfect timing for “Cities within a City,” the first of the Southern California Institute of Classical Architecture’s local tours.

I drove about an hour south of Los Angeles Saturday morning with a fresh iced coffee, and met a host of new and familiar friends at the fountain at Malaga Cove Library in Palos Verdes. A herd of lithe young people were stretching on the grass by the plaza, their bicycles propped nearby.

They would ride the ragged coastline of the Pacific Ocean, hidden from view just beyond the stands of pepper and eucalyptus trees.

The inscrutable sound of peacock cries echoed around the hills.

After a morning tour of the plaza and the public buildings at Malaga Cove, we convened in the courtyard of my friend Steve Shriver’s home out near Portuguese Bend for an intimate al fresco lunch. The home was built by Los Angeles luminary Gordon Kaufman. The Shriver family has lived at The Farmstead, as it’s called, since 1984. A humble set of apartments, they were actually the service buildings of a grand imagined but unrealized Italianate home overlooking the ocean.

Steve is an artist, and this is an artist’s home. Surfboards are propped in the horse stables. The coastal land is settling constantly, revealing fissures and charm in the thick plaster.

One bit of charm the home recently revealed is an age darkened folio that Steve found in the attic: the sheaf contains a set of watercolor renderings of light fixtures that were designed for the home when it was being built in the 1920s.

Steve had mentioned these drawings to me some time ago, knowing my interest in antique lighting. I could not have anticipated my delight in finally seeing them in person.

A precisely metered cursive, penciled almost 100 years ago, captions the drawings. Gentle wrinkles and a wide border naturally frame each drawing.

The watercolor renderings would fit in the palm of your hand. The B.B. Bell Company proposed a series of wrought iron lights for the Levinson Estate, aka The Farmstead. There is little information about B.B. Bell floating in the ether, but they are credited with lighting the Adamson House in Malibu, and Greystone, the Doheny Mansion in the hills not too far from where I live and work in Los Angeles.

The Bell artist handles the bleeding color deftly, revealing the twist in the iron framing, spikes rising like a crown around a glass lantern body, the open mouth of a dragon peering down from a wall bracket.

Charcoal and slate and a cadmium-bright yellow whisper over the graphite, the color illuminating the sketches.

I imagined the bare terraces of the peninsula when it was first being developed in the 1920s, and in turn the Bell designer imagining how his dark, scrolling lanterns would sway in the sea breeze. Wall sconces hanging from elaborate brackets would illuminate the gate posts of the quiet, thick walled villa.

Some of the fixtures were less Mediterranean – simple geometric forms fashioned from sheet metal. The artist mottles the dark colors representing the metal as if anticipating the patina that sea air and salt would bring naturally over time.

To catch the likeness not just of metal, but light, and glass. My heart leapt at these:

The crackling edge of a pale color used to render the glass seems to glint off the page.
When I think about the photographs of our lights that I print by the dozens, I am stunned. (And that’s not at all to diminish the artistry of our in house photographer, Jerome. His detail shots regularly make me catch my breath). But these renderings are one of a kind, and stand as art in their own right, with no need of the artisan-made lights that they conjure.

Sadly, the lights were never made. I wondered if that might be because the main house was never built, but the notes make it clear that they were proposed for the outbuildings. The captions note fixtures for Entry, Lavatory, Service Porch, Outside of Tool Room, Bath Lavatory, Servant’s Hall. Humble spaces to support a grand villa.

And those numbers? 1920s pricing!

Steve does have some beautiful lanterns on the gateposts before his home. And I saw a light on the Villa Francesca just down the road that looked a lot like one drawn for the Farmstead. Villa Francesca is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Whether or not the light is by Bell, I think the spirit lingers here.

-Valerie Thomas, Remains Lighting Los Angeles

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Sugaring on the Farm

Recently, one of our colleagues based in Vermont has been lending a hand in her spare time to a different kind of artisanal producer, she’s helping to haul in this year’s crop of maple sap.

Image: courtesy of Jonathan Weiss, surfacist.comEach year during Vermont’s famous mud season, when the days start to warm and the nights still dip well below freezing, the maple sap begins to flow and is harvested by sugarers across New England. On Daph-A-Dill Ranch in Pawlet, Vermont, Chris and Daphne Ross are still collecting sap the same way their parents and grandparents did, in galvanized aluminum buckets that are collected each day into large holding tanks, hauled down to the sap house by tractor, and boiled into maple syrup.

Image: courtesy of Jonathan Weiss,

Image: courtesy of Jonathan Weiss,

Image: courtesy of Jonathan Weiss,

Image: courtesy of Jonathan Weiss,

Image: courtesy of Jonathan Weiss,

Image: courtesy of Jonathan Weiss,

Image: courtesy of Jonathan Weiss,

Image: courtesy of Jonathan Weiss,

Image: courtesy of Jonathan Weiss,

-David Calligeros

All photos by Jonathan Weiss,

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Please turn off your lights for Earth Hour

This Saturday at 8:30pm (local time, wherever you are) turn off your lights, even if they are beautiful, and you bought them from Remains, and leave them off for at least an hour.

Join me, the WWF, and participate in Earth Hour, a symbolic, mass action to show an interest in sustainability.

I know shutting your lights for an hour is not a huge deal in itself. In aggregate, is it something huge. In past years a couple hundred million people participated.

Though the event will temporarily cut electricity use, and its attendant pollution, the main point is to raise awareness of our actions’ impact on the earth. No-one thinks this one hour of avoided pollution will sort out our problems with an out of balance sustainability equation. You start with a small step, a thought with a tangible action, and you start thinking of other things that make a positive impact. Check out the website *after your electricity-free hour* and look into the challenges they pose, or create your own challenges and post them to the Earth Hour site.

-David Calligeros



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Spongebob Would Feel Right at Home, More on the Shedd Aquarium

After exhausting the possibilities of the front rooms of the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and pestering the staff for more information on the fixtures (they had none) and on any other old, original parts of the building (“this is it”), I resigned myself to buying a ticket. How could I come to the aquarium and not look at the fishes? That reminds me of the first time my son took his feet off the bottom and began to swim. He had his face stuck in the water with a mask on, arms outstretched and paddling to give him balance, agog with the tropical fish in the shallows of a beach on Kauai. He started swimming unconsciously to follow one or another of the brightly colored little beguilers and later popped up to declare “I’m the best fishy-looker!”

Oops, where was I? please excuse the digression. The fish, snakes, turtles… and ESPECIALLY the Beluga whales were awesome. I would come to the Shedd Aquarium even if there weren’t dusty old lights to gawk.

As I was leaving, I tried to get a few more pictures of the lights. I tried longer shots, tried climbing up on a ledge to get a better vantage point for seeing the octopus heads and was thinking about climbing on top of a trash can (at this point, having seen what I came for, it wouldn’t matter if I was kicked out, so what the heck?) when the friendly desk attendant who put up with my non-fish-related questions earlier came over and gave the squid eye. “What are you doing here, by the way, writing a book?” I told her about my interests. She was completely friendly (I had not yet climbed up on any trash cans) and waved me over to a set of large wooden doors. “There’s some more old lights. Let’s see if we can get you in here” she said. She popped her head through the doors and let me into the director’s office for a little treat. The ceiling still had two original pendants with cast bronze suspension hardware. By the by, all the rope details in bronze on the Shedd’s fixtures are highly original and unexpectedly naturalistic. The opaline shades are cast glass, like Lalique but of uncertain provenance, densely detailed with fish chasing fish among waves, corals and seaweed. The portrait behind the director’s desk, flanked by a pair of simple thistle-detailed sconces, is of Mr. Shedd who died shortly before the building was officially opened.

Now, as to the attribution of this group of lighting, I would make a tentative claim to the Sterling Bronze Co.’s authorship. That’s based solely on the arms of the sconces in the director’s office which correspond closely with other examples of the company’s work that I have handled. Contradictorily,  I read in a book on the Shedd Aquarium (in their gift shop) that the fixtures were made by the Superb Bronze and Iron Co. of Chicago. I had also seen a note on the site of the company that worked on the exterior sconces that they were made by the Sterling Bronze Co. of Chicago. I can find no information on the Superb Bronze and Iron Co. of Chicago and the Sterling Bronze Co. was based in NY. I give a bit of weight to the company that handled the exterior fixtures as SBC often signed their work. A restorer may have found the mark in the course of their work and simply guessed incorrectly at the city.

To stir up yet more murkiness into the waters, I have this small set of sconces in my collection, star fish pattern with seahorse paintings, that I bought along with a silver E. F. Caldwell bowl from an estate sale. E. F. Caldwell was the principal competitor of the Sterling Bronze Co.

Tantalizingly, there were banners in one of the exhibits, the backgrounds of which were blueprints of the building’s design. While they were in no way detailed enough to shed light on the Shedd’s fixtures, they suggest that the original drawings are extant and accessible to scholars. Maybe next time…

-David Calligeros

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Spongebob Would Feel Right at Home – Nudibranches

I had a few hours between meetings to explore the Shedd Aquarium, part of Chicago’s lakefront neoclassical cultural campus including also the Field Museum and the Adler Planetarium. The Shedd was conceived by John G. Shedd, designed by architect Philip B. Maher and opened in 1930 under the directorship of Walter Chute.

I walked over from the massive Conrad Hilton Hotel just a few blocks north. I was not principally interested in the live fish, dolphins, whales, eels and other marine life. My quarry was frozen in marble, bronze, and leaded capiz. I had heard that the Shedd had a program of notable nautical themed lighting that I wanted to see for myself.

The Doric portico has five entrances, with two revolving doors on each side of a central double door. The revolving door-surrounds and the entire double door are original. Unfortunately the original leaves of the revolvers have been replaced with anonymous modern doors. All of the original architectural details in stone and bronze are detailed with exquisite, nearly lifelike, and charming marine life. There is a riot of turtles, starfish, snails, lobsters, squid, skates, dolphins, jellyfish, and corals.

Under the portico, at the entrances, are a pair of tall bronze hexagonal wall lanterns. The backplates are in the form of starfish and the galleries have alternating crabs, squid, turtles, and seahorses. These were unfortunately “restored” recently, removing the weathered verdigris you can see on the rest of the exposed metalwork.

The revolving door surrounds, in addition to the seahorses and scallop shells, have grillework detailed with snail shells and starfish alternating in a fishscale pattern. I love snails. Snails are as beautiful and strange as they are generally unloved.

That reminds me of the giggle fits I’d get from my kids when I told them about Nudibranches. Nude! Nudi NUDE! Ha ha ha. There is a great slideshow on the New York Times website on nudibranches. Nudibranches are a type of snail that sheds its shell, and they are beautiful, which is slightly odd since most people think of the shell as the defining characteristic (and the most decorative one at that) of a snail.

The central double door entry surround in white marble has a pediment sculpture of two large toothy fish swimming among fan corals and a large scallop shell, about to chomp on small lobsters. The doors themselves are made of four bas relief panels depicting sea robins and angel fish. The castings are very finely detailed for architectural work, showing chased eyes and fins. These panels are bordered by imbricated sand dollars, rope twist, and (almost unbearably charming) petit turtles and starfish (I know, more starfish?).

Through these doors is the grand hall. This space is pretty well as it was 83 years ago. The marble wainscoting, the bronze and wood doors, and the original ceiling fixtures are largely intact. Directly overhead are three stunning lanterns with leaded capis shell bodies grasped by lifelike bronze octopuses*.  The two on the sides have tapering hexagonal bodies. The center is a large sphere. These are just the coolest things. I am 100% ready for a commission to light an aquarium.

There are a few large double tiered chandeliers that illuminate the main space with exposed lamps and panels of painted glass. The glass is painted of course with sea life (frogs, snails, fish, turtles, lobsters, crabs, etc.)

The revolving doors are boxed out in the interior with more amazing cast bronze grillework and paneling detailed with starfish, corals, lobsters, and jellyfish.

In the right and left sides of the back of the main hall, hanging from the arches that give onto the first tanks of live exhibits are these dolphin-detailed signs.

Hanging from the center archway is a bronze clock. The clock faces and circumference are glazed in white glass, overlain with small cast creatures, in the place of numbers. In the Shedd aquarium, time is not simply 10:20…  this clock will read Crab’o’frog ‘o’ clock or half-past the squid . Time for a snack of plankton and sea cucumbers! Meet you in the cafeteria?

Under this clock are a facing pair of wall sconces in the shape of large stingrays, their heads facing down and their tails curling up to support nautilus shell shaped light shades made of leaded capis shell panels.

For the record, I really don’t mean to be flippant about the descriptions of this material. It is unbelievably fine and beautiful and fun. I only wish there were less repetitious ways to describe it all while also being exhaustive in its cataloging.

Around the periphery of the Caribbean Reef exhibit room are a set of torchieres with leaded nautilus shell shades matching the stingray sconces described above. The shades are held on lacy, five-legged stanchions of twined seaweed, the bases of which are plump starfish.

Lastly, in a side lobby to a reception desk, are a set of pendants with curved leaded glass shades with cast bronze superstructures. The work on these is on par with the design and execution of the rest of the fixtures, but shockingly I can make out no overt watery references. I suppose I’ll have to settle for just plain old and well-made.


-David Calligeros


*The English language plural of octopus is octopuses, not octopi. If Octopus had a Latin root, perhaps one could make that claim. However, octopus is a Greek-rooted word and if one was inclined to such things the Greeklish plural would be something like octopodes.

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Self-Affirmation through the Choice of Highly Aesthetic Products

Dear readers, This may be old news to those of you whose subscriptions have not lapsed to the Journal of Consumer Research, but buying good-looking products evidently makes you feel better about yourself. My friend and colleague Alice Kriz called my attention to the August 2012 edition which carries a study Self-Affirmation through the Choice of Highly Aesthetic Products by Claudia Townsend and Sanjay Sood in which it was demonstrated that participants who picked out a better looking lamp (over perhaps a better functioning but less attractive one) increased their self esteem.

Another benefit of buying good looking product was that the participants were more open minded after their purchase. Perhaps with the positive glow of just acquiring something beautiful, they were more at peace with themselves, less guarded, and more empathetic to others’ views.

“What our research shows is that purchasing an attractive item causes a person to feel better about themselves {sic} and this ‘affirmation effect’ frees them up, mentally, to admit to the error in their ways. The result is that they no longer need to justify their initial bad investment with additional funding and consequently make better decisions.”

This is music to my ears. Music, I tell you: Buy beautiful lamps, feel great, and keep an open mind… perhaps you should buy some more beautiful lighting. I sense a virtuous cycle. Can I interest you in a pair of beautiful lamps?


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The French government just announced that they are taking the vanguard position on light pollution and energy conservation with a new law to control lighting at night. The environmental ministry announced the law yesterday (to go into effect July 1 2013) to require businesses and municipalities to shut their lights between 1AM and 7AM. There will be exceptions for some public monuments and holiday celebrations but shop windows, streetlights, facades will all be dark in the wee hours.

This is supremely good news on many fronts. The move is expected to save some 250,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year. That’s a massive step in the right direction for reducing greenhouses gasses and the attendant global warming. It’s also an acknowledgement that light pollution itself is a huge problem that needs addressing. Light pollution negatively effects human health (specifically as it disrupts circadian rhythms), negatively impacts the ecosystem of nocturnal animals, as well as ruining our view of the night sky. Have you seen a great starry night recently?

I can only imagine there will be a backlash of billboard owners, searchlight operators, and makers of exterior-grade flood lights. But, try this and let me know what you find: take a walk in the dark. Let your eyes adjust to whatever light comes from the moon or stars. You’ll be amazed, I think at what you see and what you have been missing.

Perhaps against intuition as well, less brilliantly lit areas, ones with down-pointing/shielded fixtures, and ones with motion activated controls are safer than glare-y flood lit ones.

If this sounds interesting and you want to learn more, the International Dark Sky alliance’s website has great info: including tips for talking to those neighbors who’s prison-yard lighting is streaming in your windows.


-David Calligeros

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Vice Squad

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has seven vises listed in its collection. I was able to find one of them and pored over it for a while last Sunday.

This is an armorer’s vise. I don’t know what makes it specifically an armorer’s as opposed to any other smith’s tool. It’s undoubtedly one of the prettiest tools I’ve ever seen, and all the more so as vises are among the most brutish workhorse tools in a shop.

Mermen and putti help support the jaws and bench clamp. The lever ends are turned with acorns and concentric stepped finials.

My favorite artistic flourishes are the cartouches on either side of the body with Jacopo De Ferrara’s name and the date commemorating the making of this tool.

This vise was collected and passed on to the MET by Samuel Yellin. You will see his name on many, many examples of metalwork from ancient Iran to rural Pennsylvania in the MET. Yellin was a master craftsman and designer in metal in his own right in the Arts and Crafts movement. His own works now reside in museums.

The Met has a high quality image of the Jacopo De Ferrara armorer’s vise on the museum site.

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