Ask Ingo Maurer what he sees when staring at a simple light bulb, and he'll go beyond wattage pretty quickly. "You can see the flame, the soul inside," says the German artist, who since the mid '60s, has been experimenting with the artistic possibilities of illumination (his signature piece is a bare bulb with two wings attached). He sees not just light, but what he's termed the "poetry of the bulb"; used by cartoonists to symbolize when a character has an idea, it's "in everybody's heart."
"Low-energy light bulbs, the ones with the spirals, are just white things, giving off very indifferent light," he told The New York Times in 2007. "They're boring. People don't realize what they do to our wellbeing. Of course we should save energy, but not by ruining our lives."
While Maurer's idea of a better bulb is a little high concept for most people, his yearning for something better is commonplace. Even though lighting is an inescapable and elemental part of interior design, for much of the past 50 years, it's been mostly utilitarian, functional, and bland. Even recent the shift from incandescents to CFLs and LEDs, while thankfully providing more energy efficiency, often cast the same glow. Who wouldn't want to see a change in something so essential to how we see the world?
Perhaps that explains why Edison Bulbs—those vintage lights with spools of wound filament, unique shapes and a ruddy, low glow—initially burnt so bright in the design world. Now a fixture, even a cliche, they were a hip signature throughout the 2000s, a trendy way to instantly add character to a room, bar, or restaurant. Old-timey bulbs may elicit eye rolls today, but considering that they've only become more prevalent over the last few years, it's unlikely anybody chiding their mainstream status hasn't used one at one time or another.
"I was at JFK, where they've renovated one portion of the restaurant terminals, and sure enough, there are filament bulbs," says Peter Bentel of Bentel & Bentel Architects, whose inclusion of Edison bulbs for the interior of New York's Craft restaurant helped kickstart the trend back in 2001. "I walk by thinking 'sorry world, sorry I did this to you.'"
But ask Bob Rosenzweig, owner of Aamsco Lighting, a former Long Island-based firm and key supplier to the Edison boom, what he thinks about light bulbs, classic designs and spools of filament, and he'll tell a slightly different story.
"I'm glad I'm old, it's frustrating," he says, while discussing how the industry has gone mainstream, with newer, low-cost producers driving down quality. "I used to love to go to Europe, you'd find innovative products and bring them over. It's a whole different world 40 years later."
"Everybody Was Coming to Me"
The lighting world was a lot different when Aamsco started on June 16, 1975. Short for Anglo-American Sales Company—the name was shortened on the advice of a printer to save typesetting charges—Rosenzweig's company opened started as an importer for UK-based Crompton-Parkinson Lighting. A former salesman for a company called Commercial Lighting, Rosenzweig figured he had nothing to lose by going alone. He opened shop on Long Island and tried to position himself as a small distributor. But after talking with GE, Sylvania and Westinghouse to find new partners and expand his business, he had no luck. A Westinghouse rep, however, suggested he try his luck with Norelco, a subsidiary of Philips created so the Dutch company could sell in the United States.
This was how Rosenzweig discovered the odd, and profitable, world of niche bulbs. His sales reps introduced him to the world of microscope bulbs for hospitals, bulbs for cardboard cutting machines, even bulbs for cigarette machines. Most units, made in Germany or Italy, required a specific, small bulb that was only manufactured by Philips.
"It was like everybody came to me," says Rosenzweig. "I was doing all these weird light bulbs. Philips was wonderful. It was like someone took you by the hand. I learned about markets that nobody else thinks about."
These niche markets became the playbook for Aamsco throughout the '80s, at least until Rosenzweig discovered another niche product. After the Berlin Wall fell, he decided to visit the Eastern Bloc, in part to see if he could locate a light bulb factory once connected to his family.
During a stop in what was then Czechoslovakia, he met an "instant capitalist" who happened to be involved in the lighting business. A former factory manager at a state-run Tesla factory (named after the Serbian American inventor), he'd been making vintage light bulbs with old equipment and selling them to German museums and restaurants. Rosenzweig, who hadn't seen a niche market he didn't like, made a deal to import some of the Czech-made bulbs, sensing a similar, if also small, market in the United States. After a handshake deal over a bottle of slivovitz, a potent plum brandy, Rozenzweig had a new partner. He resurrected the old Ferrowatt brand, which his great uncle Otto Weiss had started in Vienna, and began marketing the vintage pieces in the States.
When Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, and their contemporaries devised the initial versions of these bulbs, they were using then cutting-edge technology to drive electricity through carbon filaments. While their solutions were leaps beyond those of other designers at the time, creating light with carbon was a relatively wasteful process compared to today's LED lights or even tungsten filaments (especially since they aren't injected with inert gases to slow down the evaporation of the filament). The charm of these antique lights, and their faint, orange/yellow glow, is actually akin to inefficiency in a bottle.
It took a while for the bulbs to grow beyond the niche that Rosenzweig first envisioned, not the least because they were much more expensive than standard incandescents. A handful of historic homes and museums bought product from Aamsco, including the Thomas Edison National Historic Park in New Jersey. Restaurateur Charlie Palmer used two hanging Edison Bulbs in the window of Alva (named after Thomas Alva Edison). There were other players in the market, too, such as Victory Lighting in England, but nobody had found a way to break out. The big break for Rosenzweig and others came from the hospitality industry, especially in 2001, when a team of Long Island designers stumbled upon his catalog while figuring out a new restaurant interior.
How a Construction Site Changed Lighting Design
The design team of Bentel & Bentel was in the midst of designing a new restaurant for future Top Chef host Tom Colicchio to be called Craft, in New York's Flatiron District. The vision was cooking not as an art but a craft; like a good craftsman, Colicchio wanted his chefs to use the best product and the most straightforward techniques to create the most high-quality experience possible. Find the best asparagus, let it do its work, and get out of the way. Don't overdo it. That philosophy needed to carry down to the design of the space as well.
"We were looking for an architectural equivalent, or at least a synonym for that method and idea of cooking, in all the material choices that we made," says partner Peter Bentel. "If it was steel, it was unvarnished, with the markings of the welder exposed. We let the bronze tarnish. The leather for the booths was the type they used for the spines of old books. We let the quality speak for itself."
While the other elements came together rather quickly, the lighting tripped up the designers. Every thing they tried, from fixtures to chandeliers, seems like too much, like they were overdecorating. While they were brainstorming, they came upon the Aamsco catalog. They'd bought from the company before, and decided to order a few of the vintage bulbs and give them a try.
"We screwed them in and thought, here it is," says Bentel. "The quality of the light, that's what we need, the best way to express the light."
According to Bentel, they were 100 percent not looking to create an old time space or antique room. It was a direct expression of the design philosophy. Their certainty was reinforced when, after leaving a late-night meeting with Colicchio, they drove up a Park Avenue devoid of cars. Somewhere north of Grand Central, they spotted a building under construction with exposed concrete floor slabs and columns. Each floor had a single bare light bulb dangling from a cord to illuminate the workspace. That sealed it; a direct expression of lighting, according to Bentel. An uncovered incandescent would have been harsh, but the Edison bulbs hanging from a cord gave off just enough light. Bentel opted for the "squirrel cage" bulbs, made with a nest of filaments supposedly designed to stand up to the rigors of a vibrating street car, to add a slight flourish to the floor plan.
While Rosenzweig chuckled a bit when Craft was brought up, since he says they planted "real" incandescent bulbs in the ceiling to illuminate the menus, the look became a sensation and trend emulated at other bars, restaurants and clubs. Bentel & Bentel immediately fielded calls from people looking for the bulb. When Rosenzweig went to the annual Lightfair, a huge trade show for the lighting industry, later that year, he was a very popular guy.
"Too Much of a Good Thing"
By 2001, Rosenzweig had moved his factory down to South Carolina to save money, importing Czech equipment so he could manufacture the vintage bulbs stateside. Business was booming (while he wouldn't get specific, 60 percent of his business was vintage bulbs, and he was knocking down millions every year). For him, things peaked around 2007, right when low-cost bulbs from China and overseas manufacturers, often made with cheaper tungsten filaments, began to flood the market and drive down prices. Rosenzweig would be interviewed by media from around the world, GQ, The New York Times and even the BBC, but for the most part, the niche he envisioned had grown well beyond his control, infiltrating restaurant and home décor.
According to Kate Whalen, Associate Product Manager of Lighting at Crate and Barrel, customer interest has built slowly but steadily for the bulbs over the last few years.
"At first, some customers viewed the look as too industrial," she says. "However, as the style has been become widely used in popular restaurants and other places, customers have embraced it. Also, many people prefer the warmer glow of these bulbs to the sharp light given off by some CFLs."
The home retailer has added a few more glass pendants and sconces to showcase the exposed bulb look. She sees the popularity of these low-wattage bulbs is more about ambience than a main source for task lighting, a distinction that has made them a signifier of bigger shifts within consumer lighting trends.
"Previously, lighting was primarily about tabletop decor and statement pieces," she says. "Now, the trend has moved from table surfaces to the ceiling and wall. There is a growing focus on lighting fixtures taking on a stronger decorative role, rather than simply utilitarian: lighting as 'jewelry' to enhance and personalize your space."
AvroKO, the design firm responsible for Public, a trendsetting New York restaurant that opened in 2003 and also helped establish the Edison trend, also "had no idea their work would become so popular," especially since it was "a design choice for a particular chapter" and time.
"The bulbs instantly tapped into a feeling of nostalgia for a time when handmade craft was the norm, and that has definitely been part of a larger trend for all things artisanal," the group wrote in a statement. "To be part of starting a design trend is a privilege. That said, more than a decade later, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, especially when there are so many beautiful lighting options available."
Like he always has, Rosenzweig is adapting. A few years ago, his company introduced an LED version of the Edison Bulb (which, he'll note, was quickly copied by competitors). Through the Ferrowatt brand, Rosenzweig still offers an extensive line of vintage bulbs and fixtures. And he's still aiming for the high end. At the Carolina factory, he's producing a small number of super premium, handmade bulbs. The process is slow, and the factory can only make about 100 a month, but they've been finding buyers, including the Smithsonian and assorted historic sites. He still believes there's money to be found in specialization, and finding your niche.
"I remember snooping around in Home Depot one day, and I see a guy buying a whole cart of Edison bulbs," he says. "'You must have a big house,' I said. He told me, 'We're a restaurant, we want the look. We're not light bulb people.'"