At a recent show house, interior designer Patrick Sutton created a rustic, yet sophisticated, room by pairing a Tuscan farm table with plush, slip-covered chairs. The room has a decidedly timeless, Mediterranean feel. But it isn't the beautifully worn table, impeccably crafted chairs, or whimsical draping that give the room its character—it's set by the chandelier, a slim, hand-forged, wrought-iron fixture that mimics the table in its rectilinear shape and pulls all the elements of the room together with its strong art form.
"I wanted this room to feel relaxed and elegant, a dinner party in a comfortable, Old World setting," says Sutton. "The fixture takes a classical shape and renders it with rustic detailing."
There is a reason for the phrase, "mood lighting." Fixtures set the tone of a room and give it character. Lighting can cast a glow, direct the eye to a certain place, or even, as in the case of the chandelier, create an obstruction in a space so that the room unfolds for the viewer rather than revealing itself all at once. Lighting comes in several forms: architectural, which can be a light source without being an actual object in the space; sconces that create small wall accents; lamps that make pools of light; and then the all-important chandelier.
"A chandelier is what I consider the central jewel in a room," says Sutton. "It's the piece of adornment that provides light, but perhaps more so than providing light, it is a design object. If you are a woman going out, it would be the broach on your dress."
For example, for a residence he designed in the Ritz Carlton, Sutton selected a drum-shaped chandelier where the shade is constructed of sliced alabaster shells set in gold-finished rings.
"It is, on the one hand, a very contemporary drum shape, but each ring has a natural quality to it and when it's lit, it just glows," he says. "This has some romance to it." He adds that, "It is fun and modern and takes some seriousness from the sitting room."
Pulling it together
Some lighting, like recessed architectural lighting, is meant to be unseen and purely functional. Not so with the chandelier.
"A chandelier is always a focal point," says Anne Markstein of Anne Markstein Interiors. "You really need to take into account how much of a focal point you want it to be—do you want it to have a lot of personality? What is its background? How does it play in with windows and with draperies? You have to look at it from all perspectives."
This became apparent in the Bethesda home of John and Brenda Greenberg, where Markstein needed to combine several hanging fixtures on the first floor of their home. Built in the Arts and Crafts style, their home contained fixtures selected by the builder. Though the family didn't want to go to the expense of replacing all the factory-supplied lighting, they did want to bring some of their own character into the home. As the hanging fixtures could all be seen from various perspectives on the first floor, they need to work in concert with one another.
"I tried to make it interesting, yet not overwhelming," says Markstein. "I couldn't have four chandeliers all screaming, 'me, me, me!'"
The front foyer received a facelift with the addition of a fixture from a New Orleans company called Flambeau, named for the torchbearers that lead Mardi Gras parades. (One of the owners is from New Orleans, as is Markstein.) "It has a little personality and is a little fun," she explains. That five-armed chandelier with creamy shades was the start of the design. Markstein incorporated a family heirloom over the dining room table and used a petite, neutral hanging fixture in a small pass-through near the entry. The Murano glass piece has a sand-cast texture that looks "excavated," according to Markstein, and is simple enough not to compete with the floor's other, more elaborate chandeliers (like, for example, the chandelier made of shell that hangs in the breakfast room that was selected by the homeowner, an artist).
To keep the fixtures in harmony, they are similar in shape, color, and finish—creamy white and gold—which pairs well with the builder's selections that were bronze-finished.
Everyone knows chandeliers belong over dining room tables, right? But what of other rooms or new variations on the same old theme? "A dining room table looks naked to me without a hanging fixture," says Eleanor Niermann, vice president of merchandising at the Maryland-based luxury lighting purveyor Niermann Weeks. "But they can also add interest to other rooms, like kitchens, and even powder rooms."
Susan Dickinson, showroom manager at Dorman's Lighting & Design in Lutherville, finds that she's now selling fewer chandeliers that are destined for the dining room and more that are intended for bedrooms, bathrooms, and kitchens.
"I've even put them in mudrooms and laundry rooms," she says.
In a project in a home in Guilford, Sutton placed a rectangular chandelier that is made of polished nickel with a glass box set inside to give a kitchen scale and intimacy—and to buck a ubiquitous trend.
"I am so tired of these industrial fixtures that hang over kitchen counters that you can now find in every catalog," he says. "This was an opportunity to do something different."
As there are no rules about which rooms a chandelier must go in, there are also no regulations on where it must hang in the room. Markstein likes to hang a chandelier off-center in a room, mounting one in the corner of a bedroom over a small, intimate sitting area, for example.
"It's a really nice way of calling attention to that particular space," she explains. Similarly, several small chandeliers could be used instead of one large piece, particularly in a place where one might use pendant lights, such as over a kitchen island.
Color, structure, and size
It can be hard to eyeball a space and select a correctly sized lighting fixture. Some lighting stores will allow homeowners to bring fixtures home and assess them for size and scale in a room. If not, consider constructing something of cardboard to replicate the size of the fixture being considered to see if it is grand enough to fill a large space or compact enough to complement a small room. Again, remember that the design and material of the chandelier will determine its feel in the room; dense drum shapes will feel more voluminous than something with delicate arms or small beadwork.
Although chandeliers are the beauty queens of lighting design, they are still a functional element in the room. When choosing a chandelier, think of the amount of light it will give off and whether that is adequate for the space or whether companion lighting will be required to illuminate the room. Keep the rules of lighting design in mind and then be prepared to break them, as any fashionista would do when selecting a killer broach for a night out.
Just as a table anchors a design from the floor up, a chandelier anchors a room from the ceiling down. Like any anchor on a ship, the chandelier must be appropriately sized to the room it holds fast.
According to Dickinson, homeowners generally select a fixture that is too small, especially in entry halls. Although there are some formulas to determine the right size chandelier for a room, Dickinson says they are not foolproof.
Generally she recommends selecting a chandelier that is 12 inches narrower than the most narrow width of the table it is intended hang over, so a 42-inch wide table could handle a chandelier as large as 30-inches across. But even this is not failsafe.
"A 30-inch brass chandelier with arms is fine," she explains, "but if you use a drum shape, that wouldn't work because it has too much volume. So really, it all depends on the chandelier."
Eleanor Niermann typically suggests hanging a fixture 30 to 36 inches above a dining room table and about seven feet off the ground in an entry hall for adequate clearance. "It's always good to use a dimmer," she adds, "so you can have light options for different functions."
Perhaps the only place a chandelier does not belong is in a room where its obstructive nature is not welcome, such as a waterfront home with a gorgeous view.
Although Baltimore is known for its enduring embrace of traditional design, the trend in lighting is moving slightly more to the left.
"I used to say the trend was for European, hand-painted finishes that looked like a find from a Parisian market," says Dickinson. "That's still true, but there's a mid-century modern twist to it. We're seeing drum shapes, which have been around for a while but are new here, and clean lines that are stripped down."
The chandelier dripping with crystal is somewhat passé, while using minimal crystal accents for a touch of sophisticated glamour is all the rage. For example, Niermann Weeks's perennial bestseller, the "Italian" chandelier, features graciously curving arms embracing a strand of delicate crystal beads and dripping one subtle crystal orb from its center.
"It bridges the gap between traditional and modern styles," says Niermann.
Trends are pointing now to the use of old lanterns and patina finishes, but there's hope for the tried and true brass chandelier of yore with just a little thoughtful renovation. In a recent project, Patrick Sutton breathed new life into such a fixture by refinishing it with an oxidized patina and placing colored silk shades over the bulbs. Shades are just one way to bring color and revitalization to a design; more and more, designers are seeking blown-glass chandeliers to enhance a room. In his project in Guilford, Sutton explains how a purple Murano glass chandelier picked up color accents in the room.
"It tells a story of the whimsical nature of the room and the client's fun, fancy-free nature," he explains.