Wall sconces are not only decorative fixtures, but a beautiful way to play with layered or focused light in a room. The design of the wall sconce will determines how the light is used—whether it’s for ambient lighting, focused accent lighting, or bright task lighting—while the style and its diffusion of light can change the atmosphere and aesthetic of a home.
Here’s what you need to know about antique and vintage wall sconces and the appeal of ornamental light.
A brief history on the wall sconce
Whether in a cave or castle, the wall sconce has existed for as long as man has used flame for light. Candles became the norm for lighting the rooms of wealthy homeowners during the Medieval and Renaissance eras. Typically made with wrought iron or cast iron, and later copper, brass, bronze, and silver, they gradually became more ornate and decorative with mirrors and crystals.
By the 19th century, detailed brass and cast iron brackets held flammable kerosene and gas lamps away from the wall, but a new era in lighting dawned with the emergence of electricity in domestic homes. Electricity stimulated the demand for lamps and light fixtures of all kinds, and as the decades progressed, so too did the styles. Art Nouveau and Art Deco rose in popularity at the turn of the 20th century, as did refashioned Gothic, Neoclassical, and Victorian styles.
Types of Wall Sconces
Different types of wall sconces offer different lighting within a space, and therefore should be selected based on the way they direct light and the function they need to perform. Need to read? Go with a down-facing sconce. Want to create atmosphere? Try a sconce that emits light both up and down. Or, feeling the need to highlight architectural features? An up-facing sconce will work great. And of course, for pure beauty and decoration, choose a wall sconce that will satisfy both the heart and the eye.
Up-facing: Up-facing wall sconces direct light toward the ceiling and typically provide ambient light. They can be used to make a room look larger than it really is; draw attention to a vaulted ceiling or architectural detail; or create ambient effects in transitionary spaces such as hallways and stairwells.
Down-facing: Down-facing wall sconces direct light downwards and can be used for task lighting or to create a warm and cosy atmosphere. They aren’t that common when it comes to antique or vintage wall scones, as historic lighting was used for more general illumination of a space and reading often done by table light.
Up-down: Up-down sconces direct light—you guessed it—in both directions providing a more balanced spread of light. Lampshades can also be used to direct light in both directions. They will predominantly focus light downwards and soften the glare of the bulb, but can also create interesting light and shadow effects across a blank wall.
Candle style: Candle-style sconces are decorative fixtures that offer intimate ambience. Often fashioned to be reminiscent of an earlier period they recall sconces from before the era of electricity. Candle-style sconces typically accommodate low-wattage bulbs or candles and consequently cast minimal light. As they have limited capability to function as a main source of light, they’re best used for decoration; in a small atmospheric space; or when paired with a chandelier, overhead ceiling light, or recessed down lights.
Style and Size
The style and size of a wall sconce should complement a room’s existing décor, size, and even consider other hardware. So from antique and ornate, to modernist and spare, or exotic and sculptural, a wall sconce should enhance the look of a room. Take a look at those fine examples for some stylistic inspiration.
This living space mixes a variety of styles including Plantation-style chairs, a Chinoiserie-style sideboard, and a brushed gold and glass coffee table. Two elongated candle-style wall sconces grace each side of the mirror and add sculptural detail that mixes the modern and the traditional.
The size of a wall sconce—or pair of wall sconces as is often the case—should be appropriate for the size of the room and the area of wall they attached to. In this narrow bathroom space, two wall sconces protrude from the wall to shed light on the mirror without obstructing the view in the mirror.
Where to hang wall sconces
Wall sconces work best in pairs or groups for a sense of symmetry and visual balance. But that’s not to say they don’t look good alone. In dining rooms, living rooms, bathrooms, and other transitionary spaces, wall sconces can add decorative fixtures and layered light for a luxe effect.
Living room: Wall sconces can look great on either side of a fireplace, window, or artwork, since they usually come in pairs. They add decorative and illuminative detail to blank wall space or the size can be selected to fit within panelling on more traditional homes. When it comes to fixing sconces to the wall, the centre of the wall sconce should be approximately 74 inches above the finished floor (if the ceiling is eight feet high).
Dining room: Above a buffet or sideboard is ideal positioning in a dining area as it provides symmetry along a wall. This dining room has a pair of two-arm wall sconces above the sideboard and on either side of the painting to create symmetry and balance. The size is well suited to the painting, and the elegant style draws attention to the art rather than detracting from it. As the lights don’t provide enough illumination, a sculptural ceiling light hangs above the table.
Bathroom: Wall sconces also work great as mirror lighting in the bathroom. Pair them with an overhead light to boost the brightness; or be sure to choose a size, shape, and positioning that provides even lighting across the mirror in order to eliminate shadows and enhance functionality.
Transitional spaces: Wall sconces in hallways, entrances, and stairways can be used to provide functional in narrow or dim spaces; ambient light in passageways; or simply decoration on wall expanses in place of art or other framed pictures.
Antique or vintage wall sconces are not always a foremost thought when it comes to either lighting or decoration, however serving both purposes, they can be a unique and functional addition. If your space could do with some layered light or decorative fixtures, check out our current selection of vintage and wall sconces on The HighBoy and let your radiant imagination run wild.