Prairie School lighting: balance with nature

Prairie School lighting

A pair of Prairie School cast-iron bridge lights, 54½ inches tall, fetched $6,500 + the buyer’s premium in November 2018 at Hindman. Photo courtesy of Hindman and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK – The Arts and Crafts era is one of the most historically significant periods in American design history and one of its key offshoots, the Prairie School architectural movement, shaped the look of homes in the greater Chicago area and well beyond the Midwest in the early 20th century. This movement was led by Chicago architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan and they were inspired by the prairie lands of the American Midwest.

Wright and others sought to create homes that reflected their surroundings and were in a harmonious balance with nature. The Prairie School style became popular, no doubt aided by a feature article in the Ladies Home Journal magazine in 1901 titled “Home in a Prairie Town.” By the turn of the century, these homes were being built throughout the Midwest and today are popular from California to the East Coast. They were a striking contrast from boxy Victorian homes with open floor plans, low ceilings and devoid of fussy ornamentation.

Prairie School lighting

A Bradley & Hubbard bronze Prairie School square lamp earned $1,500 + the buyer’s premium in December 2017 at California Historical Design. Photo courtesy of California Historical Design and LiveAuctioneers

This design aesthetic quickly spread to interior furnishings with lighting fixtures and chandeliers being highly collectible today and often reasonably valued. Prairie School lighting is known for having mostly horizontal lines and hefty bases, echoing the look of the low-slung Prairie homes, mimicking the rolling landscape. Wright was well known for his designing the furniture, lighting and stained glass windows that would go into the homes he designed.

He and other architects/designers created lighting fixtures that shared a similar look of being boxy in appearance and had shades typically having a lantern form. They mostly featured slag glass panels in geometric forms in varying neutral shades evocative of nature: beiges, greens and rustic reds. Table lamps often had sturdy oak bases and cast-iron framing. The term bridge lamp usually refers to a floor lamp with a curved neck leading to the fixture but two Prairie School fixtures in a Hindman auction in November 2018 were real bridge lights. Made of cast-iron with slag glass, the lights were rectangular in form and stood about 4½ feet high. They sold for $6,500 + the buyer’s premium.

Prairie School hanging lamps were also stunning in their understated glory, using simplified forms to echo the essence of “less is more.” A fitting example is this hanging lamp designed by Frank Lloyd Wright at the Saint Louis Art Museum in glass, zinc and bronze. The circa 1902-03 fixture is one of two Wright designed for the Francis W. Little House, in Peoria, Ill. “The lamp’s horizontal shade is a rhythmic composition of squares and rectangles, some set with iridescent colored glass and some left open,” according to a museum blog. This lamp by Marion Mahony Griffin, an architect who worked with Wright, came out of a church and is now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Prairie School lighting

A set of three lighting fixtures in amber and white slag glass made $1,200 + the buyer’s premium in March 2016 at Craftsman Auctions. Photo courtesy of Craftsman Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Among other designers renowned for Prairie School lamps was George Mann Niedecken, who co-founded the Niedecken-Walbridge Co. in Milwaukee. A museum-worthy example of Niedecken’s works is this table lamp, made for the Edward P. Irving house in Decatur, Ill. It is made from quartersawn white oak, colored glass and copper and stands 24 inches tall. The Two Red Roses Foundation in Palm Harbor, Fla., acquired the lamp in 2015. In its spring newsletter announcing the acquisition, David Cathers described the lamp as “an architectonic form with a footed, two-part rectangular oak base resting on mitered feet, and paired, spindle-shaped oak standards decorated at the top with sawn oak squares and triangles silhouetted against translucent white glass panels.”

Prairie School lighting

Probably designed by Marion Mahony Griffin (1871-1961), this Prairie School student lamp, circa 1910, sold for $6,000 + the buyer’s premium in December 2019 at Toomey & Co. Auctioneers. Photo courtesy of Toomey & Co. Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers

Several firms known for Prairie School lamps include Bradley & Hubbard, which even though it was not based in the Midwest (instead it was in Meriden, Conn.), became closely associated with this form, and Bentley & Hausler. The latter was the partnership between architects Charles Albert Hausler and Dwight Percy Bentley and based in St. Paul, Minn.

Prairie School lighting

This Bentley & Hausler Prairie School slag glass four-light fixture brought $1,550 + the buyer’s premium in May 2019 at Luther Auctions. Photo courtesy of Luther Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Among fine examples are a Bradley & Hubbard bronze Prairie School square lamp, circa 1910-1920, retaining its original patina, that earned $1,500 + the buyer’s premium in December 2017 at California Historical Design while a Bentley & Hausler Prairie School slag glass four-light fixture brought $1,550 + the buyer’s premium in May 2019 at Luther Auctions.

These Prairie School lighting fixtures are timeless and look at home today as when they were made, transcending form to become works of art.