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Modern highlights: contemporary chandeliers hang loose with tradition

Modern Forms’ Marimba Pendant Chandelier, in gold leaf and bronze or silver leaf and white, can dim to 10 percent with a dimmer switch ($659, 2modern.com).
Modern Forms’ Marimba Pendant Chandelier, in gold leaf and bronze or silver leaf and white, can dim to 10 percent with a dimmer switch ($659, 2modern.com).
Published Jun. 10, 2016

Think "chandelier," and you might imagine a delicate, expensive, crystal thing that's too fussy for your modern needs. The truth is, though, that what we call a chandelier has always been evolving.

The proto-chandelier was a metal, circular holder for oil cups in mosques during the Middle Ages. Crusaders saw these and designed them with candles for their cathedrals. Belgian brass artisans in the 11th century gave them the shape we recognize, and Italian gem cutters added faceted smoky-gray crystals. Finally, a new, clear lead glass made in London gave us the objects we find in the Palace of Versailles.

"Making a chandelier took all of Europe to create," says Amy Azzarito, author of Domestic Bliss: The History of Luxury at Home in 100 Objects, forthcoming in 2017. But the whole point has always been the same: "to maximize light," Azzarito says. (Okay, and maybe to signal luxury, wealth and abundance.)

Today, lighting designers and interior designers are also reinventing chandeliers — adding LED lights; using unexpected materials, such as wooden beads or powder-coated metal; and putting them in new places.

Some modern chandeliers to choose from:

• Maryland designer April Force Pardoe says to put every chandelier on a dimmer and get as much wattage as the fixture can hold. In a dining room, especially, you want the ability to control ambiance. Modern Forms' Marimba Pendant Chandelier, in gold leaf and bronze or silver leaf and white, can dim to 10 percent with a dimmer switch ($659, 2modern.com).

What's the difference between a chandelier and a pendant? Azzarito says that a chandelier has multiple branches and lights, while a pendant is a single fixture and bulb. That said, there are category-crossing fixtures such as the Rittenhouse Chandelier, which has six lights but also a scalloped shade such as what you might find on a single-light pendant ($1,050, arteriors.com). Baltimore designer Brad Weesner says, "I love to blur the lines between chandelier and pendant and not call it anything but beautiful."

• Weesner and Pardoe find that the most common mistake with chandeliers is going too small. If you're putting one over a dining table, Pardoe suggests choosing one that's one-half to two-thirds the width of the table. No dining table? Pardoe says to add the length of your room (in feet) to its width and use that number to find an ideal chandelier diameter (in inches). For example, 14 feet plus 20 feet equals 34, so you want a 34-inch-diameter fixture. The Isaac Chandelier is an ideal size for a breakfast nook, but if you want the look over a long dining table, consider putting two together ($429, schoolhouseelectric.com).

• Even "a bachelor pad should be able to accommodate a chandelier," says Weesner, owner of Brad Weesner Design. Just look for a more masculine design in the frame, as the Katherine 6-Light Geometric Chandelier has ($399, ballarddesigns.com). The material (square stock iron) is more rugged, too.

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• Unconventional materials make old designs new again. The beads on the three-socket Wooden Sidi Chandelier remind Azzarito, who has a master's in the history of decorative arts and design, of the early rock-crystal chandeliers from 16th-century Italy ($598, anthropologie.com). It's small enough that it won't overwhelm a bedroom.

• What might be considered the first chandelier, the "corona de luz," Azzarito says, was an "iron ring that held candles aloft," inspired by the medieval oil-cup holders that Crusaders saw in modern-day Turkey. The Euro-Modern Candelabra Chandelier in nickel or bronze is a nod to those early fixtures, replacing the candles with bulbs ($799, shadesof light.com).

• "Many people have this idea of a chandelier as a French concoction of crystal," Weesner says. "But there's so many other versions." One of his favorite definition-defying lights is the Elan Fornello Pendant Light ($438, lampsplus.com). It's in the shape of the original chandeliers that held oil, but the light is from a circular LED tape. "I love to pair up or do a trio of these over a pool table or a kitchen island," Weesner says.

• West Elm's antique-bronze, adjustable-height Industrial Chandelier is ideal for paying homage to Thomas Edison's bulb, which Azzarito notes was first marketed as "bottled sunlight" because it was so much brighter than candlelight. The chandelier would showcase any fun bulbs, though, whether Edison's or white opaque globes ($269, westelm.com).

• Rejuvenation's adjustable-height Grandview pulls together three pendants and channels an industrial vibe ($520-$640, rejuvenation.com). Choose from nine finishes and 33 shades to create your own look.