Say Goodbye to the Edison Bulb

It has become a beacon of today's throwback aesthetic. But the looming phaseout of incandescents threatens to pull the plug on the 21st century's most improbable cultural icon.

Photograph by Carlton Davis/

Americans may not agree on much, but the humble lightbulb has brought us together. It's true—legislation to phase out inefficient incandescents beginning in 2012 has created some unlikely bedfellows. Tea Party libertarians are upset because they want the government out of their homes. Design-conscious urbanites—the types who buy sleek hybrids and insist on local produce—are resistant because they prefer their homes and meeting places to be lit by the warm glow that can come only from electricity-hungry exposed-filament bulbs that look like they were made in Thomas Edison's day.

"Rejecting energy-saving lightbulbs is like taking up smoking. We know it's not good for us, but it sets us apart from everyone else," says sociologist Sharon Zukin, the author of Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places. Her term for our obsession with period lighting is filamentaphilia, a phenomenon she attributes to a modern desire to re-enchant our daily lives and "project ourselves back to what we think was a more sophisticated, more authentic time."

There's little question that the Edison bulb has become the go-to decor cliché for people who "curate" their wardrobes and have strong opinions about the soil composition—excuse me, terroir—of their fair-trade coffee. "It's like a formula. Tin ceiling. Cream paint. Filament bulb," says architect Stephen Alesch. "It's gotten a bit ridiculous. It's become a cartoon." It is a trend for which he is partly responsible. His firm, Roman and Williams, may not be the originator of the style, but in its interiors for such New York City hot spots as the Royalton, Standard, and Ace hotels, the company perfected a kind of atavistic sanctuary suffused with the comforting warmth of antique-style illumination.

This unlikely revival dates to the mid-seventies, when a New Jersey bulb manufacturer named Bob Rosenzweig discovered that his Austrian ancestors had owned a lighting business that was expropriated by the Nazis. "I said, 'Why don't I try to bring this lightbulb company back to life?' I had been selling regular bulbs, but suddenly I wanted to sell antique bulbs." His business took off in New York in the nineties after deals with Craft, Top Chef head judge Tom Colicchio's landmark restaurant, and the Soho Grand Hotel turned his bulbs into conversation pieces. Soon, the turn-back-the-clock aesthetic was everywhere, and Rosenzweig still caters to it, churning out his bulbs on a machine he purchased in the Czech Republic after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Since taking hold in New York, Edison bulbs have spread across the country like a virus. They hang—inside globes and iron cages, from chandeliers, or raw, on cords—in hyped new eateries like Olympic Provisions, a charcuterie purveyor in Portland; Bistro Niko, a French restaurant in Atlanta; and the Hubbard Inn, a "Continental tavern" in Chicago. At speakeasy-style bars, from San Francisco's Bourbon and Branch to Boston's Beehive to Seattle's Tavern Law, they're as obligatory as bitters and suspenders. One filament-happy early-20th-century-themed lounge in a former power plant in downtown L.A. is even called the Edison. Want to bring the look home? Visit a chain retailer like Restoration Hardware or Pottery Barn or a lighting specialty store like Schoolhouse Electric Co.

The bulb's ubiquity and the contrived feeling it brings to a room make it easy to mock, but it's not difficult to fathom the appeal: It provides a humane antidote to the chilly light of our multiple screens. "It's the closest electric thing to an open flame. It's like a hearth," says David Rockwell, an architect known for dramatically conceived interiors with period details like the New York restaurant Adour Alain Ducasse and Los Angeles' Kodak Theatre. "They have a history that's somehow comforting."

But there's a difference between relishing the past and slavishly reproducing it. "For sure there's going to be a backlash against the heritage movement," Alesch predicts. Could the incandescent phaseout impact our collective taste as well as our energy consumption? Perhaps it's time to see the places where we live and gather in a new light.

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