Edward F. Caldwell and Company's Legacy of Lighting
February 19, 2009 | Although the name of Edward F. Caldwell may be unfamiliar to some, the lighting fixtures made by his eponymous firm grace some of the best known public and private architectural commissions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the United States. Caldwell and his partner, Victor F. von Lossberg, a Russian artist he met while working at Archer and Pancoast Manufacturing Company, founded the firm of Edward F. Caldwell and Company in New York City in 1895.
Specializing in custom designed electrical lighting fixtures, Caldwell and Company worked with many of the most renowned architects of their day including, McKim, Mead and White, Carrère and Hastings, Horace Trumbauer, and Cass Gilbert. Caldwell lighting designs were included in most of the grand Beaux Arts mansions of the early twentieth century including those of Henry Clay Frick, John Jacob Astor, J. Pierpont Morgan, Frederick W. Vanderbilt, and Henry Morrison Flagler. Public commissions included the magnificent chandeliers in the East Room ballroom and the State Dining Room of the White House, fixtures for the Boston Public Library, and elegant art deco chandeliers and wall sconces for Radio City Music Hall to name just a few.
At the height of its operations Caldwell is reported to have had over 1,000 employees, and maintained its own foundry at its Fifteenth Street facility in Manhattan. From meticulous watercolor sketches to assembly and gilding, the lighting fixtures were made entirely in house. Caldwell and Company's emphasis on both design and craftsmanship speaks to a time when American manufacturing was at its peak, which paired with the firm's commitment to electrical technology, represents the golden age of art lighting.
Currently on view at Remains Lighting in New York City is a special exhibition of Caldwell and Company objects, from grand lighting fixtures such as a gilded eight-light ball chandelier to a delicately scrolled gilt-copper jewelry box that would fit neatly in one's hands. The approximately seventy items on display (which include some examples by contemporaries Bradley and Hubbard and the Sterling Bronze Company) show the remarkable range of historical and modern styles that Caldwell produced in its sixty-four year history. Some standouts include a pair of chinoiserie two-arm scones fashioned as a pagoda, and a pair of three-arm silverplated scones in the neoclassical taste with a graduated tail of furling bows. Unifying them is meticulous craftsmanship—evident in crisp decorative details, substantial weight, and rich surface finishes.
Remains offers a regular inventory of antique Caldwell lighting, and most of the items in the exhibit are for sale, however a number of smaller ones, such as brass bookends, desk accessories, and clocks, are from owner David Calligeros's private collection, and there are several from Caldwell's great granddaughter Margaret Caldwell, who has been integral in securing the legacy of her family's firm. Margaret spoke to me enthusiastically about the many Caldwell discoveries that have been brought to her attention over the years. Also, despite the prominence of her own family name, she emphasized von Lossberg's critical leadership in the artistic vision of the firm.
The Remains exhibition closes February 20, but those looking for more Caldwell will find that the Cooper-Hewitt Library's new online database of almost 50,000 drawings and photographs by the firm (2,000 are currently accessible with new continually being added), is a feast for the eyes. Allowing users to search the collection by keyword, product type, architect, project, or client, the database is a wonderful resource for those wishing to investigate period lighting fixtures, or for those looking for an inspiring introduction to historical design.
The Caldwell archive, previously believed to have been destroyed, was brought to the Cooper-Hewitt in 1993, and has been right at home ever since. The Cooper-Hewitt Museum and Library are housed in the former Andrew Carnegie mansion, which features an impressive sixteen-light ball chandelier made by Caldwell and Company, that still greats visitors with a warm glow over the Great Hall staircase.
To celebrate the launch of the Caldwell online database, the Cooper-Hewitt Library will host a free event at the museum's lecture room on February 28 at 2 pm, including a talk by Margaret Caldwell. For those on the West Coast, David Calligeros will present a special lecture on art lighting including Edward F. Caldwell and Company on May 8, at Remains Lighting in West Hollywood. For more information on the Cooper-Hewitt collection call (212) 849-8330 or email email@example.com; for Remains Lighting call (646) 732-2482 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Top right image: Edward F. Caldwell (1851-1914) in a photograph of c. 1910. Courtesy of Margaret Caldwell.