If you’ve spent any time trying to spruce up your home lately, you might have noticed something interesting. The practice of repurposing old industrial products has become a full-on part of modern domestic life.
HGTV.com’s 12 Clever Uses for Old Furniture features tips like using a mattress spring box as a bulletin board. Last year, Dwell magazine carried a story about Austria’s Das Park Hotel where the rooms are made out of old concrete sewer pipes. (“These pipes are ready for occupants,” enthused the editors.) Restoration Hardware has created an entire segment devoted to repurposing industrial objects from ages past, like the bar created from a 265-pound cast-iron German lightbulb testing machine from the ’20s.
Fans of repurposing take it as an article of faith that the items being reused must have had some past, utilitarian life. But most of the time, we don’t actually get to experience what those lives looked like—unless, of course, we look through the window of advertising. The two ads here demonstrate how wired glass—an ordinary product of the last century—became trendy today.
Chances are, you remember this kind of glass from the doors of your high school gymnasium. Sam Spade’s office door in The Maltese Falcon had it, too. A century ago, wire glass (made from laying chicken wire between two ribbons of semi-molten glass and then pressing them together) served the dual purpose of meeting fire code and, since it came in a variety of textures, providing privacy. This 1905 ad for the Mississippi Wire Glass Co. boasted that the Trinity Building, at the time a new office tower in New York, used its signature product.
So how did a workaday commodity from our industrial heyday become the defining element of The Lucien, the $1,270 fixture shown in this 2014 ad for Urban Electric Co.? “The inspiration for the use of the wire glass came from old industrial skylights and gymnasium doors,” designer Michael Amato told us. No doubt it did—but the law helped, too.
Between 2003 and 2006, the International Building Code gradually phased out wired glass as fire-safety compliant. Old buildings had for years already been replacing wire glass, and with so many giving it the heave-ho, it got instant antique status.
“They’re going for that traditional, nostalgic look,” ventured Stuart Leslie, president of brand design firm 4sight, who added that many young designers have an affinity for incorporating found or recovered objects (genuine or reproduction) in contemporary home and office accessories. “It looks like it had a use for something else, and they cut it up for a light. It’s a found object thing going on. I can see the appeal of a cool, retro fixture like this.”
“Even though,” he added, “it’s just chicken wire.”
This finish is “antique brass,” evoking a time before plastic took over.
Urban Electric is a 10-year-old company whose 300 fixtures embody what it calls “the very best of past and future.” Fortunately for them, there’s a lot of past to borrow from.
Even though this wired glass isn’t used as a window anymore, Leslie points out that safety glass is still a wise choice for an object that’ll hang over people’s heads. “The use for the glass,” he said, “has come around full circle.”