This is my first post tackling the subject of restoration and refinishing mid-century modern objects. When it is required, the goal is almost always restoration, to restore the item to the way it looked fresh off the factory floor. However, this post is an exception, we decided these lights had even more potential than restoring them to their original state, these had the potential to go from minimalist modern industrial lighting to sublime modern lighting.
These pendant ceiling lights are usually called UFO or “Saturn” lights, due to the Saturn like rings of their design. The form was originally designed by Kurt Versen and they are a good bridge between the art deco industrial and modern mid-century design periods, but still following the strict “form follows function” dictate of the Bauhaus school. These lights are true “industrial” lighting and you could find them in institutional settings with high ceilings and lots of space, such as schools and office buildings.
I’ll let my partner take it from here, since he’s the one that actually does the down and dirty restoration work. I’m better at estate sales, auctions and flea market shopping. I will note I edited this down quite a bit from his original text, if anybody out there is currently working on lighting restoration and would like the fully detailed rundown of the complete process I’d be happy to provide it.
When we first found this trio of pendant Saturn lights they were in pretty rough shape, flaking grubby white paint, rust spots, broken welds, etc…
I did some repairs, got rid of any rust and repainted the rings as they were intended, but they were simply bland white rings on unpainted aluminum fixtures. The design and form had such potential, I decided to give the details the attention needed to turn them into great lighting fixtures.
With some imagination the design had all the components necessary for great modern lighting – lots of surfaces, balanced, minimalist aesthetic and well designed to spread light from powerful 200 watt bulbs, but that was the problem. Spreading the light was all it was doing – it wasn’t doing what a great lighting should do, manipulate the light and create an enhancing effect on the surroundings.
There were many options. I could have painted the concentric circles all different colors. Perhaps kept the stem silver aluminum in color and highlighted it. The diffuser could have been any color on the inside or outside – or both. The same went for every single aspect of the lamp, so in the end I decided to take a novel approach to creating a color.
I own several Louis Poulsen lamps and it is hard not to notice how he used different colors to soften and diffuse light. A Poulsen lamp off has a slightly different color from one that is illuminated. But even with Poulsen as an inspiration it did not solve the problems I was facing.
My first step was to draw the lamp on paper and using dozens of arrows, show where the light was coming from and where it was hitting. Of paramount importance was the distance the light was traveling as this would effect how bright or dull it was as it hit the rings spreading out.
It is key to figure out where exactly all the light on the outer rings was really coming from. According to the diagram, it shows 40% was directly from the light bulb, and 60% was through reflection. If I was to change the color of the rings I could either do it by painting them a different color, or I could change the color of the light source. I did not want to change the bulb color because even if I did, it would mean with an all white lamp the color would be the same, therefore the key was into changing aspects of the illumination sources.
The lamp cone, and the upward diffuser. I could make them any color, but the color was vital to create the end result. I needed about 10% red light, and about 40% blue light.
I finally decided on three colors, that I had especially custom produced, that had flat matte finishes with the following qualities:
1. The red paint was vivid, and carried with it tones of blue – by itself too bright to be liked – glaring almost.
2. The white paint was very flat and carried with it yellow tones – by itself it looked like old paint from an old house.
3. The Blue/purple paint was the most vital color – it carried heavy red hues.
Combined, I expected a green to arise that would change hue and color the more it reflected.
For three weeks I conducted repairs to the metal, redid the welds, straightened and balanced the rings, and carefully executed the painting which required multiple coats and sanding. It seemed crazy to have quarts of paint at hand when I needed but a tablespoon amount to paint the inside of the lamp socket and the upward diffuser, but I had no choice. I think I spent more time masking off areas to avoid the spray from the gun that I actually spent on any other aspect.
When it was finally complete I stood there with three hung lamps that I had never turned on before that looked great, but not spectacular.
And then I flipped the switch and there was the grand pay off.