Four New Ways to Use a Classic Onion Light Fixture

via Rikki Snyder, Photographer

via Rikki Snyder Photography

Even if you didn’t know it was called an “onion light,” you’ve almost certainly seen it before. Walk through any historic New England neighborhood and you’re bound to see one brightening the door of traditional cape or two. A glass lantern with an encircling metal cage, the onion light often sports a large carrying handle and has a utilitarian, Paul Revere-ish charm about it.

The light was actually created during the early 1800’s as a sturdy portable lantern that hung on the side of a house or barn when not in use. They also became popular in the marine and railroad industries. Early examples didn’t include the wire cage, but it was added to the design to protect the glass globe, or “onion.”

Having “hang-ups” today about its front-door-only stereotype, the beloved onion light has shed convention to take on new lighting roles, both indoors and out.

Here are four ways to showcase traditional onion lights in a new way:

One – Sconces

via Cape Associates, Inc_reviseWall-mounted onion lights, originally designed for outdoor use, make perfect wall sconces in traditional or modern settings. Already a wall-mounted fixture with a backplate, its design naturally lends itself to take on a wall sconce roll indoors without the need for modification.

In comparison to some other lantern styles, Colonial in particular, onion lights tend to be compact and vertically oriented. This makes for an easier installation in areas with tighter constraints, such as a paneled fireplace surround. Also, most onion lights utilize A-base light bulbs, which depending whether the fixture design has a canopied “hat” or not, provides an even, non-directional glow. Many other lantern styles are designed to use C-base candelabra bulbs which alternatively mimic the upward light created by candles.

via Andrea Swan - Swan Architecture

via Andrea Swan – Swan Architecture

Two – Pendant Fixtures

via Pinemar Inc. & T. Keller Donovan.

via Pinemar Inc. & T. Keller Donovan.

The best and most popular application for classic onion lights is as a pendant to provide ambient lighting in a room. Because pendants become visual focal points in a space, the classic onion light design holds up as something worth drawing the eye to.There are several manufacturers who make onion-style pendant lights. Or, you can create your own by having an existing fixture refurbished by a lighting specialist.

Task lighting need not be humdrum shaded fixtures. Pendant onion lights illuminate all the good that goes on in the kitchen below, designed by Pinemar Inc. and T. Keller Donovan. When you’re selecting a chain length, just make sure you have enough clearance between the countertop surface and the bottom of the fixture; 28 to 34 inches is standard.

via Gable Building Corp

via Gable Building Corp

Although subtle, the onion pendant steals the show in Gable Building Corp.’s elegant Boston bathroom. A pendant fixture on a lengthy chain lights a staircase by Whitten Architects, but also aligns with the surrounding windows so you can see it from outside as well. Su Casa Design‘s onion light hung over a dining table is a wonderful low-key chandelier.

Most onion lights are available with a clear, seeded or optical glass globe.The clear glass is the most traditional way to go. Nick Paternostro of Yale Appliance + Lighting adds that seeded glass offers the extra benefit of texture and does not show water spots from rain on any exposed fixtures. Optic glass offers a little more formal look and can create interesting reflection patterns.

Three – Decorative Accessories

Onion lanterns are an unexpected accessory on a shelf or fireplace mantle. Here, a collection of lanterns in a bevy of styles, onion included, make it a memorable space.

via Fray Interiors

via Fray Interiors

Four – Offbeat Uses Outdoors

via Blue Sky Building Co.

via Blue Sky Building Co.

Still a staple on the porch, this onion light fan is cool in more ways than one. An onion light pendant fixture fixed to an arched garden door lights up a stone pathway designed by Timothy Lee Landscape Design.

When you’re selecting a new onion light, decide whether you want your fixture to patina, or darken, or maintain its original pristine appearance.

via Timothy Lee Landscape Design

via Timothy Lee Landscape Design

Most quality onion lights are made of either copper or brass. Some manufacturers offer their metal finishes in their natural, unprotected state, or with an already antiqued finish. Brass will darken and take on a bronze-like appearance, while copper will eventually turn a verdigris, or green color.

Antiqued finishes, whether indoors or out, will continue to darken over time. In contrast, black finishes are typically painted on or powder-coated. As these finishes are added topically, they will eventually flake off to expose the underlying metal, especially if used outdoors.

If you live on or near the coastline, the sea air will speed up the patina process, with noticeable changes in just two or three months. For purposes of durability, brass is recommended for marine locations by both Paternostro and Anna Williams of Barn Light Electric Company.

Prices for onion lights vary greatly, from $50 to around $450. As the adage goes, you get what you pay for. The less expensive fixtures are usually made overseas using lower quality materials.

American-made onion lights are generally constructed of high-quality materials like brass and copper and are worth the investment.

Related Links & Sources:

Barn Electric Light Company

Yale Appliance + Lighting

Sandwich Lantern

Northeast Lantern



  1. Shown Blog says:

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