Chase: Lighting the 1930s

Chase: Lighting the 1930s

By Donald-Brian Johnson
Photos by Leslie Piña

“We have tried not to make novelty knick-knacks, but sturdy honest designs of good materials that will last from generation to generation, because taste is not a matter of fashion, but rather the choice of the best of every generation.”
– F.S. Chase, President, Chase Brass & Copper Co., 1934

In his Foreword to the 1934 “Chase Lamps Catalog,” Mr. Chase neatly summed up the goals of the newly-formed Chase Lighting division: to deliver goods of quality, and to give customers their money’s worth. The company’s no-nonsense commitment to its own high standards was one reason Chase lamps and fixtures remained favorites with the public from the early 1930s until the outbreak of World War II.

Equally important, however, was the innovative approach Chase took to home lighting. Under the leadership of its chief lighting designer Lurelle Guild, Chase premiered the concept of “through-designed” lighting. No longer was there a need to rely on what the company’s catalogs called “ugly, out-of-date lighting, with ornate over-embellishments of no particular period.” Thanks to Chase, consumers could now light an entire room Empire-style … add a Georgian flavor … or embrace the primitive with Early American. The adventurous could opt for Classic Modern, (particularly popular during the Art Deco era,) a “halfway point between present day furnishings, and those more extreme ones which may come in future years.” Whatever the choice, Depression-era Chase buyers would, most importantly, find that choice affordable.

The Chase Brass & Copper Co. was born in 1876 as the Waterbury Manufacturing Company of Waterbury, Connecticut. Originally a manufacturer of brass industrial components – everything from bathtub stoppers to birdcage springs – Chase eventually saw the advantage of branching out into other practical – and profitable – venues.

Following the 1929 stock market crash, and the onset of the American Depression, the company began to seriously explore the idea of a full-scale consumer division for metal giftware. Chase had the facilities, it had the skilled craftsmen, and it certainly had the requisite raw materials. Who needed a middleman? Instead of simply providing component parts, Chase would now provide a finished product.

Seeing The Light
Depression buyers wanted the look of luxury, but at a price they could afford. Thanks to its use of relatively inexpensive metals, this was a demand Chase could meet. The Chase Specialty division, established in 1930, produced a steady stream of brass, copper, and chromium giftware items – from smoker’s articles to drinking accessories. Those designs came courtesy of a starry parade of guest artists – industrial designers who specialized in re-imagining life’s humdrum daily necessities. Inspired by the challenge of making the functional attractive, these visionaries saw the design possibilities inherent in Chase metals, and made the most of it. The new Chase giftware line offered a wide variety of sleek and streamlined pieces at highly competitive prices – and consumers were immediately hooked.

With Specialty sales booming, Chase continued to expand. Thanks to the popularity of a limited selection of lamps offered in early catalogs, the addition of a separate Lighting division was a logical next step. In this, as F.S. Chase noted, the company stood apart from its competitors:

“Upon examination, we found that while there were many excellent lamps of china, pottery and glass, there were very few lamps on the market of brass, copper, and chromium plated brass. Such lamps as we did find were made in small quantities, and their prices seemed very high to us. Our judgment was that people would welcome a line of lamps which would be moderate in price, designed to harmonize with different periods of decoration, and which would use brass, copper, and chromium plated brass in a new way. We have produced such lamps.”

Guiding Light
Actually, Lurelle Guild produced them. While other Chase designers made significant contributions to the line, it was industrial designer Guild who, in 1934, came up with over 70 lamps and nearly 175 fixtures that formed the backbone of the Chase Lighting division. Guild also designed the ideal setting in which to display them: the Classic Modern Lamps Gallery and multi-period Fixtures Alcoves of New York City’s Chase Tower.

As noted, Guild also pioneered the Chase concept of “through-design” in home lighting: lamps, as well as lighting fixtures, followed a central theme, such as Colonial or Early English. It was a canny choice. While the goal may have been to eliminate the lighting hodgepodge common in many homes of the time, the result was to prompt more sales. If, for instance, a complete selection of lamps, as well as fixtures, was available in the Federal style, what homemaker would be content without a matched set?

Born in 1898, Guild graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in art. He initially illustrated articles and designed interiors for “Ladies Home Journal” and “House & Garden.” However, a fascination with the development of American domestic life, and a need to see his illustrations take concrete form, led him, in 1926, to industrial design.

According to “Modern Plastics,” Lurelle Guild “never designed a commercial failure.” As a freelance designer, Guild churned out over a thousand successful designs annually, for a dizzying array of household and everyday items. Included in his design cavalcade: kitchenware; glassware; silverware; garden, porch, and living room furniture; linoleum; rugs; washing machines; refrigerators; roller skates; oil burners; bathroom fixtures; vacuum cleaners; stoves; a streamlined locomotive; a trolley car; tombstones, and a Pullman coach!

Guild was a design “natural,” thanks to his highly disciplined work ethic, and superb skills in practical illustration. Manufacturers could proceed directly from his working drawings, with little need of explanation or revision. Other designers would often perfect a single design idea. Guild would sketch out a dozen or so, select several he found most effective, and send them, along with a working model of the likeliest prospect, to the manufacturer. He would patent each design, assign the patent, and receive a design fee plus production royalties. His guest-design assignment for Chase was one of his most lucrative: “Fortune” magazine estimated Guild’s 1934 annual Chase fee at $25,000. The average American family income that year was just over $1,500.

Although most in evidence, Lurelle Guild wasn’t the only industrial designer lighting up Chase. Before, during, and after his tenure, other talents made their own unique contributions. Some remain unknown. (A Chase lamp or fixture was not credited to a specific designer unless a patent was filed, or the designer was mentioned by name in advertisements or catalogs.) In addition to Lurelle Guild, other credited Chase lighting designers include: Helen Bishop Dennis, Ruth and William Gerth, John King and Randal Hale, Harry Laylon, August Mitchell, Adolph Recker, Howard Reichenbach, and Walter Von Nessen.

For a Chase designer, the ability to devise new and creative means of reusing existing Chase inventory was a plus. Early designers raided the spare parts stock, often resulting in a best-selling brainstorm, such as Ruth Gerth’s toilet-float Glow-Lamp, and Lurelle Guild’s Colonel and Colonel’s Lady lamps, cleverly constructed from metal tubing.

As the Specialty line output increased so did the opportunity to cannibalize, and Chase lighting designers took full advantage. Bits and pieces of giftware items began showing up as unlikely components of various lamp offerings. The Bacchus Goblet, for instance, lent its base design to that of the Constellation Lamp. (Bacchus designer Ruth Gerth, no slouch herself when it came to creative ingenuity, would no doubt have been proud!) Blending their individual talents under one banner, the Chase designers turned out a lamp inventory unmatched for range and inventiveness.

Bright Ideas
To attract the interest of 1930s homemakers, Chase ads inundated 1930s homemaking magazines. From “The American Home to Woman’s Home Companion,” enticing examples of the Chase lighting inventory were continually on view, reminding potential buyers that “it costs so little” for Chase lighting products that offer “a freshness, charm, and individuality all their own.” Those on fixed budgets could “pay for it easily on the Chase Time-Payment plan” (which your Chase Lighting Dealer would “gladly explain.”)

Magazine covers were also prime real estate. For its 1934 debut catalog, Chase Lighting commissioned Lurelle Guild (who else?) to depict model room settings, decorated to represent specific periods, and liberally stocked with Chase lamps and fixtures. During 1935, nearly every one of these paintings turned up on the cover of “Furniture Age.”

Although today’s collectors relish them for their eye appeal, Chase lamps and fixtures were of course initially designed to perform a specific function. If they did not light an assigned area effectively and economically, the products would have fallen out of favor, regardless of their attractiveness. Over the years, Chase stressed the health benefits of proper lighting. The missionary fervor reached its zenith with the release of a 1936 booklet, “Saving Your Eyes With Correct Lighting.” Among photos of poorly-lit folk blundering about while awaiting the intervention of Chase, there were admonitions such as this one, from M.J. Julian, President of the Better Vision Institute, Inc.:

“Don’t neglect or trifle with your most priceless possession. The stakes are too high and the odds too much against you. Look out for your eyes now, and they will look out for you for life. Remember, you can’t buy new eyes.”

Shedding Some Light
What could potential customers expect from a Chase lamp? Most importantly, the lamps were made of “lasting Chase brass,” which was not only impervious to rust, but was also the ideal base for applied finishes. (Among the finishes offered by Chase were chrome, copper, English bronze, nickel, and black nickel.) In addition to their novel designs, Chase lamps also featured detailed craftsmanship in their construction, wiring bearing the label of approval of the National Board of Fire underwriters, and finely executed shades of “metal, Bakelite, (‘plastic’), parchment, crepe, faille taffeta, or Clair de Lune.” An essay accompanying the 1934 Chase Lamps brochure hits all the high points of their appeal:

“Fresh in inspiration, and carefully styled for the needs of the American home, Chase table and floor lamps possess an individuality – a beauty – that sets them apart from all other lamps. Now it is possible for you to select lamps for a particular period, room, or style of home, with full assurance that the finish, decoration and type are traditionally correct. And the prices are truly reasonable! Ranging from $4.50 to $59.50, you are sure to find the particular style you want – at the price you want to pay.

“These beautiful lamps are scaled to fulfill every lamp requirement, in both period style and sizes. There are tall, ‘important’ lamps for the spacious room, medium-sized lamps for the average room, and smaller lamps for occasional tables, dressing tables, and hall tables. So that greater harmony may be achieved in all interiors, Chase has designed its floor lamps and bridge lamps to agree with the table lamps in basic design and decoration. Thus, when Chase table lamps and floor lamps are used together in one room, they form a pleasing relation to each other.”

“Representing a choice of the best designs of previous generations, these lamps will always be in style, and, made of durable Chase brass, they will give lasting satisfaction for years to come.”

The Light Fades
The history of the Chase Lighting division was a brief but brilliant one. With the onset of World War II, the company turned its attentions to war production, and the lights went out, never to be relit. While it lasted though, Chase Lighting shone brightly; the creative spark of its talented designers ignited a lighting legacy that still dazzles. The prediction of F.S. Chase – that his company’s lamps would be “the choice of the best of every generation” – has proven true.

“All the beauty of these lamps would have been futile if not backed by that sturdy construction, skillful craftsmanship, and broad vision which the Chase Brass & Copper Co. has instilled in the line. These are lamps that will make lamp history.”
– Lurelle Guild, Chase Lamps Catalog, 1934

Donald-Brian Johnson and Leslie Piña are co-authors of numerous books on mid-20th century design, including “1930s Lighting: Deco & Traditional by Chase.” Please address inquiries to: donaldbrian@msn.com

Photo Associates: Hank Kuhlmann and Ramón Piña
Chase Research Associate: Barbara Ward Endter
Chase Lamps courtesy of John and Donna Thorpe

Chase: Lighting the 1930s