Browsing: Let there be light. And the quirkier the better

Madeline Stuart
Interior designer Madeline Stuart hunts for vintage lighting fixtures for two of her clients at the Blue Door, one of several stops she made during a recent shopping expedition in Santa Barbara.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

If you’re an interior designer obsessed with art, architecture, preservation and the history of decorative arts — and you know your way around 1930s window mullions and vintage Holophane pendant lights — it might be kind of hard to find your own dream house. Madeline Stuart, who is into all of the above, waited years until her slice of heaven in Santa Barbara presented itself, and then she bought that weekend home in a day.

“Who wouldn’t fall in love with Santa Barbara?” she asks. “All you have to do is come here one time and you’re smitten.”

Then, like tackling a project for one of her many clients (among them Jeff Klein and John Goldwyn, Larry David, Lisa Henson and Lindsey Buckingham), whose homes range in style from Spanish Colonial to Arts and Crafts to Streamline Moderne, she went about restoring her own 1930s Spanish Revival house to historic standards. “Now it’s my happy place, my sanctuary,” she says. “I can’t wait to get up here on a Friday evening, and I boohoo all the way home on Sunday nights.”


Whether hiking with her husband, writer Steve Oney, and their dogs or chitchatting with the local egg purveyors at the farmers market, she finds “a sense of peace and exhilaration” here.

And calm. Enough so that she was able to write her new book, “No Place Like Home,” on her weekends in Santa Barbara, where she said she was free from “the pressure of my weekday world.” The book features eight of her projects — disparate in their aesthetic and architecture — that showcase her ability to create homes unique to her clients and their lives.

The shopping isn’t bad either. I tagged along with Stuart one perfect Santa Barbara Saturday on the hunt for vintage lighting for two different projects she is working on, to get a peek into her vast knowledge and love of fixtures.

What is it about vintage lighting?

I want things to be unique. Why not take the opportunity to use something made in a previous time, made by a talented artisan who may have worked in glass or iron or bronze? When you walk into a room and see something that’s one-of-a-kind, it speaks to that interior in a very different way than buying something that’s made by the hundreds if not thousands.

Do you really enjoy shopping?

I was born to shop. For me, part of the challenge is the hunter-gatherer aspect. I enjoy the thrill of the hunt. The French use the term “le mot juste” — for me, it’s “l’objet juste.” I love finding the perfect thing, whatever thing that may be.

Madeline Stuart at Santa Barbara Lights
Stuart examines a late-1800s wrought iron chandelier at Santa Barbara Lights. “I want things to be unique,” she says.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve made into a light fixture?


A Victorian bird cage. I spent an enormous amount of money, but I could never place it. It’s still sitting in storage somewhere.

What’s your biggest lighting pet peeve?

I go out of my way to avoid can [recessed] lighting.

Madeline Stuart in Santa Barbara
Stuart and her husband have a weekend home in Santa Barbara, where Summerland Antique Collective is one of the stores she frequents.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Anything specific you’re looking for today?

A historic house in Pasadena is undergoing a serious renovation. The goal for us is to make it look absolutely seamless, as though it wasn’t touched. Except that people don’t want things to look the way they really did in the 1930s. Kitchens weren’t made for a family to cook and hang out in; they were just serviceable. I also need hundreds of fixtures for a project in La Jolla. I will find lighting for that all over the world.


Madeline Stuart inspects a chandelier at Santa Barbara Lights.
Stuart inspects a chandelier at Santa Barbara Lights.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Santa Barbara Lights
509 Chapala St., Santa Barbara

This is a new discovery for me. When I walked in, my knees went weak. It’s owned by a couple after my own heart: hardcore vintage lighting dealers in a little Victorian cottage. Look at this hand-wrought iron chandelier, clearly from the 1930s (above, $4,975). A chandelier doesn’t have to be crystal. It’s quirky, amusing, it’s got a lot of charm; it’s vivacious, inspired by the Art Deco movement. There are some candles missing, so I will do some restoration.

A 1970s Brutalist light fixture at the Blue Door in Santa Barbara.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The Blue Door
4 E. Yanonali St., Santa Barbara

“This is almost like an antique collective; I’ve found some terrific stuff here. Look at this 1970s Brutalist light fixture (above, $425). That one is particularly interesting. It’s very kind of loving-hands-at-home, like someone made it in their garage. I just really like it. This one’s a keeper; I’m going to take it. There’s a crudeness to it; it has a ’70s funkiness I really like even though my personal preference is really the 1920s and 1930s.”

A metal lamp at Davis & Taft, Santa Barbara.
This metal lamp caught Stuart’s eye at Davis & Taft.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Davis & Taft
1482 E. Valley Road, Santa Barbara

“I pop in here all the time. I might find a lamp; I love quirky lamps. In my book I say more than once that quirky lamps are like having an interesting person in the room. They sit quietly but command a certain amount of attention. I am doing a house that’s very ’70s. Midcentury, that’s what these Brutalist pieces are so perfect for.”

A 1930s Murano glass lamp at Summerland Antique Collective.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Summerland Antique Collective
2192 Ortega Hill Road, Summerland

“I love these Murano glass lamps (above, $8,990). I can use them for a Streamline Moderne house. I could almost use them in a slightly over-the-top Palm Springs [Paul] Trousdale house from the 1930s. Makes me sad I don’t have a client for these.”