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If you have a fixture with a fully enclosed, opaque shade, obviously you don’t need to stress too much. The bulb is obscured, so you can go with whatever A bulb you have in the drawer, or the curliest Compact Fluorescent (CFL) you’ve got! Your only limitation is the maximum recommended wattage, and recommended type bulb – information you can find on the sticker on or near the socket. This sticker can be found on or near the socket of the fixture, like so:
The recommended shape is designated by the letter. Different shapes of bulbs vent their heat in different ways, which can affect your fixture in the long run. Most fixtures are designed for a type A, the most common type, which is the shape of bulb you think of when you think “light bulb.” However, bulbs come in different sizes, so your standard lightbulb is an A19, but appliance bulbs are also A bulbs— they’re A15s. If you’re thinking of using a different shape, consider what will happen to that heat. If you use a globe bulb (a G bulb) with a shade, where will the heat go? It’s going to get trapped between the bulb and the shade. It’s the same thing with a flame tip bulb — those will definitely fry a socket if used pointing down. But in a candle-style sconce, a flame tip bulb is pointed up, so the heat will rise up and away. On a bare bulb fixture, those G bulbs don’t have to worry about their heat being throttled up in a shade.
Let’s say you have a fixture where the bulb is entirely exposed, like the Burnside. A clear bulb is going to be your best bet, and obviously it looks fantastic with a carbon filament bulb. Carbon filament bulbs are gorgeous, don’t produce as much light, and are more expensive to boot. I sometimes like using a clear, incandescent A19 or A15 bulb.
Clear bulbs are also a great look in a satin etched shade. That way, you just see the glow of the filament, not the shape of the bulb.
If you’re going the path of CFLs, but your shades are open and the spiral offends you, considering using an enclosed CFL.
Manufacturers have started putting the spirals under a glass envelope, giving it the familiar look of an A bulb. We use these on our showroom floor, and they really look great. But keep in mind that CFLs get larger the brighter they get, so the envelopes get bigger as the wattage steps up: Here’s the 25W equivalent, 40W equivalent, and 60W equivalent.