Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Origins of Flight

A young man's unlikely ascent into the world of design   
Image via Wikipedia
Not long ago I was looking through an old magazine and out plopped some photos of lamps I thought were long lost. There's a story linked to them worth telling, so here goes...
Wicker Park Chicago in the 90's was not unlike Greenwich Village in the 60's. The cafes, lounges, and parties resonated with the constant chatter of creative ideas. Music, art, literature, and youth culture had converged on this locale, and in the air was a tremendous zeitgeist shared by everyone, a sense that something quite amazing was happening...and things did.
That's all over now. And I have exiled myself to Philly, where that same spirit of creativity is beginning to burn brightly (and likewise so does the spirit of championship baseball team). Wicker Park now seems nothing but a faraway planet of unauthentic-looking chain bars, ubiquitous trendy restaurants, and stretches of hastily slapped together yuppie condos. Dorothy Parker's famous quote is fitting: "there's no there there."
But for one particular moment in time, it was a special place. And being one who experienced the apex of that moment, I was motivated to do many artistic endeavors. Playing music and being in a variety of bands was one, but more offbeat, perhaps, was the compulsion to make things, especially lamps.
It started with an odd curiosity and study of the "birdmen" who built flying machines in the early 1900s. They seemed particularly fascinating, since many of them had no prior experience with such engineering, yet risked death to see if their contraptions would succeed. The human desire to fly is a legacy steeped in mythology, linked back to humankind's first ambitions. It's the consummate metaphor for freedom on many levels - the dream to defy the shackles of gravity, whatever that may represent...I often felt that gravity profoundly.
When electricity became usable to consumers, many designers, engineers, and architects found an alluring new technology with which to work. From the Arts and Crafts era to Art Deco, a plethora of imaginative lighting designs were created, designs that greatly influenced my flight into this enticing realm.
The French-based Desny design group and lamp artists such as Kola Moser of the Austrian Weiner Werkstaette offered some of the more compelling lighting treasures, utilizing crome and glass in ways that explored their dazzling reflective and refractive properties. There's a magical sense working with an object that emits light that one doesn't quite feel when making a chair or table.
I was drawn to that magic with a child's sense of wonder. I did everything possible to learn how to make such fascinating objects. I learned welding, silver-smithing and jewelry-making, studied design from every aspect, and in 1995 opened an art metalwork and lamp shop called Birdman Studios in the flat-iron arts building at the corners of Milwaukee Ave., North, and Damen - the heart of Wicker Park.
I used whatever materials I could find - reclaimed gas pipes, old cast-iron fittings, discarded sheets of copper, steel, or aluminum. I experimented with all types of glass, then mica, plastic, whatever. So obsessed had I become with these luminous creations that friends seemed more than a bit concerned. I had transformed into, well, a "birdman".
It was difficult to explain how personal these projects had become - they were like my offspring. I recall one crowning moment, an exhaustive late night when I sat back in that little urban studio, sweat and grease smeared across my brow, and gazed at the warm, glowing spectacle of my family of little lamps. I gave so much of myself to making them, and they gave back such a satiable sense of fulfillment and magic...yes magic. I never wanted to let them go.
However, economics is often a buzzkill for artistic passion, and so my wife Anne and I eventually schlepped the creations to gift shows, art fairs, community events, held open studios, did anything and everything to make a living selling those things. Finally I was picked up by an artisan rep who schlepped them for me, and to some very prominent home furnishings and gift shows in New York, Chicago, and Atlanta. Soon enough the lamps found proper homes in museum shops, including New York's MoMa, the Walker Center in Minneapolis, and Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art.
It was quite an unlikely roll of events from there on. One day I got an offer from a major international men's lifestyle magazine to be featured in their series on "cool" lamps. It's still a mystery as to whether my studio was the original intended destination for the reporter's inquiry or whether the lead was actually meant to be for somebody more notable down the hall from me. So be it, fate is a funny thing.
In any case, I was the lucky benefactor, and they chose my sculptural hand-forged aluminum "Moonstation" lamp to be featured in the magazine, juxtaposed with an assortment of non-alike creations by other makers. That exposure, along with a linked mention on NBC's Today Show, would change everything. I received an influx of calls for orders - more than I could possibly execute on my own. Desperate for resolution, I approached a local lamp manufacturer about the possibility of getting them mass-produced.
Instead, I wound up becoming a product designer for the lamp company and for the next decade designed lamps and furniture for some very big retail stores, including Lowes, Target, and Pottery Barn, and in doing so, traveled the world like Marco Polo from China to India to Paris - a mission this humble, small-time lampmaker who began from a tiny studio in Chicago found impossible not to undertake.
I never returned to making one-of-a-kind lamps by hand, something I regret as the years roll by... Perhaps someday, though, the Birdman will fly again.

Above is a page from the March 1999 issue Maxim Magazine that featured one of my lamps. Below are pics I recently found of some of the handmade lamps of the Birdman Studio years 1995-1999. I believe friends still own a few of the firsts.


Enhanced by Zemanta


  1. Yeah Everbody is MARCO POLO !!!

  2. Not sure of your implication, Francis. But in the most humble, metaphorical (and ironic) sense, yes, I traveled much of the Silk Road, and my company specialized in exploring and trading with historic, artisan-rich regions of China where few westerners had ever been. The reference to Marco Polo was with humorous intent, nonetheless.