October 24, 2005

Something I Learned

Sometimes things are so obvious..., after I figure them out! So here is a story about something I learned recently, that gets to the core of what I do and why it interests me.

I have a new product line: wine bottle stoppers. At the upcoming show in Marlborough (November 4-6), they will get their debut. And I am having so much fun making them. I do make other small items such as stamp dispensers, candle lanterns, etc. and I like them very much as objects and designs. But the bottle stoppers are different. I find myself compelled to go to my shop in the evenings or Sundays and making a few. I started to ask myself why these struck such a vibrant chord with me... in some ways the same feeling of joy and creativity that I have when I am making lampshades. Compared to the lampshades, the stoppers are so totally different in scale, function and uniqueness. I had to ask myself why they brought up these feelings for me.

The answer is that in both cases, there are only a few basic design constraints that relate to the functionality, but mostly I start with a chunk of wood and carve away in an instinctive way, sculpting the ultimate shape in an right-brained improvisational state of mind. Very little of the decision making is predetermined or consciously purposeful. I am just seeing and doing. And that is a lot of fun, for me. I have made about 50 bottle stoppers so far, and no two are alike. Sometimes I make one that I like a lot, and the next one might have some related elements or lines -- or it might not!

It is the same with the lampshades. Usually I discover the shape gradually during the hours I spend turning away the extra wood, by "seeing" possible shapes as I go along, or by finding grain patterns and colors that will be best displayed by some particular profile. Rarely (usually when I have a special order to fill), I will have a pre-established idea of what I might make with a particular piece of a log. But if the log "calls out" to me that it wants to be some other shape, then I respond to that urge, and the special order waits until the next log, or the one after that.

I knew already that this sense of discovery was a big part of the allure for me in making lampshades. It never crossed my mind that this joy could come from making other things. So that is the lesson I learned from making the wine bottle stoppers, and maybe it will lead to further new ideas. Who knows?

August 31, 2005

Sconces and Largest Shades Are Very Popular!

It has been a while since I last posted, just before the Sunapee show. That was a hugely successful event, despite the oppressive heat. I made lots of great connections with clients new and old. There was particular interest in wall sconces, due in large part to the installation of all the sconces at New London Inn.

And the very largest shades for floor lamps and hanging lamps have been remarkably popular. These are the most expensive shades I sell, sometimes going for as much as $1600 for just the shade. But they are also the most dramatic exhibition of the effect of translucency and wood. The large scale makes a wonderful visual statement and fills a room with a warm glow and romance in a way that is hard to resist.

I pride myself on keeping a very large inventory of lampshades on hand at all times, so that when someone calls or visits my showroom, I am fairly likely to have what they want, ready to go. Right now, this is the first time in many years when I have been completely sold out of one particular category of shades: the largest floor lamp shades. I have some medium-sized floor shades (at a lower price, too), but I am actually sold out right now with the big ones. I have several special orders to fulfill before I can replenish my own inventory. But large shades are almost exclusively the objective of my work schedule these days. Last week and this, I have made the shades that will fill the special orders, and now can begin working on the others.

The creation of all of my shades is a always a physical challenge. I talked about that a few months ago in the aftermath of my knee injury. Thankfully, the knee does not slow me down now, but the overall intensity of the activity really shows up when I make the largest shades, one after the other, no days off. Today I had to take a break from the efforts -- my body is shot, my muscles are kind of humming in some deep and subtle way, and I had trouble just getting out of bed! Tomorrow I will get back to it, today I am catching up on desk work and shipping and that sort of thing.

The good news with these largest shades (18-20" in diameter) is that they are absolutely stunning. They are all coming from two logs that have been hidden in the back of a pile since April. The warm muggy summer has been uncomfortable for us humans, but the logs have benefited by aging beautifully and quickly over the last few months. The grain patterns that were naturally in these logs has been amplified by the effects of the aging. As beaten up as I feel physically, I am even more excited to be bringing these lampshades to life. I feel so fortunate to have this job, and to be capable of accomplishing the tasks. And that my clients relate to my work as strongly as I do.

July 25, 2005

Getting Ready for the Big Show

Sunapee is coming. This is my biggest event of the year, 9 days starting August 6, ath the Mount Sunapee Resort in NH. I won't elaborate on the details of the event here, go to www.nhcrafts.org and find out all about it.

But the point is that I am pressing ahead full steam to get ready. Lots of projects that were begun months ago and not quite finished, well, not they are being completed. I will show up at Sunapee with a full complement of lamps and accessories.I got out my Sunapee postcards to my mailing list a week ago. It is hard to believe that I now have over 2500 names on that list. They are all people who have either bought something from me in the past (maybe 80% of the list), or have specifically asked to be put on the list for future reference. Sunapee is the only time I mail to everyone -- when I do other shows during the year, I use a portion of the list related to the general location of that show. If you are reading this and would like to be added to the mailing list, let me know.

And of course, Summer means that there are lots of other things going on. In my last blog, I mentioned that I would be going to the Balsams Hotel, and that was a wonderful experience once again. This was my 11th straight year there, and this time my display area was moved to the main lobby of the hotel. This was a much better space: more visible, better traffic flow, cooler air, and generally more attractive. Business was good at the Balsams, and I got a lot of work done on a set of smaller shades. You just would not believe the spot on the patio where I run my demonstration, there is probably no more beautiful "office" view in the world. I have a view over the incredible gardens, up over Lake Gloriette, and right into Dixville Notch itself.

My relationship with New London Inn has continued to develop (read my first blog to know more about that). The visibility of all my lamps in that location has led to a number of sales, and I feel sure that this will continue over the summer and beyond. If you have the opportunity to eat at the Inn, I recommend it highly -- not only for the lighting, but the meals too are wonderful.

June 27, 2005

Playing Catch Up

It has been a while since I posted an entry to this blog. I have been so busy! It took a while for me to get physically up to speed. After the knee surgery, it took a few weeks to even get back on the lathe, and then a month of going at half speed, trying to spread the effort so that I could handle it. Even then I was literally trembling in my muscles at the end of the day.

That was April. By May, I was able to make a shade in pretty much the same amount of time that I could before surgery, but it still was exhausting beyond what I was used to. Finally this month I got over that hump and feel really energized. Looking back on the experience, I guess it is not that surprising that there is a price to be paid for sitting around for three months with no regular exercise. And being 52 years old, I didn't bounce back as quickly as I might have a few years ago. Still it was frustrating.

There was compensation for that frustration: the shades I ahve been making since my surgery have been wonderful, with all sorts of streaks and colors. Even that has had a downside, since the really streaky logs are the result of longer aging, and the older logs sometimes have developed defects that are problematic. In the last three months, I have had 5 or 6 logs that turned out to be unworkable. Usually I dont' find that out until I have several hours of labor invested in the project. Then a soft spot in the wood, or a separation in the grain fibers, makes itself known, and that is the end of it. In all the years I have made shades, this sort of problem has cropped up maybe 2 or 3 times a year. To have 6 in a couple of months is hard to take.

So now I am really geared up to work as much as I possibly can. I have a great selection of shades right now, but relative to where I need to be in June, to be properly prepared for the busy summer and fall, I wish I had a larger inventory. So I am a slave to my lathe these days. A very voluntary slave, since I still and totally love my work. And having had to stay away from woodturning for the winter, I am all the more appreciative for the opportunity and ability to do what I do.

Given how hard I am working right now, I do feel sure that I can catch up and be ready for the upcoming events, and that when you next see my work, you will see what I mean about the beautiful wood I have been working with. The next event for me is a week of demonstrating at the Balsams Grand Resort Hotel, beginning July 11. If you have never been there, it is an amazing place in far far northern New Hampshire. Then comes the big Annual Craft Fair of the League of NH Craftsmen (everyone refers to it as "Sunapee") which begins on August 6 and runs for 9 days. Maybe I will see you there. If I do, please do mention that you have read this blog, I am curious to know if you find it worthwhile.

April 27, 2005

On a Roll

AFter that three month layoff (see my earlier posts), it has been a gradual process to get my physical strength back up to par. In the past, I have usually done the really hard work of making a shade in a single long day. For the past few weeks, I have improvised a new system that divides that labor into two days, and for a while, even that level of work left my muscles trembling in the evenings.

But it is getting better and better, and today I did the wild-and-wooly turning all in a single day. And it was a huge shade, starting with a log that started at nearly 200 pounds and ended up at around a pound. I am really beat right now, but it was fun, and exciting to see the shade appear. I plan to go right back at it tomorrow making another big shade.

It is amazing how these things work out. When I was laid up, business was naturally slow during the winter months. Now that I am back in harness, clients seem to be coming here in numbers that are greater than usual. Having had to cancel my only two winter/spring craft exhibtions, I was a bit worried about making ends meet, but it has all worked out just fine. Of course it helps that I keep so far ahead on inventory. But there also seems to be a mysterious balancing act of supply and deman that plays out just outside of my understanding or control. I feel very fortunate today, to be working, to be making these magical lampshades, and to be receiving the attention of my clients. Thanks to all of you who support my fascination with translucent wood.

April 5, 2005

Ups, Downs, Ups

Since my last post, I had a minor setback with a week of mild flu. For a couple of days, I thought it was soreness brought on by the turning, and perhaps that contributed. Anyway, now that has passed and today I completed a large shade for a floor base. That is exciting, surely a function of both the drama of a larger shade as well as the somewhat macho pleasure of accomplishment. Large shades are more demanding physcially, and technically they are more finicky. The size adds to the flexibility of the wood, and taming that is a challenge.

On another front, I am psyched up about a new commission in collaboration with blacksmith David Little (Meredith, NH). Last summer we made a chandelier for the Living With Crafts exhibition, and it won an nice award. Now we have a new project to make for a wonderful long-time client for both of us. This will include a two-shade chandelier and a single pendant lamp, each with David's "grapevine motif" iron work and my smaller shades.

All of that means that things are back in order in my work life, and that is important to me. As you have heard me say elsewhere, making lampshades is much more than a business for me, it is very much a part of how I identify myself, and I love the whole thing. As I gradually get into better shape, I will be able to spend more hours each week making shaving fly. But today was an important milestone, being able to make a really large shade. More to come.

March 25, 2005


Wow..... finally, after three months, I got back on the lathe today. This has been such a challenge to be patient and wait for my recovery from the knee injury. And I am stunned by how out-of-shape I have gotten. Of course, in retrospect it does make perfect sense, since I have basically just been sitting around. Even as my knee is ready to go, the rest of my body rebels agains the physical stresses of making a shade. This evening I feel a bit like a rag doll.

So at least I am doing it. For the first two or three weeks, I will focus on smaller shades and pace myself. I can't tell you all how much this means to me. I am well aware that some day I will have to give up making shades as my body just will not hack it. But that time is hopefully far in the future.

March 16, 2005

An Unfortunate Injury

It has always worried me that my work, making lampshades, is so physically intensive. Truly it is also one of the things that I love about my work, being so directly connected to the material, dealing with the combination of brute force and delicate finess. But I am 52 years old, and at some point, the demands on my body will be more than I can handle. Hopefully that issue will not catch up with me for many years... but I think about it a lot.

This winter, I had the opportunity to experience my physical limitations. I injured my knee on January 2nd -- it happened playing indoor soccer. I have played for years without any trouble, but in a League designated as "recreational, low impact." Mostly people between 30 and 60 years old, plus a few of our teenage children. There is a culture there that makes it very unlikely that anyone would get hurt. But on the January 2, my son's team, which I coach, didn't have an opponent, so we invited parents to play in a scrimmage with the kids. And, being the coach, I probably was trying too hard to keep up and show off my remaining skills. So I hyperextended my right knee. Instantly I knew I had a significant problem.

Then next day I saw my doctor, and it appeared to be a stretched ligament. But over the weeks, as the ligament healed, I had some lingering pain that kept me from doing anything but light work in my shop. Finally an MRI revealed that I had damage to my meniscus (the cartilage that lays between the upper and lower leg bones). I had arthoscopic surgery on March 7, and the damage was even worse than was originally thought. As I write this, 9 days later, the recovery is well under way, already less pain than I had before surgery.

It seems likely that in a couple of weeks, I will be back on the lathe making shades. I can't tell you how much I have missed it. This is not only a business for me -- it is a love affair with the wood, the process, and the dramatic final product. It has been a struggle to not let minor depression get the best of me. And to find projects to do (such as catch up on cleaning up the mounds of paperwork in my office!). But now that I have turned the corner and am close to full recovery, I am practically giddy.

From a business point of view, this has not had that much impact. I always keep a huge inventory of shades on hand, so that when a cliient asks for something, there is a relatively good chance I will have it on hand. It takes the pressure out of the day-to-day aspects of my business when I am way ahead. So even as I have been unable to make new shades, I have been selling on a regular basis. This metaphor just popped in to my head: the bear, whose instinct is to think ahead and eat and eat and eat, more than is need for the next 24 hours. Then when the Winter comes, the bear can enter hibernation and still survive quite well, living off the stored energy. In the Spring, the bear awakes, and gets right back to eating eating eating.

Winter is ending, I am ready to eat sawdust and put on new inventory! Can't wait.

Sconces galore at New London Inn

The past fall, the New London Inn was purchased by the dynamic husband and wife team of Bridget LeRoy and Eric Johnson. Over the past few years, the Inn has fallen into a state of minor neglect. Since it is a beautiful and imposing building right in the middle of Main Street, it needed the energy and creativity that the new owners have brought.

One of the first decisions that Bridget and Eric made was that the dining room should be lit almost entirely with my wood lampshades. After 6 weeks of major renovations to the restuarant, it was reopened on Valentines Day with 17 wall sconces and two table lamps. Business has been very brisk at the Inn since the launch, and my shades have gotten a lot of attention. The sconces provide plenty of light to read and eat by, while simultaneously enveloping the whole room with a romantic and relaxing glow that makes a perfect match for the elegant dining experience. Incidentallly, the menu is really wonderful and affordable, so if you get the chance, come visit the Inn for a walk-thru, a meal, or an overnight. The web site is www.newlondoninn.us

From my point of view, this whole project has been very exciting. Working with Bridget and Eric has been fun. They are overflowing with energy and creativity and a boundless sense of humor. And the size of this installation is the largest I have been involved with. Being right here in my home town, it has attracted a lot of attention. It is amazing how the reputation I have achieved for my work has reached all over the world, and how many of my neighbors had no idea what I was doing. The display of my lamps in the restaurant has already led to some referals, and in the long run, I expect that the Inn will represent a significant aspect to how people get to know about me.