A Journey Through Light
I have only very recently understood why I have such a passion for creative lighting. It was 1969 with just 5.5 years on the clock when I found myself, courtesy of my mother, at an unforgettably well orchestrated and wildly colourful private function at the Roundhouse in Camden. It represented the sixties in every dimension. The music, vivid colour, smell (not just the incense I'm sure!) fashion and most of all for me, the innovative lighting and visual arts. It was just amazing and unforgettable. The whole place was cut up into segments with dance areas, chill-out privacy areas of all kinds, but what I remember most vividly was the carefully laid out provision of mind-soothing 'trips' that involved a journey through several conjoined rooms, each individually saturated in sound and mood-lighting and lots of soft cushions and other tactile objects. It was quite something for a five year old and it left a bigger impression on me than I thought at the time.
Born in 1905, my father was in the latter stages of an illustrious career as a well-known portrait painter, my mother considerably younger, was a mother and part time sculptor. We lived in a studio in St. John's Wood just yards away from Abbey Road studios. Art and the ever-present smell of linseed oil was my world at home.
Then, in 1972 we moved to Cambridge and it then became clear that my mother & father were finished. The images and memory of sixties London and the Roundhouse party gradually faded away. Until I was 15.
A gift from the emancipation gods, my new room at home suddenly became a small shed-like studio in our back garden. It was a blank canvas which I was allowed to do anything I liked with, and so with the new found freedom I set about dressing the space at pace. Within a few weeks it resembled a beduin-type den with every inch covered in some kind of drapery, posters and no furniture except a low square coffee table and a low sofa which I slept on. I was in hog heaven. I clad the walls in Laura Ashley wallpaper and carefully selected all the drapery. That’s not the type of thing a 15 year old kid from the 70’s ever did, let alone getting the chance to do. I also spent a lot of time carefully installing a multi-light system all around the room. Over a few months I had managed to rig 11 separate light fixtures, each one of which was controlled from central panel of dimmers and switches. The light sources were mostly invisible until switched on, with the exception of a very large low hung paper globe pendant in the middle that I had draped a square silk embroidered scarf over for extra mood. It worked very well and had three different coloured bulbs on dimmers inside which gave great control over the hue. I’d never seen that done before and was really pleased with its effectiveness. Very sadly, I have no picture of this room.
That little insulated box of lit magic in the garden remained my ‘home’ for just over two years. It was my first go at an interior, not that I was especially aware of it at the time. The next four years was spent through a plethora of shared flats from Cambridge to Hong Kong, Bangkok and Sydney Australia, finally ending up in Nagasaki, Japan in August 1987 where eventually for the first time since my ‘shed’ I had a very small flat all to myself. However, being rented through an agency prevented any options to decorate and the interior with its tatami (fine straw) mats and large sliding wood and paper doors everywhere would have made it very difficult to change much anyway. BUT, I could do something about the ghastly plastic fluorescent pendant light in the middle of the main room. Couldn’t I? It turned out that I couldn’t! At least as far as finding something more aesthetically pleasing than what was already there on the open market. I searched everywhere but the lighting options, as in lampshades, I found were terrible. They were almost all light-in-box together and cold fluorescent hue to-boot. So, I made my own and got a warm hue bulb and holder and that was my only significant contribution to that first bolt-hole in Japan. I made what I wanted but couldn't find; a square wood slat and paper box reflecting the shoji screens ubiquitous to the traditional Japanese interior. I was there just a year, and although it was never much of a ‘nest’ it did help to facilitate the start of a journey that has shaped much of my life ever since.
I have always loved working with my hands and have dabbled with painting and art both from a very young age. Stands to reason I guess, given my parents' backgrounds. The last 2.5 years of my 7 in Nagasaki altogether was spent living on my own in a detached two storey house. No garden, but this was a real luxury. I also knew the owner so managed to get permission to do what I wanted to it. They knocked it down and built a new one after I left. No, I didn't wreck it - just ripped the old tatami mats out and put a new wooden floor in downstairs with a large built-in desk. Drapes, a hand made up-lighter and my old pendant lampshade made up the rest of the living room area, along with some of the renowned architect Isamu Noguchi's sculptural paper shades which I adored (not in shot).
In July 1995 I returned to the UK to start a new career and to start a family with the love of my life. All this time I had never considered lighting or interiors as a possible way to make a living. It just never occurred to me, although I have always loved it. Especially lighting and fabrics. At the end of 1995 my wife gave birth to our amazing son Alex and it was the beginning of necessity income on steroids. I had wanted a career in photography but wasn't able to get a job that would earn nearly enough for at least a year so had to resort to my newly acquired skill. Japanese. I spent the next 25 years interpreting, first for Thomas Cook and then as a freelance television and production manager and interpreter to the Japanese media broadcast industry. This was about as creative a career as I could muster given my skillset and circumstances. It turned out to be the most fulfilling yet challenging job I could ever have imagined and took me to all corners of the UK and as far as Zimbabwe, the US and Seychelles to mention but a few. It was the bizarre portal to privilege, being as I was the sole interface between the people and surroundings that the Japanese came to film and they themselves. One day it might have been interviewing and following around a peat farmer in the Outer Hebrides and three days later discussing timing for a radio interview with a coquettish Yoko Ono in her pyjamas in her all white suite at the Hilton in Reykjavík. The contrast and variety was immense, although the opportunity for creativity almost non-existent. It was a high pressure job with deadlines and always challenging both logistically and mentally. Very early on into my new rather fledgling TV Coordinator business in September 1997, I met someone who was to be my mentor and person to whom I owe so much of my life to, both then and now, Simon Prentis. He and his wife, who was also Japanese were very keen on interiors. Especially his wife. Simon had been doing what I was just starting out to do for over 12 years and we ended up working together on the most extraordinary plethora of productions for over 15 years until he grew tired of the business and took leave. They have lived in and decorated/designed impeccably a number of beautiful houses in the time I have known them which I have always admired. One of these houses was in Cheltenham and it was there that I first came across an oversized drum shade in May 2013. It was an ex-shop fit 100cm giant drum shade from John Lewis that they had found for sale. I sure I might want one someday, although not quite so big, so took a picture amongst many others and thought nothing more about it.
Until September 2019. My wife was away visiting her parents in Japan and for some reason I thought I would see if I could replace the ageing sub-standard chandelier we had in out living room with a more modern oversized drum shade. Just as I had done 35 years ago, but with infinitely more search power and choice in the form of the internet, I set about looking for something that stood out and was large. Could I find anything? To my utter amazement there was nothing out there at all. Nothing. Other than plain monotone shades with plastic discs for diffusers and almost no choice for the inner laminate other than shiny gold or silver or just plain white. Even the smaller drum shades were lacking in choice and uniqueness. So, I set to making one for myself. It was not quite as straightforward as I had hoped though and many hurdles lay ahead before I eventually managed to get even close to what I had in mind.
The fabric I wanted to use was not sticking around the edges well and I very much wanted to create an inner laminate of distinction that could also be seen around the bottom edge. The diffusers on the market were and still are predominantly PVC rigid frosted and/or coloured discs, some with a hole in the middle, that sit on the bottom inside edge of the body of the drum shade. While diffusing the light effectively, I found them awful in their cheap plastic lid way. No finesse and no view of the bottom inner laminate either. There were and still are a few that are known as 'baffle' diffusers where the circular disc is smaller than the diameter of the bottom aperture, but these are welded to the upper frame of the shade, a method that makes changing the light bulb impossible without removing the whole shade and would be a nightmare to make for me. The only other type that is closest to what I have designed are the ones that have three spokes welded onto the sides of a hoop that is covered in fabric or has a plastic disc inserted. The end of these three spokes sit just under the bottom hoop of the shade. Nobody sells these individually though and so I started by brazing 3 spokes onto hoops by myself with good results, but it took a very long time and was tricky getting the angles perfect. Plus I kept burning other things with the blow torch and so quickly came to the conclusion that this wasn't the solution. There must be a way to suspend these with wire somehow.
I put that to one side for the moment and turned my attention to the edging issue which I was coming to realise was the reason that all the drum shades on the market worldwide were so plain and unremarkable. It was impossible to get a clean stuck down edge around the top and bottom hoops with so many of the most appealing fabrics. Brocade just frays everywhere and medium to heavy fabrics just don't stick down without piles of glue which just results in lumpy and untidy edges which are often partially disguised with trim or beading. There had to be an answer.
Between October and December 2019 I became very busy with the TV work but kept at shade design and development whenever I could. I was starting to think that I might be able to make a little money on the side with my new ideas but still hadn't made a shade that I thought was good enough, even for myself! Not wanting to spend the £120.00 on a 5 metre roll of rigid PVC from Dannell's (the largest and only lampshade making suppliers in Europe) I elected to try and knock one up from bits of double sided sticky panels from B&Q. By the end of November I have made my first 60cm drum pendant shade.
It was all still pretty basic and I was still playing safe with the edges, but at least I had an inner laminate that wasn't like anything out there. No diffuser and the walls weren't as smooth as they should be due to the makeshift use of lots of individual panels rather than the professional PVC from Dannell's.
This was the turning point from messing about to having to get a bit more serious. It was clear to me that improvements could be made to the existing methodology of lampshade structure and design. I decided to bite the bullet and get a 5m roll of the proper stuff and it was the leap that made it essential that I make some that would sell to pay for it. Below is a picture taken on 1st December 2019. This was the first 70cm drum shade I made, still playing safe with a light linen outer wall but made with the proper rigid PVC which was so much easier. I had even by then tried my first tiny suspended diffuser!
I wasn't happy with it or the method for suspending it so put that one in the 'to do later' box and ploughed on with the edging issue and just practiced welding spokes until on 3rd January 2020 I had this (below).
Two weeks later I had done my first 70cm drum shade in a slightly more fancy outer material, but was still no closer to an edging or diffuser solution. Better than what I could find anywhere else, but it was taking too long to weld the diffuser spokes accurately. Covering the hoop tightly with fabric wasn't easy either and I was still a way off finding the perfect for this.
At the end of January I had a breakthrough with an idea for the edging and two weeks later a lightbulb moment for the diffuser problem. These two ideas were in their infancy and quite crude but were both the seed that has now grown into what I have today. I went on what was to be my last ever TV job to film a documentary on football in Manchester and returned home on 27th February to prepare for my next TV job in March on Brexit and to some more lampshade development. Then the Pandemic hit. Lockdown. Disaster. No work, no business, no nothing. Finances soon became decimated and the TV work never returned. Even to this day there is almost none from Japan according to those I know still in the business.
I had no spare resources to continue my journey in the lampshades and there was no market for almost anything other than food and masks, so it wasn't even an option either way. It wasn't until the summer of 2021 that I revisited the lampshades facing, as I was, the threat of losing my home, and so spent the rest of that year spending all and anything I could developing where I had left off almost 18 months earlier. It was frustratingly difficult and slow with almost no money but I had the time and that was to turn out to be a blessing in disguise. It slowly allowed me to refine and improve the two most important areas (both patent pending) I believed were crucial to being able to make the shades I now make with confidence, precision and the most important thing; the freedom to choose any fabric anyone wants on a shade due to the edging I had developed. It was well worth the wait. The magnetic adjustable floating diffuser system isn't too shabby either, something which I hope soon to be able to supply as a kit to other lampshade makers and owners of existing pendant shades.
The ideas for my shades endured a long incubation period and a far from easy birth, but it was so worth the wait. Thank you for taking the time to read this and I hope it wasn't too long and drawn out - there is a lot that I haven't included as I only felt it relevant to include snippets that directly or indirectly related to my journey to what I think is a far superior range of drum shades than is on offer anywhere. At least for now!