Wood Lamps a 'Bright' Market for Canadian Woodworker

Graham Gregory Designs fills a void in the lighting market with its stylish, well crafted wooden lamps.

By Renee Stern

Lamps crafted from wood are hard to come by. "There's a huge gap in the market," says Graham H. Gregory, owner of Graham H. Gregory Designs Ltd., Victoria, BC, Canada. "There aren't many (lamps) that aren't iron."

Gregory aims to fill that gap with his wall sconces and ceiling, table and floor lamps made from indigenous woods. His copyrighted designs look Japanese, but also are reminiscent of the Arts-and-Crafts period. Each lamp is signed and dated.

About 90 percent of his sales go to customers in the United States rather than Canada for a variety of reasons, Gregory says, including: a larger population to draw from, more awareness of the history behind his designs, a more vibrant economy and a favorable exchange rate.

 

This pair of wall sconces combine yellow cedar and Douglas fir with copper detailing and opalescent art glass. Each sconce measures 11 inches wide by 13 inches high by 6 1/2 inches deep.

Exporting lamps carries its own challenges, he adds. He has had to learn to navigate regulations and certifications, from meeting Underwriters Laboratory codes for lighting to following the guidelines in the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"That scares a lot of people off," he says. "So I don't have a lot of competition."

America's resort and hospitality industry is a major focus for his work at the moment. The leisure industry consumes the highest volume of design work today, he says, trailed by institutional and government contracts.

Currently, the Walt Disney Co. is considering his work for a Craftsman-style hotel the company is building in Anaheim, CA. "You've got to shoot for the top, because if you don't, you won't get there," Gregory says. "You have to be stubborn."

Stubbornness is a trait he seems to admire. He says he follows his vision rather than trends. "You have to be stubborn to get there or you will never stand out," he says.

But that vision has to have method behind it, not whim, he adds. "You have to be a craftsman first and then you can be an artist," he says. "You have to know the rules before you can break them."

Gregory has a solid grounding in the rules and basics. He earned a trade certificate in joinery in 1980, apprenticing six years with a master cabinetmaker originally from Bavaria. He worked in large millwork shops before opening his own shop in Alberta, Canada, where he handled commercial and high-end residential woodwork with a staff of six.

Then he says the oil money which funded his customers dried up, and he moved to British Columbia. He was building furniture and other interior work when he says he noticed that no one else seemed to be doing wooden lighting.

"I found a real void in the industry," he says, adding that he felt he could fill this niche and still be working in wood. "The lighting guys look at me like I'm from Mars," he says, because he not only deals with lighting from halogens and fluorescents to dimmable bulbs, but also crafts the shells out of wood. "For a lot of woodworkers, that's totally overwhelming," he says.

Gregory adds that combining wood with the heated elements in a lamp is not a problem as long as you stick to the heat guidelines for the materials involved. He points out that there are lamps on the market made out of all sorts of combustible materials, including cloth and paper, and working with wood is not a problem.

However, "There is a certain amount of engineering," he says. "You have to do your homework, and there is no textbook on it." He worked with an electrical engineering consultant to learn what he needed. But that is another reason why more woodworkers don't go into lighting, he adds -- they are afraid of playing with electricity.

In his lighting designs, Gregory says he strives for "a strong functional element," mentioning Frank Lloyd Wright, as well as Charles and Henry Greene as influences.

"Mine is a sort of Craftsman, Arts-and-Crafts style, but I don't like to be categorized. It's sort of the 'Lyle Lovett' of woodworking -- it doesn't fit in any one category," he says, referring to the way the singer blurs musical borders.

Woodworkers in the Arts-and-Crafts period worked mainly with oak, because that was the wood most available to them. In turn, Gregory uses the Douglas fir, yellow cedar, western birch, red alder and Pacific western yew native to coastal British Columbia. "That's what I'm doing -- using what's available," he says.

"I like these species," he adds. "I have always liked them."

But he doesn't rule out using woods other than his accustomed materials if a customer requests it, he says. His lamps also often incorporate art glass and copper.

In terms of the construction challenges of working with the small pieces of woods he uses in his lamps and the varying angles combined in his designs, Gregory says, "It's a form of architecture. Form follows function. To bridge a certain span, you need a certain thickness of wood." He compares it to designing a bridge on a much smaller scale. The process requires some prototype building, but he also draws on his experience to know what a piece of wood will do under certain conditions, which is also affected by what species of wood he's using. Different species behave differently. He describes his work as "art as architecture."

For the finishes, he prefers a natural look. He doesn't stain the wood and uses a clear finish. "I like to keep as true to the original as possible," he says. The finishing materials he uses depend on the species being used.

He uses a lot of yellow cedar, which he says is a smooth, easy-to-work wood with a fine grain. It has a butterlike color, neither white nor yellow. Applying a yellow finish will make it go yellow and hide the wood, he says, adding that even non- yellowing lacquers have that effect. So for that species, he uses an environmentally responsible, non-solvent-based finish, followed by a beeswax derivative to bring out the texture.

When he is working with Douglas fir or darker woods, he says he will use a little yellow finish, because fir yellows naturally. "A finish should be perfect when it's new," he says. "But when it darkens with age, that's a good thing, too."

Gregory sees himself participating in a trend taking place in his industry -- a swing toward using indigenous woods, natural finishes and reclaimed wood and toward simple, straight lines and functional designs.

He says that nature and the elements inspire his designs, and he cites as inspiration the Greene brothers' most famous creation -- the Gamble House in Pasadena, CA -- which incorporates nature, bringing the outdoors inside.

Gregory lives and works as close as possible to his inspiration. He makes his home with his partner, Miriam Shostak, on a sailboat moored in a quiet Vancouver Island cove. A boathouse serves as office and studio, with windows looking out across the cove to a rocky, forested island.

His studio is basic, equipped with a few tools: a Black & Decker router, a Craftsman table saw, sanders and a collection of hand tools.

"Most people are over-tooled," he says. "They have too many tools for what they are doing." His philosophy is not to buy a tool unless he has enough work to keep it running all day, so that it pays for itself.

For his bigger tool requirements, he sometimes leases space in other shops and does the work he needs himself. "I do the messy stuff off-site and do the finishing here," he says. Some work is contracted out, including a lot of his metal work. "My forte is design," he says, "and it makes sense to let other specialists handle what they do best."

Becoming more specialized is another growing trend in woodworking, Gregory says. He sees more instances of a businessman with, say, just a CNC machine, and fewer general millwork shops.

"I don't see ever becoming a huge corporation," he says. "I'm afraid of getting my vision watered down." Still, he doesn't rule out the possibility of licensing his designs for larger production runs if the opportunity arises.

He does copyright all his designs, but he says it is a simple process of stating in writing -- in his promotional material and on his web site -- that the designs are copyrighted. "It is generally an ambiguous, gray area. Nothing can prevent people from copying my designs," he says. Enforcing his copyright means going to court and proving it is his design, which he has done a couple of times, he says, but it is expensive.

In a lot of cases, just noting that the designs are copyrighted is enough to deter would-be copycats, he says, adding that most others realize once they start trying to copy his designs, how difficult the work is. "Most people are intimidated by the lamp concept. It's not as easy as it looks," he says. And if they persist, the finished product probably won't be an exact copy, he adds. "Casual copying is a form of flattery." And, bottom line, his work is the original, he says.

For now he is crafting about 100 lamps a year, starting in price at $735 for a wall sconce in yellow cedar or red alder and running up to $2,590 for a large ceiling lamp in yew. Custom work can cost even more. In recognition of his biggest market, he quotes all prices in U.S. dollars; prices also vary depending on the woods used.

It is not yet an overwhelming workload, Gregory says, but keeping that balance is the tricky question. "I don't want to be too swamped so I can be flexible and change with the market," he says. When the time comes, he says he will probably hire someone to handle the prep work for him.

"You have to be everything from a salesman to a craftsman and everything in between," Gregory says. "Not everyone is suited to that."

Marketing his work is the hardest -- and most expensive -- part of the business, he says. But he benefits from Shostak's marketing and public relations background.

"If I could afford it, I would be in trade shows around the world," he says. But his target market is narrow enough that he can generally take what he calls a "sniper approach" and zero in on the right people before making the first contact.

Trade shows take time and money, and small operations can fade away under the glitter of bigger competitors set up next-door, Gregory says. Instead, he likes to refer potential customers to businesses and hotel lobbies where they can see his lamps in use.

Gregory also uses a web site to display and market his work (www.pacificcoast.net/~ghgdesign), and sometimes approaches designers and architects by e-mail. This technology is still so new, he says, that key people within an organization typically read and answer their own e-mail. One out of 10 people contacted this way will follow up with a phone call, he says, which frequently leads to a mailed mini-portfolio. Other customers come from referrals and word of mouth.

Gregory says his edge lies in being a design specialist. "Quality craftsmanship isn't what will give you the edge, because machines can do that. But we don't have a machine to do designs."

 

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