I Make Lamps

Have you ever had a small amount of something precious, and done something weird to make it last? That’s why I first made a lamp. I had some left over pieces of a really nice maple board, and wanted to stretch it out. I figured that the thinner I cut it, the more surface area I would end up with. But what could I do with really, really thin wood?

The answer I came up with was “make a lampshade.” I hadn’t actually seen a wood veneer lamp at that point, though I’m sure they existed long before that. I cut the maple into strips slightly thinner than a grain of rice, and made a pretty unremarkable lamp that taught me two primary things:

  1. The quality of light that comes through wood is pretty amazing.
  2. Making the things in my head into real things feels awesome, and I want to do it all the time.

Tower Lamp Billy Ulmer The Moon Over Mountains

How to Make a Log Cabin in One Day

I spent my last year of college focused primarily on cranking out lamps. At the time I was still recovering from my dream of being an architect, before realizing that the creations I thought up and modeled had a .0001% probability of ever existing in real life. Buildings took years, and money, and endless compromises between many different people. Objects, by contrast, you could think up over breakfast and have a working version of by dinnertime.

I made other things, but lighting stuck because it was powerful. Lamps punch above their weight in the world of housewares: they look how they look, but they also change the look of everything else in the room. Bad lighting ruins beautiful rooms, and good lighting saves boring rooms. I grew up surrounded by white walls, but dreamt of log cabins and Japanese inns – anywhere with warm wood everywhere. Suddenly, with the flick of a switch, I felt like I was there.

I took my first job after college within spitting distance of a woodshop so I could keep designing and producing, and got busy booklearning about how to be a one-man craft business. I liked doing this more than anything else I’d ever done. I got high off of the discovery involved in making something from scratch. My heart was in my throat each time I finished a design, dragged it into the dark and turned it on. Would it look how I pictured? Worse? Better? Once I saw it, what would need to change?

Loft Lamp Billy Ulmer The Moon Over Mountains

The Carefree Young Person Experiment

The business side seemed interesting, though foreign to me. All the books said the same thing – self-employment is hard, so you should only do it if it’s the only thing you can see yourself doing. Then I started to doubt myself. Did I really want to be 24 and consumed by running my own business? I decided to try an experiment – I would be a carefree young person for a while, instead of a stressed out business owner (I was told this was the only kind there was). So I got a normal job, but I kept tinkering with wood, sketching in notebook margins, and piling up partially finished lamps in dusty corners. It took multiple years of work, and many months of wondering why I was so cranky about my perfectly good job, for me to remember that this was an experiment. I tested the idea that I could be happy working for someone else, and the test failed. No harm, no foul.

Actually, there were some great upsides to the experiment – I learned I was certain I wanted to work for myself, and I gained years of practical knowledge and skills in business, which was (to put it lightly) not a focal point of my liberal arts education. Phrases like “sales cycle” and “target market” were rolling off my tongue like, gasp, a business man. I had joked in college that everyone should be forced to minor in education or business so we wouldn’t starve to death with fancy arts degrees, but in retrospect, I was probably not kidding.

 

Beginning Again

In 2012 I resumed serious work on lighting again, with a soft launch today, on November 30th. I’m beginning selling just two models for now, but the selection will expand pretty quickly, so like me, follow me, or let me email you when something new comes out. Or just check back once in a while when you’re in some unfortunate white room that could use a warm glow.

 

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