Skinflint breathes new life into vintage industrial lighting


Salvage & Restore

By Wava Carpenter

"Our lights have an important difference: history and heritage," explains Sophie Miller, co-founder of Cornwall-based vintage lighting atelier Skinflint, when asked to compare her lovingly restored pieces to the lighting fixtures available on the contemporary market. "Lots of companies now manufacture copies of pendants, lamps, and wall lights similar to those we sell, but they don't have the stories and provenance of our lighting. A newly produced enamel shade is very different from one made for the Rolls Royce factories in the 1930s; a newly blown glass globe has a different glow to one made in Eastern Europe half a century ago. It's often the flaws and imperfections that make vintage industrial lighting so special."

Alongside her partner and husband Chris, Sophie has built up quite an expertise in salvaging and restoring 20th-century lighting fixtures that are sourced from factories, shipyards, institutions, and workspaces—pieces that might otherwise have been lost to demolition or decay. The operation has grown quickly since its launch in 2009, evolving into a vital resource for international interior designers and vintage enthusiasts who are looking for a certain aura of honesty and purpose to make their projects endure beyond the passing trends. With so much buzz in our ears about Skinflint, we just had to reach out to Sophie to learn more about her passion project turned thriving business.

 

Wava Carpenter: How do you find the lighting fixtures that you restore? How do you know where to look?

Sophie Miller: Over the years, we have built up a network of contacts in the demolition industry. Contractors who are developing derelict buildings often reach out to us directly. There’s much more awareness about recycling these days too. We always keep an ear out for news about site redevelopments so we can be proactive in ensuring the lights don’t end up in landfill!

WC: Have you had to study bygone lighting technology and materials to be able to bring these sometimes 100-year-old lights back to life?

SM: It’s an accretive process, and our knowledge base is always growing. We still find lights made by manufacturers that we hadn’t heard of. When that happens, we start the process of researching and gathering as much information as possible.

We have also built up an archive of vintage lighting catalogues and other literature that we use for reference. Some even have the original prices listed, so we have been known to convert them to the modern equivalent—surprisingly, our prices pretty much match what the lights originally cost.

As for the mechanics of what makes the lights work, all the old electrical components are always stripped out. The raw materials are recycled, and we replace everything with modern, environmentally friendly electrics.

Inside Skinflint's restoration studio Photo © Skinflint WC: How did you cultivate your expertise?

SM: Chris’s background is in lighting product design; he worked for high profile companies like iGuzzini and Isometrix in London. And I was working as an art director and stylist for film and television. We had always loved beautiful objects—lights especially—so over the years our knowledge just grew by doing. We have always trusted our instincts and worked with lights that we love rather than following trends.

WC: How would you characterize the essential difference between contemporary lighting fixtures and the vintage pieces you bring back to life?

SM: Contemporary lighting falls into more than one band these days. There are product designers that create classic, investment pieces with care and respect, which will last for decades to come. But there are also lights made by some big brands that are value-engineered to fit in with the latest fashion and will not last.

The lights we work with were manufactured in the days before planned obsolescence. In the early 20th century, if you invested in an item of furniture then you expected it to outlast you; to hand it down to your children and beyond. Unless the lights have been exposed to severe damage from the elements in derelict buildings, the only things to have failed are the outdated electrical components—and then it’s only because technology has moved on to better, more efficient things.

Skinflint's 1960s ribbed-glass globes at the Groucho Club in London Photo © Groucho Club WC: How would you characterize your clients?

SM: We have a really wide variety of clients—from big projects where an interior designer specifies a large number of our lights, right through to an individual client buying a single, special item for their first home. The one thing they all share is a love of beautiful objects, a care for the environment, and an appreciation for the history and heritage of the lights.

WC: Are there particular interiors projects that you’re proud of?

SM: Ooh this is a tough one—there are just so many to choose from! I really love our opaline glassware, and it’s always really exciting seeing how interior designers work with it. A few of my current favourites are Padella in London’s Borough Market, where vintage Czech glass lights feature prominently in the window, along with the Groucho Club, where a row of 1960s ribbed-glass globes illuminate the dark green bar area to superb effect. I also really love Fran Baker’s kitchen with our cut glass globes suspended over the island, making a perfect family hub. Oh, and some of the work Plain English has done with our lighting is just beautiful—especially our 1920s library holophanes teamed up with the Osea and Spitalfields range.

Skinflint's Chemistry Building Light by Holophane, Medical Lamp by Perihel, and Eastern Bloc Factory Pendants Photo © Skinflint WC: Is there one piece or model that made you particularly happy to find?

SM: So much of it is about the stories for me. A few of the pieces Plain English have used recently have some great ones. These beautiful, early holophane lights were discovered by a contractor hidden above a 1960s suspended ceiling during renovations a few years ago. It had been cheaper and simpler for the construction firm to simply seal up the old ceiling rather than strip out the lights—but we saved them!

Also the beautiful navy blue enamel shades that were found during refurbishments of a factory in Hungary. They had never actually been used and were found sitting in a store room still in their original boxe. Sadly the boxes weren’t in good enough condition for us to reuse! 

I am also always thrilled to come across a Perihel Sun Lamp. We’ve seen a wide variety of styles, and so far no two have been the same. They are complicated to transform into desk lights, but they are such eye-catching and interesting pieces of history. These are rare pieces, but if we’re lucky we come across some once or twice a year. 

WC: What qualities in vintage pieces really standout for you?

SM: Classic, well engineered design.

WC: Is there a dream piece you’d love to find but haven’t yet?

SM: The next one! It’s what keeps us hunting!

  • Text by

    • Wava Carpenter

      Wava Carpenter

      After studying Design History, Wava has worn many hats in support of design culture: teaching design studies, curating exhibitions, overseeing commissions, organizing talks, writing articles—all of which informs her work now as Pamono’s Editor-in-Chief.

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